In Bridge of Spies viewers are taken back to the Cold War era of 1957. The story, based on true events, revolves around the exchange of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) for American spy plane pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell). The exchange is effected by a Brooklyn insurance lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), and eventually takes place on Glienicker Bridge in Germany.
Despite the obvious importance of politics in this story, Steven Spielberg’s focus is on the personal, and so the wider Russian/American conflict simply forms the backdrop. This has the effect of drawing the side story – that of an American student caught up in the East German conflict at the time – into centre focus as well. Because of clever bargaining tactics and humane motives, Donovan manages to swap two Americans for just one Soviet spy. After this encounter, Donovan apparently went on to effect the release of thousands of exiles in Cuba, about 8000 more than he was originally tasked for. Similarities to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List – one of my favourite films – are obvious.
Rylance’s completely understated performance of Abel is a standout and simply serves to highlight the humane focus of this film. Both sides of the Russian/American cold war conflict are fairly equally portrayed. Indeed, the scene in which the exchange of the spies takes place on a bridge seems symbolic of this very thing; symbolic of two enemies being equally guilty, symbolic of the equal humanity of the “enemy” with oneself, and symbolic of the importance of people over politics.
I wonder what film Spielberg will make post the American/ISIS conflict…
Bridge of Spies opened at cinemas in South Africa on 6 November 2015.