It’s not every day you find yourself rooting for a Soviet spy, but that’s exactly what Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, “Bridge of Spies,” will have you doing. The movie follows James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a New York insurance lawyer entrusted with the task of defending captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and eventually negotiating a swap for captured American spy Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) during the Cold War. Spielberg takes on the challenge of making an American audience recognize a Russian spy as a national hero, and is successful through and through. While Tom Hanks’ performance is in no way lacking, it is Rylance’s performance as Abel that steals the show.
Rylance’s performance as the calm, arts-loving Abel shows audiences just how normal a character he is, no matter what his occupation may be. Through Abel’s grandfather-like qualities and endearing, if repetitive lines, the audience finds itself caring for him and fighting for his right to a fair trial along with Donovan. This is where the film infuses most of its tension, as the protagonist fights for the rights of a man who the entire country hates and who is mistreated because of his enemy status.
To counterbalance Abel’s situation, the audience is also shown a small group of American soldiers trained to spy on the Soviet Union. The American spies are told to (and given the means to) kill themselves before they are ever caught by the Soviets. The film follows the destruction of Francis Powers’s plane and his subsequent capture by the Soviet Union. Instinctively, an American audience would want the American spy to survive and be brought home. The juxtaposition of the two spies raises two big questions. First, how can we vilify our enemies for spying on us when we are employing the same strategies and resources? And, second, how is what these two spies are doing any different than any other job? Are they not simply following their boss’ orders?
We also see a theme of class privilege and special treatment of those valued in society. In Abel’s initial trial, Donovan discovers that all of the evidence used against Abel was collected without a search warrant. The judge is flabbergasted when Donovan points this out and his appeal is overruled, leaving Abel to be tried without basic rights. Similarly, in one scene in Berlin, Donovan is riding a train from one side of the recently-constructed Berlin Wall to the other. Outside of the train a group of teenagers is seen attempting to climb over the wall, and German soldiers gun down the teens. These examples raise the question of why are some people’s actions are criminalized when other people do the same things with no repercussions?
Spielberg’s most recent film tackles these questions and more. It was hands down one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. If you have any free time, be sure to go see “Bridge of Spies.” It’s brilliantly deep, insightful, relevant to today’s world and surprisingly humorous as well. 10/10.
“Bridge of Spies” is now playing in theaters everywhere.