The Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies has some big names attached to it. Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance – it’s a strong roster. Given that, I was slightly disappointed. It’s a good movie, but I wasn’t blown away.

I haven’t had a chance to read the book, or dig into the history. So what follows are my reflections purely on the story as presented in the movie – not on real events, or the book’s treatment.

The first portion of the movie deals with James Donovan (Tom Hanks) as a lawyer, fighting for the rights of a captured Soviet spy. This part could have been expanded on, I thought. It’s a crucial issue, and it felt as though it was dealt with in a few glossy speeches. But credit to Donavan, for following a difficult path for the right reasons.

The second portion felt … slightly odd, to me. I think it was that Donovan essentially stumbles into being a hostage negotiator. While his support for the captured Soviet spy is commendable, there were a few points where it seemed odd – surely the CIA has a few low level agents they can send over, or someone from the State Department to do it via telephone? What’s the point of the State Department if they have to outsource this stuff to a random insurance lawyer?

Given that, it seems as though Donavan is almost over-eager to jump on board. At least get a room at the Hilton, if you’re such a good negotiator.

Later, the movie portrays him as demanding the release of two captured Americans (one held by the USSR, the other by East Germany – the internal politics are interesting). That’s despite orders from his CIA contact, that only one of them is critical. This is an interesting moment in the movie – this lawyer, who’s not a trained negotiator, goes in and changes the directions he’s been given.

It’s portrayed as principled and courageous, and in the end he wins – the Soviets release both of their hostages, making him a better poker player than the FBI agent. But reflecting on it, it seems (in the movie) an odd moment. This outside agent, brought in for reasons that are still unclear, changes negotiating policy. What if it had gone wrong? What if he’d miscalculated terribly?

It’s one thing for him to stick to his principles as a lawyer representing a man who deserves a fair trial. It’s another for him to change negotiating policy when he’s not empowered as a representative of the US Government. For that reason I found Donavan’s character much more sympathetic earlier in the movie.

The conclusion was odd, too. Donavan is a principled man – the first portion is built on his commitment to principles regardless of what others think. He tells the returned U2 pilot as they board, something like ‘it doesn’t matter what others think – you know you stayed true’. But the movie provides his vindication through the recognition and approval he receives from others. It might have felt a little neater if it had been a solitary shot, something that captured his commitment to independent principles, rather than making him look like someone seeking a smile from strangers on the train.

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