Bridge of Spies

Directed by Steven Spielberg, 2015


In 1945, USA dropped atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring the Second World War to an abrupt end. The shock-waves generated by the bombing transmuted into images of mad misanthropes in laboratories destroying the world at whim, setting off an atom bomb like a regular firework, with no concern for the civilization at large. The splitting of the atom in the US laboratories prior to the end of the World War II foreshadowed the splitting of the post-war world into two blocs, each dominated by one superpower, extremely hostile to the other. Suspicion, deceit, and treachery fostered in an atmosphere of paranoia contributed to a further cooling off of relations between USA and USSR, which in turn led to a growing polarization of power and an escalation of tension between the camps. As the world teetered on the brink of extermination, the network of espionage grew steadily complex.

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, foraying into this territory of moral equivocation and futility, is a beautiful piece of storytelling.  Starring Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks, the film dramatizes a true spy-swap incident from the Cold War, continuing with Spielberg’s style of highlighting the rare instances of magnanimity and uncompromising faith in the human spirit even in the most compromising of times. The American, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), however, is no Oscar Schindler. He has none of the polished charm which helps to camouflage the latter’s covert intentions to protect Jews from persecution under the Nazi regime. What he has instead, is a brutish goodwill and the grit to do his job well.

In this case, the job is to defend in the court of law the Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), apprehended on charges of trying to smuggle the formula of the atom bomb to the Russians. Donovan does not sidestep, even as he quips, ‘Everyone will hate me but at least I’ll lose’. Almost nonchalant at the prospect of courting public disapproval, Donovan maintains his professional integrity, refusing to help the American secret services to incriminate Abel by revealing the information that the latter had divulged about himself. As a regular American private citizen however, he reels under the assignment which compromises his patriotism by compelling him to side with an acknowledged Soviet spy whose acts posed a serious threat to the country he loved.

It is, therefore, a huge stroke of luck that saves Donovan’s conscience from its moral turmoil. When an American pilot, Gary Powers is shot out of his plane while photographing an industrial complex in Russia, Donovan communicates to the authorities the possibility of exchanging Abel for Powers. As time runs out and each country grows anxious about how much of their secrets had been revealed, Donovan is admitted to the secret operation of engineering an exchange that neither country would acknowledge in public.

The second half of the film follows him through the indeterminably tense negotiations, flips and turns in the dangerous by-lanes of deniable negotiations in the freezing and starved Berlin of the Cold War years. Latching on to the simmering tension between the newly established German Democratic Republic and Soviet Russia, each of which claim control over East Berlin, the film traces the complicated manoeuvres that Donovan, afflicted with a permanent cold, has to accomplish in his dealings with the KGB chief Ivan Schischkin who demands the release of Abel as a ‘token of a goodwill’ as well as Wolfgang Vogel, the highly volatile lawyer defending Frederik Pryor, an American student arrested on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.

Tom Hanks delivers a superb performance as the straightforward American lawyer who throws Pryor’s name into the exchange at the last minute, seeming to weigh his chances against the Russian and German powers, apparently staking against the claims of his own government which only wants Powers back. With a twinkling-eyed ingenuity, he bulldozes his way into Vogel’s car to engineer the exchange that everyone thought impossible, in effect trading one prisoner off for two at the Glienecke Bridge connecting East and West Berlin.

With its focus on unwavering compassion, however, the film retains a tendency to glorify the American institution over others, not remedied by the casting of an American agent attempting to botch the exchange of Pryor. Overall, the Americans are cast in a gentler light, especially in their treatment of their prisoner. Each of the men handles the aging Abel delicately, preceding each instruction with a ‘Please Sir’. In contrast, Powers is called Gary by his Russian captors who seem predisposed to torture tactics. They don’t allow Powers to sleep, and interrogate him harshly, threatening him in the face of his silence.

The screenplay which begins with an expertly-directed chase sequence through the crowded subway, spans the sunny spots of American landscape and the wintry desolation of Berlin with equal finesse and subtlety. The Berlin that Donovan visits is straight out of a grim Kafkaesque vision, grubby with the remains of war, incongruous with the construction of the Berlin Wall, lined with cement crosses and watch-towers with armed guards to shoot anyone attempting to climb the wall. The Glienecke Bridge is deserted, with similar towers and sentry, instructed to open fire at the first sign of trouble.

The film also induces striking parallels in several scenes. While Abel, a Russian spy on American soil effortlessly prises into a fake coin to retrieve instructions, the American pilot Powers is unable to strike the pin on his counterfeit coin. Donovan leaves the country to save the life of the ‘most hated man in America’ and returns with another. Even the murders that he witnesses from his Berlin train seem eerily similar to what he witnesses from his train into Manhattan.

Nowhere does the Bridge of Spies resemble the relentless nightmarish world of humiliation, failure, and isolation of other Cold War spy-films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011). Spielberg steers away from the subterfuge and gloom of Tinker, Tailor in favour of a world in warmer hues, where the dangers of deceit can be subverted by the wiles of optimism, courage and respectability.

– Pritha Mukherjee

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