A spy going back to the cold

This is my review of Bridge of Spies [DVD] [2015].

“Bridge of Spies” is a reminder or insight, depending on your age, into the early 1960s when the Cold War was at its peak together with fear of nuclear war and the tensions in a divided Berlin which led to the construction of the infamous wall imprisoning the communist sector in a time warp free from western influence.

When successful American insurance lawyer James Donovan is virtually ordered to represent captured soviet spy Rudolf Abel, it soon becomes apparent that he is merely expected to co-operate in the rubber-stamping exercise of going through the motions of justice seen to be done. A stubborn man, as Abel shrewdly observes, Donovan tries to get Abel’s conviction overturned on appeal, then suggests that he should be spared the electric chair in order to provide a useful bargaining counter in a possible future exchange with a captured American spy. Donovan’s idea is put into practice sooner than he could have bargained when US pilot Francis Powers is shot down over Russian territory whilst photographing sensitive terrain from a height of 70,000 feet.

This is the kind of film we have come to expect from Spielberg: fleshing out in an entertaining if sometimes sentimental way an interesting real-life drama which perhaps went under-reported at the time. We see the ludicrous US government guidance to the public on how to behave in the event of a nuclear strike, the wave of uncomprehending public rage against Donovan’s attempts to apply the rule of law to a spy, the mistrust and jockeying for power between the Russian and East Germans, and the sense of culture shock when Donovan is transported into an East Berlin of bombed wastelands, poverty-stricken youths driven to crime and the gunning down of those seeking to scale the newly constructed wall to freedom.

Not a great film perhaps, but worth seeing for its period detail and intelligent, often wrily amusing, script worked up by the Coen brothers, and a compelling performance from Tom Hanks, with Mark Rylance playing the part of a chastened Thomas Cromwell caught spying. It is also an incentive to discover more about this recent history.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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