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There’s a running joke in Bridge of Spies. James Donovan (Tom Hanks) will ask his client, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), if he is worried. He has plenty to be worried about, after all, his liberty, possibly even his life, is in danger. But Abel always replies, placidly: “Would it help?”

These are men who do not show emotion, because emotion is not helpful. Which is why Donovan, who does show emotion, and who does not understand the ice in the veins of those with whom he now finds himself associated, is out of his depth in this company. And it is precisely because he is out of his depth, because he does show emotion, that Donovan turns out to be the right man in the right place at the right time.

Steven Spielberg is a director whose films I normally respect rather than like, precisely because of the problem of emotion. His films usually have too much of it; or rather, they have sentiment disguised as emotion. And it is usually directed at children and fathers. Adult emotion and restraint are not normally part of his cinematic language. It is, however, part of the language of the Coen brothers, who co-wrote this film with Matt Chapman, which is perhaps why this is my favourite of the Spielberg films I have seen to date.

For me, the whole of the film can be reduced to just two scenes. The intellectual core of the film, which explains the entire plot, is contained in a scene very near the beginning. The emotional heart of the film, the summation of all of the conflicted restraint and feeling that run through everything we have seen, is distilled into a scene very near the end.

rudolf abel

Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, aka Rudolf Abel


We begin with Rudolf Abel (that wasn’t his real name, or even one of his usual code names, but it is the name by which he became known so it serves), an artist who is also involved in passing on secrets to the Soviets. We see US agents storm the seedy apartment where he lives, and the preternaturally calm Abel destroying a newly received coded message by using it to scrape clean his palette.

After this we cut to our first key scene, and our first glimpse of James Donovan. He is comfortable in what seems to be an expensive setting, a club maybe or a high end bar. He’s an insurance lawyer, and he’s arguing over a case with a lawyer representing a group of claimants. In the course of their brief discussion, we gather that a driver lost control of his vehicle and ploughed into several people. The lawyer for the claimants is arguing that each of those victims represents a distinct accident, and so each is separately entitled to claim the full insurance payout. Donovan, calm, sure of himself, and absolutely immoveable, insists that it was one accident though it had several victims, and therefore those victims are entitled to share between them the one insurance payout. And that, in a nutshell, is the entire film, because that is the intellectual basis upon which Donovan builds his case when negotiating the exchange of Abel for the U2 pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and also for the American student who had strayed into East Berlin just as the wall was closed, Frederic Pryer (Will Rogers). Not only is the character of Donovan firmly established here, but everything that comes after is rooted in this one brief scene.

james b donovan

James B. Donovan

Of course, there is more to the film than this. We see Donovan approached by the Bar Association to represent Abel (it is not spelled out that other lawyers had turned the case down, though that was actually what had happened). The argument is that they want the world to see that Abel gets a fair trial, though in fact Donovan had little experience of criminal law (he had been a prosecutor at Nuremburg, but had no defence experience), furthermore we quickly learn that the whole thing is rigged: everyone is s sure of Abel’s guilt that no proper defence is actually possible. Intriguingly, we see Donovan persuading the judge not to pass a death sentence on the grounds that Abel might make a useful bargaining tool if the other side caught an American agent. Whether this actually happened is moot, such spy exchanges had not happened before, though it is again represented as part of Donovan’s insurance thinking.

At this point, the film fudges the actual timelines quite dramatically. Abel was convicted in October 1957, Francis Gary Powers was shot down at the beginning of May 1960, though the film suggests that these events were contemporaneous. There is also a lot of play made about the Russians wanting to get their man back before he spilled any secrets, and the Americans wanting to get Powers back before he talked; but by this time Abel had been in Atlanta Penitentiary for a couple of years and Powers’s interrogation ended before his trial in August 1960.

A letter delivered to Donovan hints that the Soviets might be ready to trade, so, with CIA backing, Donovan is sent to Berlin to negotiate the exchange. This was the time of the Berlin Wall, completed in August 1961, Donovan arrived the following winter. Here, he encountered an immediate complication. An American student, Frederic Pryor, was being held by the East Germans. Donovan’s contacts had initially been through the East Germans (at this point the Soviets were still pretending that Abel was not one of theirs), and while the Soviets and the CIA wanted to exchange Abel for Powers, the East Germans were trying to stress their independence from Moscow by negotiating for the exchange of Abel for Pryor. Donovan decided that he wanted to get both men back, leading to frustrating negotiations that were often blocked by one side or another. In the end, all seemed to be satisfactorily concluded. Abel and Powers would be exchanged on the Glienicke Bridge, and at the same time Pryor would be released at Checkpoint Charlie.

tom hanks

Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan

And this is where we come to the second key scene in the film. Donovan, Abel, and a handful of CIA agents are on the bridge, Powers has arrived on the other end of the bridge; both sides have identified their man, the exchange is set. But there is no word that Pryor has arrived at Checkpoint Charlie, and it is suspected that the East Germans have reneged on their part of the deal. The CIA men are frantic, demanding that Donovan go ahead with the exchange anyway; they don’t care about Pryor, they just want to get Powers back. But Donovan wants to wait. Now, Abel, his freedom tantalisingly within reach, looks up at Donovan and says, quietly but firmly: “I will wait.” There is the emotional heart of the film, and it is extraordinarily moving. In those few words is everything about the trust that has developed between these two undemonstrative men. All of Donovan’s relentless quest for fairness, and Abel’s recognition that his life lies in Donovan’s hands; all of that comes down to those three words.

mark rylance

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel

Of course, no sooner has Abel said this than Pryor arrives at Checkpoint Charlie, the full exchange is made, and a happy ending is reached. But for once the happy ending does not feel forced or contrived, for once the weight of the story has earned this resolution. And those two scenes have told us everything we need to know about why this is such a good film.