Bridge of Spies had the look and feel of several movies but turned out to be none of them. When we first meet Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer who’s tasked with defending an accused Soviet Spy (Mark Rylance), it feels like we’re getting the inspiring courtroom drama in which the protagonist must stand up for a prisoner’s rights and reinforce the values of the American judicial system. Then the Soviet Spy, Rudolf Abel, is quickly convicted.
Donovan continues to fight for his client, looking to submit an appeal because of the illegal search of Abel’s hotel room without a warrant. Donovan’s boss scolds him for this behavior, and he reiterates that he merely wanted it to appear as though Abel was receiving a fair trial. So Donovan is almost enemy number one (after Abel), and everyone antagonizes him, even the judge who directly says Abel is guilty. The question of Abel’s guilt, though, really is never in question. In many ways this film could be about the trial, and it could be easy for Spielberg to withhold any clear evidence of Abel’s guilt. That way the audience would wonder if he’s a spy or not just like Donovan might wonder. Instead, the film begins with Abel receiving a message in a hollowed out nickel and decoding it before he is captured.
So we know he’s guilty, and the trial ends rather quickly. There is some time to breathe after the verdict comes in and before the next big plot movement, in which two Americans are detained in Germany and in Soviet Russia, necessitating a prisoner trade. Donovan is asked to lead the prisoner exchange negotiations, but before this we see how his devotion to his job and his client has made him and his family a target. The film really plays up the idea of fear mongering in America at this time. Many people were scared of a nuclear attack, and in one scene we start with a classroom of kids reciting the pledge of allegiance followed immediately by a shot of a nuclear detonation that they are forced to watch. The kids are petrified, and Donovan’s son comes home that night, insisting they make sure they’re prepared for an attack.
The adults are scared too. Everyone’s scared. A CIA agent asks Donovan what his client has told him, violating attorney-client privileges. Donovan refuses, and the agent says his withholding information could jeopardize national security. We essentially just see instances of people acting out in anger because of fear. Later on there is a drive by shooting at the Donovan house, with bullets peppering the living room. No one is hurt, and Jim’s son proudly says that he followed the protocol of what to do in an attack, and he made it out unscathed. It’s kind of an amusing scene, and it’s telling that his son prepared for an attack from a foreign enemy but uses what he learned to protect himself from an attack by a domestic enemy. So there you go, fear mongering exposes the worst in us.
A military pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Soviet Russia during a reconnaissance mission, and he is detained much like Abel. When news returns to America, they work out an exchange of prisoners. Donovan goes to Germany and must navigate the waters between Germany, Russia, multiple mysterious agents and the goal of getting not only Powers back but also an American student named Frederic Pryor who was detained near the Berlin wall.
Donovan is an idealist, clearly, and he fights to get both Americans back in exchange for Abel. The CIA agents with whom he works only have orders to bring back Powers, but Donovan won’t hear it. His plan works in the end, but this is where the film again appears to be a certain type of movie and then completely goes against your expectations.
There have been plenty of movies about bringing people back home, whether it’s a military film or… well probably mostly military films. During the climactic sequence with the prisoner exchange on the snowy bridge, I expected there to be some kind of embrace or warm welcome for the Americans now in safe hands. Instead the film focuses on Donovan as he meticulously watches Abel, observing how he’s treated by his own people. By this point, Donovan and Abel have developed some sort of friendship, particularly because they spend so much time together and both have the weight of a world on their shoulders. Donovan feels it, but Abel doesn’t seem to worry much.
At the end then, the focus of the film is still on this relationship, one that draws a greater connection between two people across enemy lines than any semblance of a connection between Donovan and his own countrymen. When Donovan and the other Americans board the cargo plane to return home, Powers looks helpless as he wonders who to thank. Everyone sits nearby quiet and stern, not even showing any relief for what they accomplished. Even Donovan, who sits closest to Powers, can only stare forward with some apprehension, unable to comfort the young pilot because his thoughts are with Abel and his safety.
Everyone involved in this mission did their part out of a sense of duty, nothing more. Donovan comes the closest to transcending this obligation as he at least seems to care for the people involved. At the same time, however, we first met Donovan when he is defending his client, a man who hit five people with his car, in a swanky lounge bar. Donovan’s job is to look like he cares. He never wanted to defend Abel, knowing it would be a losing case and shine an unwanted spotlight on him as a lawyer, but he did it anyway. Donovan’s dogfight to defend his client all the way to the end began not as a devotion to his client but as a commitment to his job. Even the way he quotes the constitution comes across more as a well-ingrained familiarity with the rules of his profession than as a true defense for why he won’t give up his client. To be a good lawyer, you need to know how to use the law to your advantage, and that’s what Donovan tries to do.
That’s how you see Donovan at the end of the film, not celebrated by his temporary CIA coworkers or the man he rescued, but just as a guy who did his job and might feel a little torn apart despite his victory. To put it another way, Donovan seems to have defended plenty of guilty people in court, but I don’t think, by the end, that he sees Abel as guilty. Abel was a good soldier, as Donovan says on multiple occasions, just like Powers was. Actually, Abel was a better soldier than Powers seemed to be, but that’s subjective based on the brief glimpses into their individual missions we’re given in the film.
The very end of the film is sort of an epilogue. The story ended when the prisoners were exchanged, and the last shot of the film for some directors might have been the one with Donovan and Powers side by side, both lost in their own worlds. Once he gets home, however, Donovan is quietly celebrated. We get a couple moments that pay off earlier set ups. First, his family watches the news and learns that Donovan led the effort to bring Powers and Pryor home. They realize he helped the country, and this comes after a few scenes in which they openly questioned why he would defend an enemy of the country. Then we see Donovan on the train, on the way to work. Earlier we saw a scene like this one, and everyone recognized his face from the newspaper as the guy defending the Soviet spy. They angrily leered at him, and this time they see his face in the newspaper as the guy who brought home the American soldier. Now they smile (sort of) at him. Finally, in that same scene, Donovan gazes out the window much like he did while on a train that crossed over the Berlin Wall. In that earlier portion of the film, he saw a few people try to climb over the wall only to be quickly gunned down. Donovan is stunned by the event, and in the epilogue he watches a few kids playfully climb over a chainlink fence. The moment simply seems to suggest that America is a pretty good place. It’s like the end of the film is itself a pledge of allegiance. It’s meant to be inspiring and patriotic.
The film opens with a Soviet spy looking over his shoulder, in between his reflection in a mirror and a self-portrait he’s been painting. It sets up the power of looking (spying) as well as the paranoia inherent in that line of work. The film then ends with Donovan on the receiving end of a comforting gaze from a nearby passenger after spending nearly the entire film trying to avoid being seen by everyone and anyone. He turns to look out the window, and his own field of vision isn’t meant to survey or gather intel but to just take in the moment.