Review: ‘Bridge of Spies’ — How Spielberg masterfully crafts a telling story of the prisoner exchange

When I was younger, I would religiously watch Steven Spielberg films: “Jurassic Park,” “Minority Report,” “Indiana Jones,” you name it.

I used to say, “New movie by Steven, watch it to get even.” In retrospect, the rhyme is pretty lame but it definitely holds true even today. Because when “Bridge of Spies” first came out, I rushed to theaters to make sure I could get even with Steven.

The film followed James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks who is second only to Robin Williams), a New York insurance lawyer, who was chosen to defend Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy. After the trial, Donovan traveled to Russia, tasked with negotiating an exchange involving US pilot Gary Powers and Abel. As a dramatized recount of the exchange, “Bridge of Spies” does a phenomenal job of creating a mood fitting of the Cold War and showing the paranoia of citizens.

Throughout the majority of the movie, Spielberg did not use music. The lack of music allowed audiences to focus on the dialogue and the actions taking place. I believe that having a score in the background detracts the realism in depictions of real events because the mood becomes inaccurate. During the real negotiation, there isn’t an orchestra directed by John Williams; it is silent and scary.

Sure, there was music in both of these movies. But they were played only in the introduction or resolution of a setting or conflict: not during the climax or action as the uncertainty from silence intensifies the situation more than any combination of notes. 

Tom Hanks plays James Donovan in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” (Courtesy of LA Times)

“Bridge of Spies” also depicts many personal discussions, a capable microcosm of social attitudes often overlooked in history textbooks. These dialogues displayed the American paranoia of the Soviet Union, an excessive fear that morphed into xenophobia at times. For example, Donovan’s wife constantly argued for Donovan not to take the case as he would be defending a traitor despite the constitution guaranteeing an able defense.

Furthermore, in the closed doors discussion between the lawyers and the Judge, the judge called freeing Abel an act that could cause the thermonuclear destruction of the United States. And the judge, supposedly the epitome of justice, disregarded the Yick Wo v. Hopkins case because he believes that Abel could give the Soviet Union the key to winning the “battle of civilizations.” In both personal discussions with his wife and Judge, both characters express fears that transform into an unreasonable hatred towards Abel, showing viewers how fast people are to make faulty connections and accusations during the high-staked time of the Cold War.

Spielberg also shows more extreme forms of this paranoia when Donovan’s house is attacked and the CIA agent asks Donovan to break attorney-client confidentiality. Unlike the Judge and Donovan’s wife, these two actors took more extreme measures than a simple argument. The attackers looked to inflict physical pain, and the CIA agent stalked Donovan through the streets. These illogical methods of making a point about Abel create a somber mood that mirrors the tensions felt during the Cold War.  

Director Steven Spielberg shooting an exchange between James Donovon and Rudolf Abel (Courtesy of LA Times)

Overall, this movie rocked. It did a good job of creating a fitting mood for the Cold War and fulfilling my desire for more Spielberg films so that I can keep getting even with Steven. 

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