By Wilfredo Vélez
Spies, secret messages, and military intelligence have captivated movie goers for centuries especially if the film has any historical significance to it. More than ever, movie audiences today are paying close attention to these types of films; when terrorists threaten America’s way of life, the need for knowing your enemy depends heavily on intelligence or information gathering.
“Bridge of Spies” directed by Steven Spielberg ─who is not the auteur─ and written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, is a period piece of the Cold War. It is based on the true events following an exchange of American and Soviet spies. The film is set in 1957 New York City; the FBI has taken into custody Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance, as a Soviet spy. James Donovan played by Tom Hanks, is asked to be Abel’s lawyer. He is initially unwilling, but is convinced that Abel deserves a fair trial and a proper defense; however, Abel’s fate is already sealed. Donovan, initially unaware, realizes that the trial is meant to only appear that justice is for all. Judge Byers, played by Dakin Matthews, presiding over the case has already found Abel guilty before the trial has started. The appearance of a fair justice system has to be demonstrated to the American people as well as the Soviet Union. The United States was paranoid about the Soviet Union and communism; this paranoia also extends to Donovan. As a result of his decision to follow the government’s request to defend Abel, his patriotism was placed into question leading to harassment and threats on his family. Abel is eventually found guilty of all charges, and is almost sentenced to death, but Donovan argues that Abel may be more useful to the United States if he is kept alive; leading to the judge sentencing Abel to thirty years in prison. Donovan, while happy that his client will not be executed, appeals the case to the Supreme Court; however, he loses the appeal and Abel is sent to prison. Meanwhile, the recruits Gary Powers played by Austin Stowell, an Air Force pilot, to fly a U–2 plane referred to as “The Article” over Russia to take reconnaissance pictures. On his mission over the Soviet Union, Powers is shot down, captured, convicted as a spy, and sentenced to ten years in a Russian prison. In a separate incident, the East Germans arrest an American Economics student, Frederic Pryor played by Will Rogers, as he tries to sneak his German girlfriend across the border to West Berlin as the Berlin wall is being built. The Soviets then send a letter to Abel through Donovan’s law office claiming to be from his family. Abel tells Donovan that the letter is a coded proposal to exchange him for Powers. Donovan tells the about the proposal and they ask him to negotiate the transfer without the public’s knowledge of the government’s involvement. While in Berlin, Donovan meets with a KGB representative and they discuss the terms of the exchange. The KGB was equivalent to the CIA in the United States; they no longer exist. Donovan quickly finds out about Pryor’s capture and asks the Soviets to release him as well. The KGB representative says Donovan will have to arrange this separately with the East Germans. Donovan negotiates with the East Germans, who are initially interested in the exchange. Unfortunately, when they learn Donovan is trying to get two Americans for Abel, they decided not to go through with the deal and arrest Donovan under false claims; He is released the next day and tells the about the turn of events. The CIA only concern about Powers, orders Donovan to leave Pryor’s issue alone, and to focus on the exchange between Powers and Abel. This does not sit well with Donovan who decides to place his own personal agenda ahead of the initial plan set by the United States Government.
Spielberg gave “Bridge of spies” a true to life look. While you are watching the film, it comes across the screen as a documentary, and one can’t help but feeling like the images are true footage of a time long past and not a reenactment. The effectiveness lies in verisimilitude, and this is a vital point; the gritty look of the film conveys the era in which the story originated from. Some of the scenes have a hazy/ smoky look to them; these “External Observable Truths” demonstrate Spielberg’s attempt at conveying American’s anxiety over the threat of the unknown, and the need to watch the enemy closely. This was illustrated in the opening scene of the film when the audience is quickly introduced to two faces, and both belonging to the same man; one is his reflection in a mirror, and the other is a self-portrait of the man sitting in the middle. The character’s face is turned away from the audience but reflected in the mirror, looking attentively from the mirror to the portrait, as if he were trying to figure out which is the true self. This scene gives the audience the “Director’s Interpretive Viewpoint;” a look into the character’s personality and how he may see himself: he is patient and pays attention to details. As the camera pulls back, it shows the man sitting in a ragged smoked filled apartment with very poor lighting; the only true light is coming from the window. His personal environment is small and has very little in it which gives more detail into Abel’s character: he is a man who does not need much, and he is a man who is ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Abel leaves his New York City Brooklyn apartment after receiving a phone call. While walking on Fulton Street, you can hear in the background a Mr. Softy ice cream truck’s song playing indicating it must be warm outside. The sun is bright and Abel continues on his way; the audience is given a subjective view and then an objective view as he navigates through the street. As he walks, the audience can see what detail went into cinematography of this film; the clothing being worn, the types of cars on the street, and the old style bus driving pass Abel as he walks towards the Fulton train station. Here the audience is made aware that Abel is being followed by FBI agents. Their attire is representative of that period in time: old style hats with a two piece suit and a thin tie. Abel gets to the train station and the scene quickly transitions/ jump shots to him walking up the stairs emerging from the station on to Broad Street.
The Lighting and color are very significant elements in this film. When the audience is first introduced to Donovan, the colors and lighting are bright. The clothing he is wearing while dark in color still gave a warm feeling of peace, calm, and confidence. This is also evident when his family is introduced to the screen. The home is bright the children’s clothing have playful colored print on them like red, white, green, pink…etc. These colors one would see normally on children’s pajamas or school clothes. The daughter Carol Donovan played by Eve Hewson was wearing an off white dress as she was preparing to go on a date. The color palette represented that of a happy home, and a man who was happily married and a proud parent. As the movie progresses, the Color Palette is used as a transitional device from one place to another and one mood to another.
Once Donovan is in Berlin, the colors get darker: dark green, grey and blue. These colors represent the harshness and the risk Donovan is taking in the new location. The sky is dark and the sun is rarely shinning. With the exception of the white snow, everything now looks cold and dangerous. This is most evident when Donovan is walking down the street to meet with the KGB representative and is robbed by a gang of teens. The most use of color transition is seen at the end of the film where all is dark and the prisoner exchange is about to take place. It is night and they are standing on the bridge. The darkness surrounds them representing the unknown. Donovan is there for the exchange but is fearful of being killed or the exchange not being honored. While he stands there waiting for what seemed like a very long time, he is hit with a role of blinding white lights coming from military vehicles.
Sound/ Musical Score
Music, in my opinion, adds a pulse to a film. In this film the music seemed very classical; something you would hear by Mozart or Bach. The music was composed by Thomas Newman. The music conveyed soft feelings as when Donovan was saying goodbye to his wife before leaving to Berlin; the music was also intense when Donavan saw people being shot and killed as they tried to go over the Berlin Wall. The music also conveyed suspicion and fear as mentioned before when Donovan was waiting on the Bridge for the exchange. One of the scenes in the movie which music gave a kind of subliminal message was heard when Donovan was speaking with one of the CIA agents about the release of Frederic Pryor the student studying Soviet economics who was arrested. The agent is trying to convince Donovan to forget him and do the assignment which was asked of him. As Donovan speaks with the agent at the restaurant, the restaurant is playing soft music for its patrons; if you pay close attention, there is an instrumental version of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” playing in the background. This use of Subjective point of view in sound illustrates to the audience what Donovan is feeling: no one is “unforgettable;” this was brilliantly done.
“Bridge of Spies” while suspenseful may not be for all ages. The drama is slow paced and the lack of special effects may have younger audiences disappointed. The only true special effect is seen when Powers is shot down from the sky by a Russian missile. As he parachutes down, he looks up and sees his plane blown to pieces as he and it descend. In my opinion, the movie was brilliantly done and entertaining. I found myself trying to figure out what was going to happen next; feeling anxious for the characters. The interesting aspect of the film, in my opinion, is the message Steven Spielberg is trying to convey. Donovan, I think, summed it up when he was speaking to the CIA agent who was trying to stop him from saving the Economics student. Donovan stated:
“That kid matters. Every person matters…I’m Irish, you’re German, but what makes us both Americans? Just one thing, one one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans, it’s all that makes us Americans.”