What motivated Steven Spielberg to go ahead and take on a project such as “Bridge of Spies?” I’ve read that it was simply his nostalgia for the Cold War era, firmly ensconced in his childhood memories. Unfortunately, the vehicle to tell that story—the combined tale of the capture and trial of Soviet spy Rudolph Abel and swap for the downed US pilot Gary Powers on Russian soil—packs little punch due to its obvious lack of suspense.
The “Bridge of Spies” narrative can be easily summarised in a short paragraph: the US government unofficially conscripts insurance lawyer James Donovan to defend Soviet spy Abel after he’s captured by the Feds in Brooklyn. The trial is a foregone conclusion but Donovan convinces the judge to sentence Abel to prison instead of death since he could be used in a prisoner exchange in the future. Sure enough, after Gary Powers is shot down in his U2 spy plane, Donovan is again called upon to negotiate a prisoner swap with the Russians. A wrench is thrown into the negotiations when a US graduate student is arrested as a spy by the East Germans. Donovan deftly negotiates the swap of Abel for both Powers and the American student, and the exchange is facilitated with little incident.
As historical incidents related to the Cold War go, the Abel-Powers narrative is hardly one of high drama. A major problem is that Donovan has no single, strong antagonist to play off of. The negotiations with his Soviet counterpart, a KGB agent masquerading as a diplomat, are a forgone conclusion. We know of course that the spy swap will be successful, so where is the suspense? The “heart-pounding” moment is hardly heart pounding at all—as Abel and Powers are about to exchange places, there is a slight delay before the East Germans deliver the American student to complete their part of the bargain.
Yes of course I understand that Donovan dramatically threatened the East Germans, as they could have been blamed by the Russians for sabotaging the spy swap. But their decision was really a forgone conclusion too, as the East Germans were always under the yoke of the Russians, and were in no position to act independently (balking at giving up the student of course was their way of “saving face”).
With all this lack of suspense, it was incumbent upon Mr. Spielberg’s screenwriters (including “luminaries” Joel and Ethan Coen) to manufacture a series of fictional events to spice up a “thriller” that hardly thrills at all! Here a few examples: spectators at Abel’s sentencing did not loudly object to the no death penalty sentence; Donovan and family were not victims of a drive-by shooting; Donovan’s coat was not stolen by a gang in East Berlin (in reality, Donovan merely observed a gang nearby) and Donovan never personally observed people being killed as they attempted to climb over the Berlin Wall.
Spielberg’s attempt to recreate the era is rife with numerous gaffes. Early on Donovan is seen riding in a in a NYC R-32 subway car that first went into service in 1964 (the scene is set in 1961). That wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that the interior of the car appears to be from the 70s and beyond, and not 1961. The gaffes, which include anachronisms, character error, continuity, errors in geography, factual errors, plot holes, revealing mistakes and miscellaneous errors are all detailed under the Bridge of Spies “Goofs” section on IMDb.
“Bridge of Spies” is not a complete loss as the film features some excellent acting by Tom Hanks as Donovan and Mark Rylance as the Soviet spy Abel. With its 40 million dollar budget and decided lack of suspense, I wonder why the film was made in the first place. It of course gives Spielberg an opportunity to peddle a rather simplistic and obvious message: there were some bad people on the other side of the Iron Curtain (faceless soldiers shooting people trying to escape over the Berlin War) but also individuals such as master spy Abel, who end up displaying unexpected glimpses of humanity.