Bridge of Spies: Spielberg’s Cold War Thriller

bridge_of_spies_posterDirected by Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies, which world premieres at the 2015 New York Film Fest, will be released by Fox on October 16.

Multi Oscar-winning filmmaker Spielberg has often tackled seminal historical events throughout his long and fertile career.  A history enthusiast, his knowledge of the Cold War dates back to childhood when his father told stories of the deep-seated feelings of animosity and distrust that existed between the U.S. and Soviet Union, stories he still remembers today.

“My father had gone to Russia during the Cold War on a foreign exchange right after Francis Gary Powers was shot down,” remembers Spielberg. “My dad and three other associates from General Electric stood in line because they were putting Powers’ flight suit, helmet and the remains of the U-2 on display for everybody in Russia to see what America had done. He was about an hour away from the front of the line when a couple of Russian military officials approached my dad and asked for their passports, saw they were Americans and got them to the head of the line, not to convenience them, because after they got to the head of the line this Russian pointed to the U-2 and then pointed to my dad and his friends and said, ‘Look what your country is doing to us,’ which he repeated angrily several times before handing back their passports.”

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

“I never forgot that story,” he says, “and because of that I never forgot what happened to Francis Gary Powers.”

These were the fevered years of the Cold War, a war that involved information, not combat, where words were the ultimate weapon. It was a time when anti-Communist propaganda, “Duck and Cover” educational videos and the media’s sensationalist coverage of events like the Rosenberg trial bred fear and hatred across the country….hatred stemming from fear of the unknown. No one was safe, and it was an especially dangerous time to be in the headlines for defending a Russian spy…

In the 1950s during the early stages of the Cold War, tensions are rife between the U.S. and USSR.  When the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent living in New York, the fear and paranoia escalate radically.

bridge_of_spies_6_hanks_spielbergCharged with sending coded messages back to Russia, Abel is questioned by the FBI but refuses to cooperate, declining their offer to turn on his country, and is detained in federal prison pending trial.

The government, in need of an independent attorney to take on Abel’s defense, approaches James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn. But Donovan, a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials and highly regarded within the legal community for his profound skills as a negotiator, has little experience with allegations of this magnitude and isn’t eager to get involved. Advocating such a deeply unpopular defense would make him a public figure and could subject his family to scrutiny, disdain and even, potentially, danger.

bridge_of_spies_5_hanks_spielbergDonovan eventually agrees to represent Abel, based on his commitment to the principles of justice and the protection of basic human rights and wants to ensure Abel receives a fair trial regardless of his citizenship. As he prepares his defense strategy, a bond begins to develop between the two men, one built on mutual respect and understanding. Donovan admires Abel’s strength and loyalty and mounts an impassioned plea to prevent him from receiving the death penalty, arguing that his actions were those of a good soldier following instructions on his country’s behalf.

bridge_of_spies_4_hanks_spielbergSometime later, an American U-2 spy plane is shot down over Soviet airspace while on a reconnaissance mission, and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in Russia. The CIA, while categorically denying any knowledge of the mission, is fearful that Powers may be coerced into revealing classified information. Having witnessed Donovan’s impressive skills in the courtroom, CIA operative Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) reaches out to recruit him for a national security mission of great importance, and because of his incredible foresight, Donovan is soon on his way to Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, driven by a love for his country, unwavering belief in his convictions and a tremendous amount of courage.

Once he arrives however, Donovan learns that an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) has been arrested in East Berlin while trying to return to his home in the West, and despite the CIA’s direction to focus only on the pilot, he decides to negotiate for the release of both the pilot and the student, as he refuses to leave anyone behind.

bridge_of_spies_3_hanks_spielbergAs a child, the 8mm war movies Spielberg made in his backyard were often set in World War II, a recurring subject in a number of the films he would one day direct—titles ranging from “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Empire of the Sun” to “1941” and the “Indiana Jones” films.  But until now, none were set in the world of international espionage. “I love spy movies,” says Spielberg. “I love John le Carré, the James Bond movies, Mad magazine and the infamous ‘Spy vs. Spy’ column that I grew up with, so spying has always been on my mind.”