Bridge of Spies

Historical drama that speaks today

[This review may contain spoilers]

The Oscar-nominated Bridge of Spies is an inspiring story and a great piece of filmmaking. Critics praise the collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, calling the film gripping, satisfying, and even eloquent.

It is a timely story that invites us to examine our own roles in our current culture, where fears of terrorism too often drive opinion and policy.

But the heart of the film is Hanks’s James B. Donovan, a man of quiet tenacity and compassion who believes in the value of the Constitution and that “every person matters”—even an enemy.

The Cold War drama tells the real-life story of Donovan’s 1957 legal defense of KGB spy Rudolf Abel and his role in negotiating the exchange of Abel for captured American pilot Francis Gary Powers and American graduate student Frederic Pryor in 1962.

Donovan is asked to defend Abel so that the spy is seen as getting “a fair shake.” No one expects him to take the job seriously, however, so when he starts building a strong defense, he quickly draws the ire of family, colleagues, and the public.

Spielberg does a good job of depicting the culture of fear that saturated the early years of the Cold War. Government officials and the public alike fear the Soviet Union and a nuclear war. That fear drives both private and public opinions of Donovan’s defense of Abel, generating everything from hostile stares on a train to pressure from colleagues to tone down his defense to a spray of drive-by bullets through the living room window of his home.

At one point, Abel compares Donovan to a man Abel witnessed as a child being beaten by partisan border guards. Every time he was beat down, Abel says, the man stood back up. Eventually the guards, impressed by the “Standing Man,” let him live.

The image fits Donovan, who constantly faces and overcomes obstacles and pressure from his family and colleagues as well as the public and U.S. officials.

Though he loses the case, Donovan convinces the judge to give Abel a prison sentence rather than the electric chair, arguing that Abel could be a valuable bargaining chip in the future. Sure enough, Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union, and the CIA asks Donovan to negotiate the trade in Berlin.

Donovan takes great personal risks as he navigates the spy-craft world during an unstable period in East Germany and faces immense pressure and obstacles from U.S. and Soviet and East German officials, who want to drop Pryor from the deal. But Donovan is relentless in his belief that every person matters and eventually secures the trade.

I was inspired by Donovan’s “Standing Man” commitment to the Constitution and his belief that every person matters. It is a timely story that invites us to examine our own roles in our current culture, where fears of terrorism too often drive opinion and policy.

I also resonate with the way Donovan’s story echoes our own. He saw himself as part of a larger story or purpose, one worth sacrificing both his career and life; he took advantage of every opportunity and left things better than he found them. As believers, we too play a part in a larger Story where a Standing Man resolve in our commitment to Jesus and our commitment to act with sacrificial love—even towards our enemies—helps restore a broken world.

Bridge of Spies is an engaging, thought-provoking story that helps us better understand ourselves and the world around us. If you missed it in the theater, add it to the top of your queue.

All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.