January 11, 2016
Family Film Blogging: Bridge of Spies
Posted by Christine Hurt

Very rarely do movies create heroes out of insurance defense attorneys, but Bridge of Spies tries to remedy that fact.  This Saturday, my oldest said she wanted to see "that Tom Hanks movie about war."  I interpreted that to mean Bridge of Spies, which is at our discount theater, so off we went.

The movie is based on true events depicted in the book Strangers on a Bridge, written by James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks in the movie.  Donovan, a partner at a NY law firm handling insurance defense cases, is asked by the head of the NY bar to represent pro bono an accused Russian spy, known in the movie as Rudolf Abel.  We later learn that Donovan participated in the Nuremberg prosecutions, so he is no stranger to high-level political prosecutions.  Though he is encouraged to take the case, he soon finds that he is not expected to push very hard for an acquittal or an appeal, as Abel is clearly guilty of espionage and Cold War fears are high in 1962.  He grows to respect Abel for being a model employee (he will not agree to cooperate or be a double agent) for the USSR, and eventually saves him from the death penalty.  However, his representation takes a toll on his reputation and his family.

The real center of the movie, however, is he exchange of Abel for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the USSR.  Donovan, as a private citizen, is asked to represent Abel in a strange negotiation with the USSR for Powers and the newly born East Germany for the release of a Yale graduate student, Frederic Pryor.  As someone who watched the Berlin wall fall, and (my daughter) someone who never knew the Berlin wall, watching the wall be constructed and the immediate impact on Berliners was the most interesting part of the movie.  Donovan must travel daily from West Berlin to East Berlin to conduct these strange pantomime negotiations, and of course his litigation settlement skills are quite valuable here.  

If you were aware of the story, then you know how the movie ends, but in talking to others I've noticed a lot of people did not know the Powers story.  Interestingly, the trailer doesn't mention Powers, though it shows shots of scenes in which the actor portraying him appears.  The website does not use his name, either.  This seems to be an obvious choice on their part, but the reason is not obvious to me.  I gather that history is not clear on whether Powers followed orders to self-destruct the plane and commit suicide before being taken prisoner, and his military honors and awards came late and posthumously.  However, I'm not sure whether naming Powers as the American spy in question in the trailer would have kept people away, drawn people to the theater, or neither.  Perhaps the producers didn't want audiences to stay away from a movie with a known ending, though Apollo 13 seemed to do okay.  Anyway, the focus of the movie is Donovan, and Powers' on-screen time is minimal.

Is it a good movie?  It was enjoyable for a Saturday afternoon for $4.  I think my daughter (16) thought it was long, and it did drag along.  Hank's Donovan is very likable, and always fun to watch.  

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