Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell
Nominations: Picture, Supporting Actor – Mark Rylance, Original Screenplay, Production Design, Score, Sound Mixing
Win: Supporting Actor – Mark Rylance
Principles are only principles if you stick with them when it would be so much easier to abandon them. In the case of James B. Donovan, he was given the thankless and unwinnable task of defending Rudolf Abel, a reviled alleged Soviet spy in the late 1950s—when in the United States anger, hate, and resentment toward anything and everything associated with the USSR and Communism was escalating to a fever pitch that arguably culminated with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Instead of just going through the motions, however, Donovan delivers for Abel a thorough and comprehensive defense. Even though Abel is convicted of three charges of conspiracy, Donovan appeals the case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, falling one vote short of getting the case overturned on a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
How easy it would have been for Donovan to just show up, half-ass the defense, and take the loss for the good of the country. No one would have thought less of him—in fact, he’d probably be seen as a patriotic hero. But for him, that would’ve been the furthest thing from patriotic because it would’ve entailed not caring about the Constitution and the fundamental rights each person in the United States is granted by the very fact that are in the United States. Either the Constitution is the rulebook, as Donovan says, or there are no rules; and if there are no rules, then there is no United States; and if there is no United States, then what’s the point of it all? Of course, during times of high tension and pervasive fear, it can be difficult to ignore emotions and see the logic of Donovan’s actions. It’s important to remember that sometimes the right thing to do isn’t the easiest, and that in itself makes James B. Donovan such a heroic character.
Rudolf Abel is a kindred spirit of his attorney. Like Donovan, Abel sticks to his principles and maintains loyalty to his country even though he could have spared prison and potentially the death penalty for his crimes. However, unlike Donovan, Abel is less willing to fight for his principles: for him, he’s going to meet the same end whether he maintains silence or reveals all to the CIA, so why bother revealing anything? Both men are placed in a terrible situation, but both do what they can to make the best of it—unfortunately, the “best of it” is still really bad.
There’s a running theme of duplicity in Bridge of Spies that gives the film its greatest heft. It’s not an action-packed movie—the closest action scene is Francis Gary Power’s U-2 spy plane getting shot down—but not knowing the motives of the secondary characters keeps us on the edge of our seats. This theme is on full display when we’re introduced to the two main characters, Donovan and Abel. Abel comes first: it’s a steady pullback from his reflection in a mirror, then we see the back of his head as he looks in the mirror, and finally, we see him painting a self-portrait. We never see his face, only a reflection and painting of it. The shot plays with how we can see a person but can’t really see them: both the mirror and the painting emphasize that what we see of Abel is superficial. The fact that he’s painting a self-portrait also stresses that he’s creating an image of himself for others and that he might not even know himself that well either.
Contrast that with Donovan’s introduction: his face fills the screen, he’s direct and smooth, and the shot is an extremely slow pullback. The conversation tells us he’s good at his job as he gets the other lawyer to explain the situation to him while making sure that the point of view he’s taking for his client is heard, understood, and logical. When a similar concept returns later—two Americans for one Soviet equals one exchange—we can remember this introduction and appreciate that Donovan maintains his principles even when it would be easier to let them go.