Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks bring history to life in ‘Bridge of Spies’

Randi Mattox

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks team up for another historical masterpiece with “Bridge of Spies,” a true story that captures how one man’s courage can impact the world.

“Bridge of Spies” is set in 1957 Brooklyn, New York during the height of the Cold War. Attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is assigned to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an accused KGB spy. Government officials make it clear that the only reason they are providing Abel with a defense is to ensure that the public does not view the incident as merely propaganda. Donovan takes the case, despite the obvious danger defending an accused United States enemy could bring to himself and his family.


Donovan finds himself in the middle of a battle of semantics. He is desperately defending what he believes the 4th Amendment of the Constitution provides, due process. The obviously biased judge, like all others surrounding Donovan, does not see Abel as deserving of protection by the constitution, justifying their hatred and intolerance of Abel. And thus, the battle of wits begins.

Throughout the process, Donovan and Abel form an unlikely respect for each other. The obvious message being that both sides of the Cold War have pawns they use to play this game. Just like the Soviet Union has no emotional connection to Abel, when a U.S. spy is captured by the Soviets, the U.S. likewise is more concerned about what the U.S. soldier will “share” with the enemy than the concern about bringing that solider home. Both sides play the game, while Abel, Donovan, the U.S. soldier, and eventually a U.S. student captured in East Germany while studying economics are simply the pawns. No more. No less.

What the governments did not rely on, however, was Donovan’s brilliance and determination to negotiate a trade. And what they especially did not rely on was Donovan’s unwillingness to sacrifice his own moral fortitude at the expense of the ridicule and the demands of the CIA.

It is no surprise that “Bridge of Spies” is able to tell a serious story, while also inserting humorous, light-hearted moments, as the notable Cohen brothers and Matt Charman wrote the screenplay. At one point during a scene between Donovan and Abel, Donovan asks Abel, “Aren’t you worried?” Abel asks him, simply, “Would it help?”

During a time when there is heightened anger and fear during this post-Cold War era, the audience is reminded that the soldier, the spies, the pawns in the game of war are simply that…pawns. And because of that, the antagonists in the movie become both the CIA and the KGB. The audience finds themselves pulling for both the Soviet and the U.S. spies. It’s not a movie that makes you feel patriotic and dutiful to our country. The movie simply explains that, as Donovan says at various times throughout the movie, “Every life matters.”

The acting in “Bridge of Spies” was also a major player in the overall excellence of the film. Hanks’ performances are always memorable, and his portrayal of Donovan was no exception. Hanks provides the character with a sort of carelessness that allows him to stand up to the CIA officials and agitated Soviet negotiators with confidence, making Donovan a lovable character. Similarly, Rylance portrays Able with immense detail. Abel comes across as the friendly Russian spy, which is contradictory, but somehow makes perfect sense in the film.

In this movie, Donovan reminds us about the importance of being human, standing up for what’s right, even in the face of hatred and anger, and being true to yourself. This is not a blood and guts movie. It is a reminder that when brilliance is in control, as was the case with Spielberg and Hanks, that the telling of the story is all that’s needed.

Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” is an excellent film for entertainment purposes, but even more, it is a historical account that perfectly displays the outrageous and often times hypocritical actions a country will take when they are living in fear and the bravery it takes to overcome that. “Bridge of Spies” shows viewers that, with some determination, hope and courage can prevail in the midst of political turmoil and global distraught. Spielberg has hit yet another historical homerun.

Collegian Reporter Randi Mattox can be reached at or on Twitter @randimattox.