click to enlarge Tom Hanks as James Donovan in Bridge of Spies. - PHOTO COURTESY WALT DISNEY PICTURES
Tom Hanks as James Donovan in Bridge of Spies.
Tom Hanks as James Donovan in Bridge of Spies.

In 1957, attorney James Donovan was given the unenviable task of representing accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel when he was charged with conspiracy against the United States. It was a duty he took on reluctantly but completed with a sense of duty, not to his country, but to his client. That Abel was found guilty was a foregone conclusion; however, Donovan was able to successfully argue against his client being given the death penalty and went so far as to appeal the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that evidence gathered to charge Abel had been seized illegally. Sentenced to serve 45 years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, it seemed as though Donovan and Abel’s paths would never cross again; however, an international incident four years later brought them together once more when the attorney was tapped to negotiate the release of an American spy who was shot down over Russian airspace in exchange for his former client.

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies does an admirable job recounting this story, hitting the highlights with a reverence deserving of the subject and its participants. It comes as no surprise that the film has an assured manner about it and that it progresses at steady pace, giving us the cursory information needed to move the story along and little else. These are Spielberg trademarks and one can’t argue with the success he’s found utilizing it all these years. Yet, there’s a sense that he’s bitten off a bit too much here, that far too much of the story was pushed to the side for the sake of expediency and to ensure the story stayed at feature film length.

It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that no one else could have played Donovan but Tom Hanks, but there are few actors who convey a genuine sense of decency and honor the way he does. The viewer has to believe that a man of Donovan’s convictions isn’t simply a Hollywood fabrication and Hanks’ calm, assured performance goes a long way towards doing just that.

However, he’s the only one allowed to fashion a complete characterization, as the film’s biggest fault is that none of the other characters are as fully fleshed out as Donovan. Abel (Mark Rylance) is seen as a stoic old man, given to a timely quip and little outward emotion. The two men he’s ultimately traded for – student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) and pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) – remain mysteries as we get little of their background, and are seen as men who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As for actress Amy Ryan cast as Donovan’s wife Mary, I haven’t seen such a waste of talent since watching Ryan in Goosebumps in the thankless role of the teen hero’s mom.

Without question, the story at the center of Bridge of Spies is one worth telling and as rendered here, it is engaging. However, I couldn’t help but think that I was sitting through a Cliff’s Notes version of this historical event. Knowing more about those in the middle of the swap would have raised the dramatic stakes while finding out how Donovan approached and prepared for Abel’s appeals would have made a fascinating story even more intriguing. To do the story justice, a mini-series would have been a preferable format or for that matter, a two-part film, which seems all the rage with adaptations of the final volume in popular YA series’. If anyone has the clout to pull off a multi-part, historical movie, it’s Spielberg. Too bad he didn’t push the envelope here and insist on adequate time and the proper format to tell this tale fully.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at

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