Bridge of Spies
Reason for the Rating: Some violence and brief strong language
Plot Summary: A Brooklyn lawyer who finds himself thrust into the center of the Cold War when the CIA sends him to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot.
PopFam Recommends: A compelling glimpse of Cold War tensions in the 1960s - watch it with your teens.
There's a reason Bridge of Spies was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay): It's a surprisingly compelling glimpse into the Cold War tensions Americans endured during the free-for-all that was the 1960s.
Directed by cinema legend Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks headlines the fine cast in this film, portraying real-life insurance lawyer, James Donovan. He's a 1960s family man unexpectedly caught up in trying to negotiate with both the Soviet Union and East Germany for the release of a captured American spy plane pilot. Although Hollywood has taken some creative license with Donovan's story, the basic elements remain rooted in history, which adds a sense of surrealism to many of the real-world events portrayed here.
Bridge of Spies begins in the late 1950s when Russian spy, Rudolf Abel is captured on American soil. Against his initial wishes, Donovan is appointed to represent the spy in court, making him and his family objects of anger and scorn among patriotic Americans outraged over Abel's crimes. Still, Donovan sees his work as patriotic—an example to the world of American values and judicial process. He loses the case, but manages to convince the judge to spare Abel's life, just in case he could be of value in a prisoner swap someday in the future.
Fast-forward to the early 1961. The Berlin Wall is going up. Russia and the United States are teetering on the edge of a Hot War, and American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers has been captured after being shot down during a spy mission over Russian territory. Suddenly just the situation Donovan predicted has come into reality—and now the CIA wants the Brooklyn insurance lawyer to travel to East Germany and secretly negotiate for a prisoner swap of Abel for Powers. Donovan has no official standing, speaks only rudimentary German, and doesn't even know exactly whom he is supposed to negotiate with, but he answers the call anyway. When East Germany imprisons an American student and offers him as an exchange for Abel, Donovan's job becomes even more complicated. He must balance the competing desires of Russian officials, East German bureaucrats, and his CIA handlers, all while shuttling back and forth into an unstable East Germany—and without even being able to tell his family what he's doing or the danger he is in.
Bridge of Spies is touted as a "dramatic thriller," which isn't quite accurate in the classical sense. There's very little in the way of action or heroics—in fact, 90% of the movie is just a collection of white men in suits having lengthy discussions over bottles of scotch while lounging in leather chairs or sitting around restaurant tables. The genius of this movie is in the way that screenwriter Matt Charman (aided by Ethan and Joel Coen) infuses those conversations with intrigue and building tension so that you can't look away from the screen. Speilberg's steady hand in staging the story's progression rarely falters, so that by the satisfying ending you feel fully invested in Donovan's successes and failures both.
Additionally, the utter realism of the portrayal of Cold War Germany and the inflamed passions and struggles that accompanied the erection of the Berlin Wall is fascinating, both from an historical and familial point of view. When you talk about this movie with your kids, particularly your teenagers, this aspect of history will be ripe for interesting discussion.
In all, Bridge of Spies is easily recommended. Enjoy with your family members, and take time to talk about your reaction to it afterward.
The Blu-ray edition of Bridge of Spies includes several impressive bonus features, such as: "A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies" featurette that digs more deeply into the real-life people portrayed in the film; "Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act," a featurette that shows how Spielberg filmed the pivotal scene of the movie in the exact location where the real-life Powers-for-Abel swap took place; and "Berlin 1961: Recreating the Divide," a fascinating glimpse of archival footage mixed with behind-the-scenes background for how the filmmakers staged the reconstruction of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie for Bridge of Spies.
Let’s Talk About It
Use these questions to spark discussion among family members who are interested in this movie:
• What's your initial reaction after seeing Bridge of Spies? Explain.
• Imagine that we had been present during the construction of the Berlin Wall. What would you have been thinking? What do you think we would have done if that wall had separated our family?
• What does this film make you think about family? About war and peace? About our roles in the events of our world? Explain.
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