Brooklyn, 1957, and fifty-four year-old Rudolf Abel lives in a boarding house on Hick Street and rents a studio on Fulton. He likes to paint and has become quite skilled, taking his canvas down to the waterfront to capture life as it happens – and no one would be any the wiser, save that Abel is a KGB spy and the US agencies have been watching him for quite some time.
So begins the Spielberg directed film, Bridge of Spies. In many ways, it’s a classic cold war movie, the like of which is rarely made these days – with touching performances by the entire cast, headed up by Tom Hanks and ably supported by British theatre supremo, Mark Rylance.
When Bridge of Spies opened in the UK on 25th November 2015, I was intrigued by the idea of how Rylance might fare on the silver screen. After all, he didn’t only have Hanks to contend with; we’re talking Stephen Spielberg, writers Joel and Ethan Coen, and my childhood comedy hero from Mash, Alan Alda. Yet it wasn’t until I was invited by the Writers’ Guild to attend a private screening of the film at the 20th Century Fox office in Soho Square, followed by an opportunity to meet the film’s originator and main scriptwriter, Matt Charman, in early February 2016, that I actually got the chance to see it.
Always a fan of Cold War stories, Charman first came upon that of the spy, Abel, while reading An Unfinished Life by Robert Dannek. In this book Dannek talks about the servicemen captured at the Bay of Pigs and how John F. Kennedy sent a lawyer called James Donovan to negotiate their release. A footnote mentioned that Donovan first came to prominence for his part he played in a spy swap between Gary Powers and Rudolf Abel. Charman’s first thought was that he’d found an untold ‘nugget’. First off, he checked to see if there was an existing film. Finding none, he used the New York Times archive and the Kennedy Presidential Library to piece the story together. When he got the green light for the project from Donovan’s son, Charman knew he really had something.
The film’s thirty-six year old scriptwriter is as humble as many of the men he writes about. He’s also keen for us to like him. He tells off Andrea Gibb, the Writers’ Guild Chair of Film, for introducing him as ‘Oscar nominated’, asking her if she wants us to hate him. By his own admission, he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he left university. “I’d studied English, but not creative writing. My Mum is a hairdresser, my Dad sold tractors. I didn’t know anyone in the business. I didn’t feel as if it was people like me who wrote.”
Charman’s brother got him a job at a crash repair centre, washing cars. Depressed and bored, he started “writing stuff down” in a note book. As the writing bug took hold, he got up early each morning to draft his first play, eventually submitting it to the Verity Bargate Award - it won. He had no experience of the Soho Theatre, but the play was staged there for five weeks and it gave him the opportunity to “learn the craft, properly”. From the Soho, Charman progressed to the National Theatre, which gave him a small amount of money and eight weeks to come up with a new play - The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder was the result. Following the National came a stint on TV, with Our Zoo for the BBC, where the lovely character of George presents as a compassionate and principled man – a bit like wily old insurance lawyer, James Donovan, who was catapulted into the big time by his skill at negotiating a two-for-the-price-of-one swap with the Soviets and the German Democratic Republic.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves - the first half of the film is a straight courtroom drama. As Abel, Mark Rylance offers us a guileless portrayal of an innocent abroad in a world of conspiracy and conflict. Following his arrest, the unfolding story is a quietly emotional portrayal of the developing friendship between client and lawyer. Asked by his law firm’s senior partner, Thomas Watters (Alda), to represent the spy Rudolf Abel, Donovan resolutely takes up the legal cudgel, despite being faced with a nationwide outpouring of hate and a judge who is disinclined to do anything other than sentence the Russian to death. Twelve years earlier, Donovan had been Justice Robert H. Jackson’s assistant at the Nuremberg trials in Germany. He was no slouch at the fine art of parley and Hanks slips easily into the part, giving us his regular ‘all-American-nice-guy’ performance of the man whose capacity for finding common ground, saved lives. When, in private, he persuades the judge to incarcerate rather than kill Abel, Donovan lays the groundwork for his selection by the CIA, as chief negotiator for the upcoming swap.
Matt Charman tell us that Bridge of Spies was his first film script, and that when he presented it to the industry in Hollywood, at a rate of eight meetings a day for five days, all he had was a twenty minute pitch that he’d worked up in a New York hotel room. Half way through the week his agent tried to set up a call with Ridley Scott – it never happened, but, by the end of the week, Dreamworks had bought the rights, so it didn’t matter. When Charman got back to the UK, Spielberg called him. The thing snowballed from there: Spielberg talked to Hanks. Hanks talked to the Coens. Charman says, “they came in and it was the most remarkable experience working with them in terms of learning so much… you’re sitting on that set next to Spielberg and you’re hearing Tom Hanks and it’s amazing.”
Although the film could have been solidly dour, there is some charmingly witty dialogue between Abel and Donovan, that goes a long way to lift the film out of the Le Carre-type Cold War doldrums. Partly, this was how Charman wrote it and partly, how the Coens’ added their signature quirkiness. In any event, Spielberg fans will tell you, the man likes the odd wry comment. When asked if he’s feeling anxious, Abel answers “would it help”, and you get the impression, as always with Rylance, that it’s completely unscripted. Charman tells us that Donovan’s son talked about Abel having a really dry sense of humour, and that this was the reason why his father gravitated towards the Russian.
The first half then, is a two-hander between Hanks and Rylance. The second half is all Hanks, until we get to the swap itself. Francis Gary Powers is a U2 pilot, downed by the Soviets whilst on a photographic reconnaissance mission. There is a strange series of scenes, featuring Powers and his buddies limbering up for the secret flight, and an even stranger crash sequence, which appears shoehorned into an otherwise perfect film. On hearing of Powers’ capture, and wanting him back before he caves in under interrogation, the USA government ask Donovan to negotiate with the Soviets for Abel – and it ought to be that easy, save that once in Berlin, Donovan learns that the Stasi are holding Frederic Prior, a young American student, whom they suspect is a spy. Now Donovan wants Prior as well as Powers, in exchange for the Russian. It could all go horrifically wrong, and almost does, but Donvan’s skill and Charman’s writing save the day in the nick of time. At the same momnet that Powers is exchanged for Abel on the Glienicke Bridge, Prior is released at Checkpoint Charlie and all live happily ever after – or so we are led to believe by the sign-off.
As Charman tells it, “If James Donovan had gone to Berlin and negotiated successfully between Abel and Powers - that would have been amazing. For a man to go into that situation for that man’s principles to carry over to want the same for that student as he did for a man he knew so well and had become friends with - that to me made me think James Donovan is a hell of a guy. He really is - and we need to honour that.” I’m guessing here, but I’d say that this is one of the reasons Hanks took the role. He does like to play the guy with a conscience. Of course, in an earlier movie era, that man would have been James Stewart, but you can’t have everything.
This article originally appeared in the now defunct Quadrapheme Review