Sam Bauman: ‘Bridge of Spies’ offers glimpse at Cold War days



There’s a movie out there that almost everyone no matter their age should see. It’s a Steven Spielberg-directed film about those tense 1960s Cold War days when we all lived under the madness of “Mutual Assured Destruction,” a program that restrained both America and the Soviet Union from launching a planet-destructive nuclear tit for tat world.

It’s “Bridge of Spies,” a reference to the closing scenes where Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is exchanged for a downed U-2 pilot on a snowy bridge where officials from both sides meet, under the eyes of snipers from both sides ready to fire if anything goes wrong.

The first 10 minutes of the film show Soviet spy Abel painting a self-portrait. No dialog, just Abel painting, The phone rings, Abel picks it up wordlessly and listens and hangs up. He reluctantly puts away his brushes and goes to a park, sits on a bench and reaches under to retrieve a nickel coin.

Back in his apartment he pulls a hidden secret message from the hollow coin, but before he can read it the FBI breaks in and he hides the message in his paint box.

All this without a word said.

It’s Spielberg at his most skillful, similar to another scene later where action is suspended for long minutes while diplomats and the CIA muddle around.

Early in the movie an insurance lawyer named Donovan is dragooned into defending Abel from spy charges. This is Tom Hanks, who meets Abel (Mark Ryland, familiar to PBS viewers as Thomas Cromwell of “Wolf Hall”) and wins him as a client. Abel says after they agree, “What does it matter?”

So how does this fit in to those of us who lived the Cold War? Because looking back at those brutal, forgotten times, we are reminded how bad they were, from school kids hiding under desks waiting from the bomb to fall, from a long shot of a nuclear mushroom rising skyward, to families huddled around a black and white TV fearing the end of their world.

Seniors may have to search memories for what Cold War life was like, to remember things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the leftover from that still affects us today. Scenes of CIA agents gleefully maneuvering the swap cynically may remind some of the news bulletins we were fed back then.

Neither side is innocent in this film.

Donovan is successful in talking the trial judge into a 30-year sentence rather than Abel’s execution. Donovan and Abel finally achieve a respectful if cynical relationship.

Spielberg’s film doesn’t have MAD, but he brings out current problems well.

There’s a side plot in which an American student in East Berlin and a pretty girl decide they should flee to the West. Meanwhile, we are introduced to four U.S. Air Force pilots selected to fly the secret U-2 recon plane and are given coins with poison probes included. We watch as one pilot suits up and takes off on a spy mission. At 70,000 feet he is shot down by a Russian AA missile and taken prisoner. No poison for him. This is the only time where computer generated imaging is involved in the movie and it’s very graphic.

There’s political maneuverings on the snowy bridge with Donovan standing by with Abel and a U-2 pilot who can ID his fellow pilot. Finally, Abel and the U-2 pilot alone march to the center of the bridge and are taken away. Donovan mulls over Abel’s prediction — “They’ll shoot me.”

This is a fine movie. Spielberg’s direction is tight, focused. Hanks underplays his role and is effective, and Ryland walks away with acting honors with his low-key Abel.

The film is evenhanded, both sides connive and maneuver to come out ahead and don’t worry about the people involved.

Incidentally, the title has a couple meaning — spies may be the only way enemies can get things done.

Sam Bauman writes about senior issues for the Nevada Appeal. Check out his blog at


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