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Bridge of Spies

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An incredible story based on true events.

A dramatic thriller set against the backdrop of a series of historic events, Bridge of Spies is the story of James Donovan, an insurance claims lawyer from Brooklyn who finds himself thrust into the centre of the Cold War when the CIA enlists his support to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot.

The film stars Tom Hanks as James Donovan and Mark Rylance as the Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, with support from Alan Alda and Amy Ryan. Steven Spielberg directs a screenplay from British playwright Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel. 

Matt Charman came across James Donovan in a biography on John F. Kennedy that referenced an American lawyer who the President had sent to Cuba to negotiate the release of 1,113 prisoners. This piqued his interest, and some quick research yielded a name he did not recognise, that of Donovan. But it was the story of what took place several years earlier which he found most interesting. Donovan had defended a Soviet agent accused of espionage during the Cold War, and while he specialised in insurance law and had not practiced criminal law for some time, he was asked to negotiate one of the most high-profile prisoner exchanges in history.

The executives at DreamWorks were immediately intrigued.

“When I heard the story, it knocked my socks off,” says producer Kristie Macosko Krieger, who was a co-producer on Lincoln and is based at DreamWorks. “Not many people know the story of James Donovan and what he accomplished during this period of U.S. history, but it sounded like something that was right up Steven's alley.”

“As a youngster growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I had a tremendous amount of awareness of what was happening during the Cold War, but I didn’t know anything about the exchange of Rudolf Abel for Francis Gary Powers,” says Spielberg. “I knew about Powers because growing up everyone had heard that his U-2 spy plane had been shot down and that he had been put on public display at a very public trial, but the story kind of ended with a spectacular shoot down. I didn’t realize that something had happened subsequent to his capture, which was this very backroom exchange, this spy swap between Abel, a Soviet spy, and Powers, the American spy pilot. So there was a lot to this story that really pulled me in.”

Charman returned to London to start writing, and within six weeks delivered a thought provoking, well-crafted script that generated a wonderful feeling of suspense between the multiple stories. Says Spielberg, “Matt did a good job of connecting the Powers story with the Abel/Donovan story.”

It was a clever, and important, juxtaposition because Powers was technically doing the same thing Abel was arrested for, only from the air, and Charman knew that structurally he needed to make all of the different stories speak to one another. Platt agreed, saying, “Matt did a fantastic job, and once he was finished, we brought his draft to the Coen brothers, who write with a tone which is real yet has a particular edge to it, which was perfect for this story.” The Coen brothers, whose impressive filmography as directors includes titles like No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski and Fargo, immediately dove in, immersing themselves in the language of the period and incorporating Tom Hanks’ persona into the character of Donovan, expertly interweaving this remarkable experience in his life into a powerful story that captured the essence of the man. “Joel and Ethan got us very, very deep into the characters,” says Spielberg. “They really instilled a sense of irony and a little bit of absurd humour, not absurd in the sense that movies can take licence and be absurd, but that real life is absurd. They are great observers of real life, as we all know from their great august body of work, and were able to bring that to the story.”

One theme woven throughout the texture and framework of the Coen brothers’ screenplay which struck a chord with the director was the notion that spies looked like everyone else. He explains, “It wasn’t just shadows and light and spies in a stereotypical way, but it was spies as people that we wouldn’t even think twice about, we wouldn’t even notice them to begin with, let alone figure out that they’re here to do a mission against our national security. Between Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, I was in the hands of three wonderful storytellers.”

If you are looking to cast an ordinary man drawn into the world of espionage who better to cast in the role than Tom Hanks? Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger explains further: “There is no one better suited for this role than Tom Hanks. James Donovan is just an ordinary guy… he is like my best friend’s dad. He was a guy who did his job and then gets thrown into this incredible international story. That just doesn’t happen, but people think of Tom Hanks as everyman, and that’s why he is so brilliant as James Donovan.”

Says Spielberg, “James Donovan was what you would call a stand-up kind of guy, someone who stands up for what he believes in, which, in his case, is justice for all, regardless of what side of the Iron Curtain you are on. He was only interested in the letter of the law. And Tom’s own morality and his own sense of equality and fairness, and the fact that he does such good things in the world by wisely using his celebrity, made him the perfect fit.”

“This subject matter has always fascinated me, because of the area and because of the time,” says Hanks. “I knew that Francis Gary Powers was a U-2 pilot who was shot down by the Soviet Union, that it was a huge international incident and that there was a trade that got him back, but I didn’t know any of the details or who James Donovan was.” He continues, “I love reading history and finding out something brand new—particularly about a subject that I think I'm well versed in—and when that happens, man, it's like winning the lottery.” Hanks was also fascinated by the bond that develops between Donovan and Rudolf Abel. He explains, “What he developed with Rudolf Abel was, first, a very completely professional relationship as an advocate. He even says, ‘I am your advocate, my job is to represent you and bring you the best version of American justice that I can surmise, and here's what I think that justice needs to be,’ and he was dogged in his pursuit of that. He also developed a great personal relationship with Abel because he felt as though he was fighting for a good guy, both personally and in terms of what he stood for.”

Given the diversity of Steven Spielberg’s career, including three Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, it is surprising that Bridge of Spies is his first foray into the murky world of spies and Cold War espionage. We look forward to another Spielberg and Hanks collaboration         


Bridge of Spies opens at Showcase on November 27.

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