Bridge Between Worlds

Paper by Polina Grishko.

Beginning in the late 1940s after the end of World War II and lasting until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War was an impending global threat between two confrontational superpowers on either side of the globe – the aforementioned Soviet Union and the United States of America. Various films have depicted this terrifying time, giving viewers a glimpse into the past and how the war occured, as well as the impact it had on people of both countries. Bridge of Spies (2015) is one of such windows – a bridge one may even say – between the present and the past. Based on a true story, this film revolves around the theme of equality, that “everyone matters,” and that even the enemy is human too, as it calls people’s morals and ethics into question (Shimmin). One significant scene establishes these themes directly, introducing the driving force for the rest of the film. Through the analysis of mise-en-scene and outsourced research, I will argue how this scene provides a valuable asset to the film’s narrative, establishing the basis of the film while demonstrating American ideology.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring America’s favorite Tom Hanks, this film is loosely based on the book Strangers on a Bridge: the Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers by James Britt Donovan – the main protagonist whose story the film centers around. Attending close to the truth, the film follows Mr. Donovan’s story: an attorney tasked with defending and then negotiating an exchange of a captured Soviet spy during the Cold War. Set in 1957 – at the height of the war – the first half of the story is set in a terrified America – where people are building bunkers and stocking up on supplies while kids are running atomic bomb drills. It is evident that fear is the main influence to people’s actions and thoughts, making them quick to condemn Rudolf Abel, the Soviet spy, to death. The second half of the film, after Agent Francis Power is captured by the Soviets and Mr. Donovan is tasked with negotiating an exchange, the film is set in post-World War II East Berlin. The differences between East and West Germany, the struggles and hardships of the newly built Berlin Wall are highlighted throughout the course of the film, as well as a display of the confrontations between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Soviet Union, whose government is imposing on theirs. To this effect, in one scene, the angry German diplomat, Vogel, drives Mr. Donovan through the ruins that the East Germans are forced to live in. Though it represents three sides – USA, USSR, and GDR – this film’s primary audience are Americans. Though it may be historically accurate, the Germans and Soviets are still portrayed more brutal, harsh, and inhumane, a contrast to the reasonable and caring portrayal of the American CIA. Bypassing that, at the time, the American government tortured spies just as much as their foreign counterparts. Yet, since that would be unpatriotic, the point is omitted, making viewers of other countries question the authenticity of the film, and potentially enraging some with the different depictions between the enemy and “hero” of the story. Evidently the film is made by an American, from an American perspective, primarily for American viewers, and representing a true story of the American hero.

Bridge of Spies, like most films, follows a four act structure in the following sequence: The first turning point in when Mr. Donovan agrees to be Abel’s attorney. The midpoint is when Agent Powers is shot down in a U-2 plane above enemy territory during a spy mission, and is taken into custody. The 2nd turning point (and character’s lowest point) is when Mr. Donovan’s plan to release both Soviet-held prisoners seems to be falling apart as the Soviets and Germans hesitate in the negotiations. The resolution is that Mr. Donovan retrieves two men, returns Abel to his home country, and comes back to America as a hero. The film’s main narrative is focused on James Donovan, though “it regularly circles back to Abel, whose double life means he’s both the enemy and a good soldier” (Dargis). Though Rudolf Abel is also a key persona in the story, the central character of the film is, of course, Mr. Donovan, who’s public goal is to dutifully represent his client and provide him with an respectful defense – and by the midpoint, he is successful in stopping Abel’s death sentence. His goal then shifts to help his friend and countrymen get home by negotiating a deal to get both American prisoners back in exchange for Abel. His duty is still to his client Abel, just as equally as it is to Powes and Pryor – the two American men Mr. Donovan wants to negotiate the release of – and despite the hardships, he does not waver in his goal. Though there are various key parts of the film and story, I am focusing on a significant scene of dialogue between Mr. Donovan and CIA Agent Hoffman in a bar, approximately a third of the way into the film. In this scene Mr. Donovan denies the Agent’s request for intel on behalf of his duty to his client, giving basis to the first turning point.

After being followed through the rain by an unknown, shadowed man who the viewer assumes to be a Soviet hostile, the film cuts to the scene at a bar. The previous “chase” scene, featuring shadows, tense music, and pouring rain is a stark juxtaposition to the dry, blue-toned, melodic bar that the two men are suddenly in: “The music, editing, and cinematography all suggest this man is a Soviet agent and a threat to Donovan…There’s certainly a threat here, but it’s not from who we’d expect” (Bullock). The camera pans up – showing a closed umbrella, an overhanging coat, and Mr. Donovan’s hat on a nearby table – and settles in a medium shot of the two men and Mr. Donovan’s hat from a slightly low perspective – as if the camera is on another side table. While the Agent is in full light, his features clearly made out, Mr. Donovan’s shadowed back is towards the camera, his hat behind him. The hat is a representation of Mr. Donovan’s motives: his duty as an attorney is to uphold the law and as stable as the hat behind him, he will not even waver for the CIA – a contrast to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) where the camera focused on Mr. Smith fidgeting with his hat is a representation of his nervous feelings. The Agent hands him his badge and Mr. Donovan, providing exposition to the audience as well, finds out the other man is CIA Agent Hoffman. Afterwards, Hoffman asks how the case (for the false-defense of Rudolf Abel) is proceeding, to which Mr. Donovan curtly, but politely replies “Case is going great. Couldn’t be better.” The exchange is very formal and business-like, the Agent’s smile only a pleasantry before he inquires on the actual information he desires – whether or not Abel has revealed any secrets. Throughout this cut, a blues-like soft trumpet accompanied by piano plays in the background. The music and the blue interior deceptively provide a very calming and melancholy atmosphere – the calm before the storm as Hoffman’s second question, his actual reason for being there, is emphasized by the rumble of thunder, illustrating the trouble that the Agent is bringing with him. Through the camera’s position and the establishment of Mr. Donovan’s character, the viewers empathize with Mr. Donovan and through the cinematography, the thunder, and the dry dialogue, we are already skeptical of the Agent. Mr. Donovan, upon receiving the question about whether his client has “talked yet” replies “excuse me” – a polite gesture towards the Agent’s invasive inquiry.

The scene cuts to the reverse side of the table, now viewing a medium shot Mr. Donovan in full-light and Agent Hoffman’s shadowed back. However, the camera is slightly higher this time, eye-level with Mr. Donovan – the viewer connects more to him than to the distant Hoffman – as it slightly zooms in on Mr. Donovan, framing Hoffman to the side of the screen, and then fully out of the shot. Our protagonist, like the dutiful American hero he is – patriotically dressed in a navy blue coat, white shirt, and red tie, which contrasts with Hoffman’s dull brown palette – is appalled at the audacity of the agent asking him to violate attorney-client privilege in order to learn more information not already extracted from interrogations. Hoffman tries to persuade the counselor but receives only harsh rejoinders. By zooming in and completely focusing on Mr. Donovan during this interaction, the viewers empathize more deeply with his actions, being brought to his side against the other man, as we too begin to feel aggravated against those who blind themselves from serving the same human rights to an enemy as to a friend. The scene cuts back to the original point of view, Agent Hoffman no longer smiling, as he begins defending himself. In the same zoom-in shot, mimicking the previous, the camera zooms into Agent Hoffman until it reaches a medium close-up shot, pulling us closer into the conversation. As NY Times explains, since the film is “insistently dialectical, the movie is filled with such doubling, of seeming opposites who are set up as mirrors of each other” (Dargis). As such, these two men, duty-bound to their country, are in opposition. While Hoffman is prepared to bend the rules for the safety of America – which he reiterates in this cut, explaining that “we [CIA] need to know”, his speech emphasized with more low-rumbling thunder – Mr. Donovan on the other hand binds himself (and the plot) to his morals, which are based on the “rulebook”.

Cutting to a mid-shot of the two of them at the table, the playing field is now tilted as the two sit askew from each other – only Hoffman’s profile visible while Mr. Donovan’s body is facing the camera – and the audience watches the two players in anticipation: no longer are there any background characters in the bar, the blue tint of the walls has dimmed to black, only the slow melodic trumpet remains. The camera begins to once again zoom in on Mr. Donovan into a medium close-up shot, as like the previous cut, bringing us intimately close with our protagonist as he launches into his own (expositional) speech – which is the main theme of the film but also makes the character’s public goal clear to the audience. Mr. Donovan explains to the CIA agent that it is by this rulebook (the Constitution) that anyone is an American, so the rulebook is not something that can be disregarded: “Bridge Of Spies goes so far as to [say] that the protections of the Constitution and its amendments are the only things that define Americans as a group; otherwise, they have basically nothing in common” (Vishnevetsky). Mr. Donovan makes the point that everyone must abide by the law or else it loses meaning. If one person is exempted from the rulebook, then the law loses its meaning for all- there becomes no reason for it. Likewise, in the film Timbuktu (2014), the hypocrisy of the jihadists was that they ignore the rules they impose on others, thus making the rules have little value. Cutting to a medium close-up shot of a defeated Hoffman, and back to a smiling victorious Mr. Donovan, the latter gets up to leave, the scene cuts again to a long shot of the entire bar as he gathers his things. We are reminded how this is only a small victory on our hero’s larger battlefield. The bar is lined with a warmer tone, lights illuminating it throughout. The shot frames Hoffman at the bottom corner, slightly tinted with blue still – illustrating still how cold he is in contrast to the humane Mr. Donovan. A rise in tension through more rumbling thunder permeates the end conversation as the Agent inquires whether the CIA needs to “worry” about Mr. Donovan. Replying that he just needs to be left alone to do his job – another reminder of his undeniable duty to his client, career, and country – the scene cuts to a long shot overlooking the bar from the otherside. The camera is positioned a bit higher, and as Mr. Donovan walks by (supposedly out the door), the camera shifts focus to the lonely Agent Hoffman. Spotlighted, alone, with blue tinted walls behind him, he is a distant figure to us. Just as Stasi Agent Wiesler in Lives of Others (2006) is depicted as a gray distant shadow, Agent Hoffman bears the same likeness. He is powerless in the proceedings of Abel’s life, only a spectator trying to do the best for his country. In the same way too, he is faced with the realization that his enemy – this communist spy – is still human.

Through this short but powerful scene, the themes of equality and “everyone matters” are established and developed into the course of the film. As per the Constitution that Mr. Donovan refers to, all are equally granted the right to human rights.This idea permeates the entire film as we are reminded that Abel, Powers, and Pryor (the other man Mr. Donovan negotiated the release of) are all human – all equally worth the time and energy to get them home. Even though Mr. Donovan does not know the two American men, he still fights for their release as if they were his brothers. In doing so, Mr. Donovan “stands exclusively for American legal idealism: on U.S. soil everyone, including a Soviet spy, deserves the protections guaranteed in the Constitution” (Sragow).

In a political contextualization, the film is a propaganda on American nationalism and ideals. As previously mentioned, the film focuses on the perspective that although both sides are corrupted – “little duty is paid to the law by the men who are supposed to uphold it” – Americans and the United States are still portrayed as the “hero” (Bullock). Despite being based on facts, the film is a propaganda meant to show how an American should act and uphold their duty to their country, how the American people were the victims to the impending threat of an atomic bomb, and how the United States is a beacon of righteousness in the world. Despite the manipulations of governments on both sides, Mr. Donovan stuck to his morals, discipline, and sense of duty and did not waver to their demands – a true American martyr. Additionally, the Soviets are depicted as manipulative and inhumane – torturing Powers with lack of sleep – while Abel is kept in a comfortable cell, sometimes even allowed to paint and listen to music. Thus, the film effectively gives viewers a reason as to why the American people have the right to be afraid, meanwhile emphasizing that not every enemy is a terrible human-being. Though it pushes this political perspective, the film does not diminish the impact of the established theme, rather giving more meaning to it as we inadvertently begin to empathize with Rudolf Abel.

Some cultural values of this historical time are also evident in the film. There are a few women in the film, though they all play minor roles – mostly as maids, wives, or part of the working-class in East Germany. The main female of the film is undoubtedly Mr. Donovan’s wife, who disapproves of his commitment to the case. She is unsuccessful in deterring her husband from his decision, and during the entirety of the film, she exemplifies the “proper” wife of the time, by staying home to tend to the house and kids:
The family is as picture-perfect and plastic as a 1950s sitcom… with Amy Ryan dolled up as Mrs. Donovan in Donna Reed-style pearls, heels and a Pepsodent smile. Like the silhouetted dark figures that loom throughout, reverberating with intrigue and film-noir dread, Donovan’s wife and children don’t so much register as distinct individuals but as manifestations of an America that seems more and more unreal the closer Donovan gets to yet another double, East Berlin, with its haunted faces and streets (Dargis).

Clearly female equality was not held to the same standard it is today as women have little impact to the storyline in Bridge of Spies. The role Mr. Donovan’s wife plays might be seen as commentary on how unreal and misogynistic this American ideal is – the perfect facade that hides the true nature of a fearful, corrupt, and destructive America. In reference to a repeated scene in the first half and at the end of the film while on public transport, Mr. Donovan is met with scorn and disdain – the public quick to judge and punish an enemy sympathizer – while his return on the same train is now met with smiles. Though they smile at him as a hero, we are reminded how suspiciously everyone stared, and thus how those smiles are merely a facade disguising the inner fear that makes the public turn on their fellow neighbors. From his experience, Mr. Donovan now understands this and viewers see a development of character in his melancholy attitude at the end of the film as he stares out the window, watching kids jump over backyard fences – calling back to the scene of East Berliners shot down while trying to escape over the Wall.

To conclude, Bridge of Spies is an intimate film that puts perspective on American cultural and political ideals, questioning the American justice system just as it questions the state of nationalism we possess. Exemplifying the need for equal rights for all, the chosen scene considers what truly defines Americans – past, present and future, as this issue is still a current topic of debate regarding issues like racism, foreign policy, and anchor-babies. A historical based time-capsule, this film still holds relevancy and modern significance as it reminds us that despite our differences, we are all still human.

Works Cited
Bullock, Paul. “Standing Men and Soviet Spies: Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.”03 Mar. 2017,
Burridge, James, and John Kavanagh. “Intelligence in Public Media.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 25 July 2016,
Dargis, Manohla. “Review: In ‘Bridge of Spies,’ Spielberg Considers the Cold War.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Oct. 2015,
Kettler, Sara. “Cold War Intrigue: The True Story of ‘Bridge of Spies’.”, A&E Networks Television, 15 Oct. 2015,
Shimmin, Graeme. “Bridge of Spies: Movie Review -.”, 3 Dec. 2015,
Spielberg, Steven, et al. Bridge of Spies. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2015.
Sragow, Michael. “Deep Focus: Bridge of Spies.” Film Comment, 14 Oct. 2015,
Vishnevetsky, Ignatiy. “A Man with a Cough: Bridge Of Spies and Politics.”, 26 Feb. 2016,

About this entry