Review – Strangers on a Bridge by James Donovan vs Bridge of Spies (film)

After hearing about the new Tom Hanks novel – Bridge of Spies – I was very interested in watching the movie. After learning that there was a book written by James Donovan – the central character played by Tom Hanks – based on his diaries kept at the time, I was also interested to see what the similarities and differences were between the two versions.

Strangers on a Bridge (the book) takes the form of Donovan’s diary entries, as he was corralled into defending the alleged Soviet spy Colonel Rudolf Abel. It follows the extensive courtroom dramas which unfolded, and follows his journey up to and including the Supreme Court arguments. What unfolds between Donovan and Abel is a grudging respect that turns into a cautious friendship. Donovan was formerly involved in the OSS during the Second World War, and also took part in the Nuremberg trials. This was in part the basis of their connection which went beyond the lawyer-client relationship.

The courtroom, and legal battles comprise approximately 80% of the book, and is followed by a much shorter, and less intricately detailed (allegedly for security reasons) description of how the exchange of prisoners between Russia, East Germany and America took place.

I will admit that in watching the movie, I felt that there was not a good balance between the two ‘halves’ of the story, but I can see how much of the legal wranglings which work in book form would probably be death on screen. I felt that much of the performance of Mark Rylance as Colonel Abel rang true for me, but the relationship between Abel and Donovan was completely ignored in the film. Unfortunately, most of his lines seemed to boil down to asking “would it help?” in response to any question asked of him by Hanks. According to the book, he was deeply interested and involved in the preparation of his defence, and was no passive actor.

I felt as though it was played up as Hanks being the ra-ra ‘Murica angle, and red blue and white-washed a lot of the humanity of the story. I really got sick of the ‘clever’ transitions between actions occurring in one location, and similar but contrasting action taking place in another. It was neat the first time, but got old very quickly.

Rylance’s performance was definitely the most outstanding of the actors, although Hanks’ wife, played by Amy Ryan was very well characterised. I note that the book makes only infrequent mentions of his relationship with his wife, but it seemed to be accurate from what I can tell.

There is something about Tom Hanks that has started to annoy me. There was a certain Sleepless in Seattle feel about his performance, that leant a certain air of incompetence. I’m just not sure I bought it.

I much preferred the book, although the diary style of it could be a bit jarring, and might have worked better as woven into a narrative. However, it did serve to pinpoint the time periods over which the events took place. I would rate the book 4 out of 5 stars.

The movie is an overdramatised, overhyped, mostly-accurate version of the events, by comparison to the events as described in the book. Only the performance of Mark Rylance stands out in a mostly-mediocre cast. At best a 2 out of 5. I wouldn’t bother seeing it in theatres.

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