When good writing meets good acting
It's often difficult to know if the script is genius, or if sublime acting is carrying it. But it's not hard to know when it's done right and in Bridge of Spies, there's evidence of the two working in perfect unison.
This is a bit of a departure from my speculative fiction base. Having shut down my old blog, I wanted this post to live here. We all love good writing, which is handy because Bridge of Spies has that in spades.
This screenplay was written by Matt Charman who became fascinated with Donovan's story after reading a footnote in An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. The Coen Brothers, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen revised Matt Charman's script. Of the revision, Charman said:
The flavor they brought is so fun and enjoyable. It needed to be entertaining but truthful.
Would it help?
There's a certain restraint that comes with writing scripts which audiences recognise, though can't always put our finger on. But there have been many, many times I've wished a character hadn't said something. Please, scriptwriter, trust me to make that connection without hammering it home. I don't need to hear one character profess their love for another if you write it well.
In Bridge of Spies, we see one sentence 'would it help?' is used three times throughout the movie. Usually, repeated sentences like this aren't a sign of good writing, as people are very quick to remember it being said before. Unless you're tying those moments together to make a point (time travel movies using this ad infinitum), it's a bit sloppy.
Not so in this movie. 'Would it help' takes on a different meaning in every scene. If you want to watch these - as, obviously, the acting is what sells every iteration of this sentence. There's a Youtube video below.
Here they are in order -
DONOVAN: Yeah, then do not talk to anyone else about your case. Inside of government or out. Except to me - to the extent that you trust me. I have a mandate to serve you. Nobody else does. Quite frankly, everybody else has an interest in sending you to the electric chair. ABEL: All right. DONOVAN: You don’t seem alarmed. ABEL: *Abel shrugs.* Would it help?
In the first scene, the two characters of Donovan and Abel have only just met. Donovan is a good man and a good lawyer, speaking to a traitor. Abel has a sense of resignation about him; he won't betray his cause and he knows he's likely going to be executed. Donovan is trying to get Abel to appreciate his situation - Abel is already well aware of his situation. When, in a last-ditch attempt to provoke a reaction, Donovan prompts 'you don't seem alarmed?' Abel replies 'would it help?'
Abel is - if not unconcerned with his fate - then at least resigned to it. It speaks a great deal to his character that he refuses to get worked up or upset. When he's asking 'would it help?' the question is both genuine and a way of shrugging off Donovan's concern. Would it help? The answer is no.
ABEL: Well...The boss isn’t always right but he’s always the boss. DONOVAN: Do you never worry? ABEL: *Abel shrugs.* Would it help?
In the second scene, Donovan and Abel are at the trial. It's not looking good for Abel and both characters know it. They're making casual conversation in a restrained way - both men are proud, determined and level-headed, so they're not going to descend into a shirt-rending, screaming match at the judge. This is their way of processing the bad news.
Again, we see the reoccurring disbelief in Donovan as he realizes that Abel is still unmoved from his cause. Abel has just learned that his Russain handlers are denying him not only has their spy but as a Russian citizen - despite all he's done for them. Donovan can't understand the passivity.
Here, Abel's 'Would it help?' is firmer than the first time. This isn't a question or a way of shrugging off Donovan's concern. Here, though it's phrased as a question, it's actually a statement. Abel is saying 'it wouldn't help to get upset'.
DONOVAN: But will they -- Rudolf -- is there not the possibility - ABEL: That my people are going to shoot me? DONOVAN: Well...yes. You’re not worried? ABEL: Would it help?
In the third and last scene, in the emotional climax of the movie, Donovan and Abel are walking towards the Russians in a covert spy swap. This should be a moment of success - at least if you're on the side of Abel - who's getting back to his people.
However, Donovan (and Abel) know there's a good chance Abel is going to be executed by his own people. It's unfair, unjust and from Donovan's point of view, he's handing over a lamb for slaughter. When Donovan confesses his worries and realises that Abel is already well aware, he asks 'you’re not worried?' The point being, of course, Donovan is worried, upset and doesn't want to lose what has bizarrely become something of a friend.
Abel's 'would it help?' here is one of the most resigned, but also one of the more powerful ones. You can tell he's worried, but true to form, his loyalty to his cause makes him immune to worry. Whether or not he will be executed is completely out of his control and so he gives himself up to the whims of his boss. At Donovan's laugh, you can tell that this mantra has become both funny and admirable.
Abel and Donovan
Perhaps the biggest reason why I love these exchanges is the relationship it demonstrates between Abel and Donovan. Donovan is an American lawyer who's fighting to see justice done. He doesn't agree with Abel, a traitor and spy, but he believes everyone is entitled to representation. The movie is shown through his point of view and you see his fights, his struggles and his passions. He is a very active character.
And what happens when you throw an active character up against a passive one? Abel is mostly shown sitting around, painting, reading, writing. He seems completely unconcerned at his trial, his possible execution and the betrayal by his Russian handlers. Like most fanatics, he seems indelibly committed to his cause and his unerring loyalty turns him into a pillar of surety - one that Donovan repeatedly collides with when he can't understand by Abel is so passive.
It makes the relationship fascinating to watch on screen. This is amazing writing and Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance sell it with their acting. Bridge of Spies is perhaps one of my favourite movies out there and well worth the watch if you're looking for examples of master character building.
If you want to skip through, the second 'would it help' starts at 1:35 and the last at 2:07.