Script Notes: 3 Things Wrong with Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies was one of those films that breezed right past me this last Oscar season. A couple of years ago if this had come out, I would have been first in line on opening day. Tom Hanks is a god among men, and my favorite films are historically based. The Cold War, in particular, is a period in history that has always captured my imagination. The drama writes itself.

But there was something that kept me from racing to the cinema and seeing this film. I think it had to do with how “dated” the Oscar films have felt of late. I addressed this in detail in my entry about Spotlight, but to quickly sum up: filmmakers are playing it safe with their craft these days. And the voters in the Academy are picking the same cookie-cutter, formulaic films to represent the best films of the year.

I usually eat this up and crave the uniform sameness, but after Spotlight, I just want to be challenged and shown something new and innovative. My vote was for The Big Short. This film took one of the dullest subjects and turned it into a poignant, funny, and heartbreaking film that also made the whole subject understandable without being condescending. A sheer triumph.

But the Academy didn’t ask me to weigh in, so in light of that, I chose Bridge of Spies, one of the most conventional films featured in the 2016 Oscars, to analyze and study.

Before I go any further, at this point in my writing, I have not yet seen the film. At the end, I will reflect on the film itself, but this blog reflects the book Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell and the script by Joel and Ethan Coen with Matt Charman.

* * * * *

If you have not seen the film, beware, because there are spoilers. This blog is to help identify the structure of existing and produced screenplays so we, as writers and filmmakers, can study and observe.

Today, I will discuss the following things “wrong” with the Bridge of Spies screenplay:

  • Taking historical liberties with the story
  • Leaving too little space and time for the B story line
  • Revealing action before it happens

To follow along with reading, click here to find the script and here to find the book.

1) Taking historical liberties with the story. There are dozens upon dozens of films that take certain liberties to create more action or more drama on the screen. How else can you captivate an audience about a moment in history? Take Lincoln for example, Steven Spielberg’s film prior to Bridge of Spies. I equate that film with watching 2.5 hours of historical C-Span. So, for something like Bridge of Spies, I can understand why the Coen Brothers and Charman wanted to create strife, drama, and angst.

At the beginning of the script, it clearly states, “Inspired by True Events.” This little phrase gives liberty to writers to embellish the “events” more than if the script were “Based on Actual Events.”

However, using “Inspired by…,” implies there is more fiction than history on the page. True Hero Studio released an article detailing the differences between the two and they state this for the “inspired” stories:

An example of a real life figure who has provided inspiration for multiple well known films is serial killer Ed Gein, who performed his murders in 1950s Wisconsin. The figure of Gein inspired, to greater or lesser degrees, such varied figures of horror as Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Norman Bates (Psycho), and Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs). […] 

When a film is “based on” actual events, the balance between fact and fiction is shifted in the other direction. In many cases, the names of people and places are retained. Unlike in documentary filmmaking, where some degree of accuracy is usually expected, in a story based on reality, liberties will generally be taken with details: several minor or tangential figures pressed into an amalgamation, passage of time being compressed or extended, and so on. Nonetheless, the core elements, such as the events, the themes, and the main personae, serve as representations of themselves.

It’s fair to say the events in Bridge of Spies have more accuracy than the degrees of separation between Gein and Norman Bates. So that begs the question, why take these events in history and set them up as fiction? From my understanding of comparing the book and the script, there is more historical truth than the word “inspired” implies for this film.

Writers need to understand the correct terms to set up a reader in the correct universe and not bait and switch them. Seeing “inspired” tells me that everything I have read in the script or will see on the screen is more fiction than not.

2) Short-changing the B story line. The basic story of Bridge of Spies follows the prisoner exchange of a Soviet spy caught in New York named Rudolf Abel and Frank Powers, an American U-2 pilot shot down over Russia and captured. Also thrown into the fray was an American student named Frederic Pryor, taken into East German custody for suspicion of spying. The plot follows James Donovan, a celebrated American lawyer, setting up an exchange between the hostile governments: two Americans for the one Soviet.

“Two, two, two.”

In the book by Whittell, he spends a lot of time focusing on Powers and Pryor. He sets them up as humans rather than pawns the Coen Brothers and Charman did in the script. While reading the book, I actually thought Whittell spent too much time developing and writing about Powers, but now seeing how little screen time Powers gets on the script pages, I wish I knew more.

Film Society of Lincoln Center steven spielberg nyff new york film festival nyff 2015

In the historical context, Powers being shot down on May 1, 1960 was a major event. President Eisenhower had promised the Russian government to stand down all spy planes after May 1 to prepare for the Paris summit two weeks later. But since there was a grey area with what could occur on May 1, the mission went through, and Russia was prepared to take down any unauthorized “UFO.” Thanks to this event, the Cold War continued on and Russia had more reason to distrust the U.S.

So my question is this: why not include this in the Bridge of Spies story? That seems pretty important to the whole event. It raises the political stakes and makes the importance of retrieving Powers all the more paramount. In the script, most of the Powers story line is swept over in casual dialogue. He is not humanized but instead portrayed as a pawn and even un-American.

At the end, when Donovan sits on the plane with Powers, we are told just how unimportant he is by the U.S.

I gave them nothing.
I gave them nothing.

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter
what people think. You know what you did.

Donovan is implying that Powers should have killed himself before being captured by the Russians. But based on the script alone, I don’t sense that urgency. Showing us the U.S. discussions with Eisenhower and the importance of May 1 would have put the dire circumstances in a more clear light.

In regards to the other American, it isn’t until page 58 that we are even introduced to Frederic Pryor. In a historical context, Pryor was instrumental to the prisoner exchange happening. And in the script, Pryor is talked about quite a bit. However, he is rarely seen. The importance of his story and the context of his arrest are more or less an after thought. For example, historically, he was tailed and watched for weeks before his arrest unlike the film portrays with him being arrest the day the bricks were laid. Why? That sounds a lot more intriguing and dramatic rather than a “wrong place, wrong time” cop out.

And if the writers are going to short-change that whole story line in addition to slapping “inspired by” at the beginning of the film, why not take even more liberties and write him out completely, dedicating more screen time and development to the Powers/Abel angle where the writers obviously wanted to be.

3) Revealing the action before it happens. On page 47 of the script, there is a juxtaposition of Powers suiting up for his infamous U-2 flight and Donovan appealing Abel’s case to the Supreme Court. By choosing this way of unfolding the story, the writers are baby-feeding me the narrative. It’s a spotlight on each event, telling me that these moments are important and will come together.

As I read, I looked at the page in disbelief. The writers don’t give the viewers credit for understanding that these moments in history are related. I would have much preferred to watch the moments independently and then watch them converge down the line. Shuffling them like a deck of cards shows me the filmmakers are constricted in running time.

A suited-up Powers climbs into a jeep with Murphy and a driver.
As Donovan walks up the white marble steps.
Pulling up to the U-2 on the airstrip with Powers. The U-2, mechanics finishing their work in service.
Entering Supreme Court chamber.
Suited up, being fitted with a parachute by Murphy.
Deafening quiet. Donovan stands at the bench before the justices.

On page 53 of the script, Donovan carries on a conversation with Dulles, where Dulles says,

They’ve got our guy, our spy pilot, we’ve got their guy.

He hands the letter to agent Hoffman.

A prisoner exchange. I think that’s what they’re after.
Which could hardly be a surprise to you,
counselor: it’s an eventuality that I think you foresaw.

Why not have the scenes play out in order? Show the Abel getting turned down by the Supreme Court in March 28, 1960, then show Powers going down May 1? That’s drama you don’t have to make up. Why over-dramatize a history that needs no cinematic drama? As it is, it looks set up by Hollywood.

As I read the book by Whittell, I will admit I found myself bored with the level of minute detail and monotonous descriptions. But after reading the script, I certainly am glad I have a better context in the historical events. I believe I would have been left wanting if I had gone straight to the film.

Two and a half hours later…

Now, I have watched the film and have a final thought on the production. That same sequence that I mention above with the shuffled deck effect had me thinking about the Powers story line differently. Donovan’s speech to the Supreme Court says Abel is not a coward. Donovan details how Abel has been a stand up citizen; a Russian citizen, but an honorable one.

We watch this speech as Powers fights to detonate his aircraft but fail. Is this speech not only a tool to speed up the running time but also to give the filmmakers’ opinion on Powers’ cowardice in not killing himself for God and country? I find the opinions of Powers survival confusing. Is Powers seen as a hero or a coward? How is he perceived by the American/Russian public? For a film so long and in depth, the filmmakers missed out on portraying some really incredible events in how the Cold War occurred.


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