Bridge of Spies (2015) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • During the Cold War, an American lawyer is recruited to defend an arrested Soviet spy in court, and then help the CIA facilitate an exchange of the spy for the Soviet captured American U2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers.

  • In the cold war, a lawyer, James B. Donovan is recruited by the CIA and involved in an intense negotiation mission to release and exchange a CIA U-2 spy-plane pilot, Francis G. Powers. The pilot was arrested alive after his plane was shot down by the Soviet Union during a mission and stays in the company of a KGB intelligence officer, Rudolf Abel, who was arrested for espionage in the US.

  • In 1957, lawyer James B. Donovan is recruited from his prestigious law firm to defend accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. It's an unenviable task in many respects. Donovan hasn't practiced criminal law since he was a prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials after World War II. Also, the strong anti-Communist mood at the time makes him a target from who think Abel should just be executed. Abel is convicted but Donovan convinces the judge to sentence him to prison, rather than execute him, as they may at some point in the future want to swap him for an American spy the Soviets might have in custody. Just such a scenario comes into play when in 1960 U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Soviet territory and taken prisoner. Donovan is again recruited to act as the intermediary and negotiate swapping Able for the American requiring him to travel to East Berlin crossing the newly built Berlin Wall.

  • After Abel, the Russian spy is caught, the US wants to make sure he gets a fair trial so they need someone to defend him. And the man who gets the dubious honor is Jim Donovan who tries to give him a good defense but the government seems intent on making sure he gets convicted. And when Abel is found guilty, Donovan pleads for Abel not to be executed because who knows they might need him as a bargaining chip if an American is captured by the Russians. And when U2 pilot Gary Powers is captured, someone from East Germany sends Donovan a letter claiming to be able to broker an exchange; Powers for Abel. When the CIA learns of this, they want Donovan to go there and broker the deal. He agrees. But when he arrives he is informed that another American is being held by the Germans and he could be the one that's being offered for Abel. But the CIA tells Donovan Powers is the priority. Donovan tries to get both men.

  • A European man living in the US, Rudolph Abel, is arrested as a Russian spy. An American lawyer, James Donovan, takes on his case but, faced with overwhelming evidence and a biased judge, loses the case. Abel is sentenced to 30 years in jail and Donovan's Supreme Court appeal fails. Just then Francis Gary Powers, the "U-2 Spy", is shot down over Russia and captured. Now Donovan becomes the negotiator in a potential prisoner swap.

  • In 1957, during the Cold War, the insurance lawyer James B. Donovan is assigned by the Bar association to defend in court the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who was captured by the FBI. Donovan is successful and Rudolf is sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death penalty. Meanwhile the American pilot and spy Francis Gary Powers is arrested by the Soviet government while taking photos from a spy plane that crashed. The CIA summons Donovan to help in the negotiation to exchange the two spies. When Donovan learns that the American student Frederic Pryor was arrested in the border of East Berlin while trying to bring his German girlfriend to the West Berlin, he decides to include the student in the negotiation. However his proposal is not supported by the CIA that is interested in Powers only. Further, Powers is prisoner of the soviet government and Pryor is prisoner of the GDR (German Democratic Republic). Will Donovan succeed in his intent?

  • In 1957 New York City, Rudolf Abel is arrested and charged with spying for the Soviet Union. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan is prevailed upon to take on the unenviable task of defending Abel, so that Abel's trial will be seen as fair. Committed to the principle that the accused deserves a vigorous defense, he mounts the best defense of Abel he can, declining along the way to cooperate in the CIA's attempts to induce him to violate the confidentiality of his communications with his client..


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Set in 1957, at the height of the Cold War, both the United States and Soviet Union employed spies against each other out of fear regarding the nuclear capabilities of one another.

    In Brooklyn, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is painting a self-portrait. He receives a phone call. He never speaks but only listens to what he hears. Abel leaves his apartment and walks around the city, unaware of a man, Agent Blasco (Domenick Lombardozzi) stepping out of a cab to follow him. Blasco follows Abel through the subway station where he is joined by Agent Gamber (Victor Verhaeghe). Abel ends up at a park where he sits on a bench to paint. He recovers a coin under a bench. He returns to his apartment and uses a razor to split the coin open, where he finds that it contains a piece of paper. Soon, Blasco and Gamber, joined by other FBI agents, storm into Abel's home and arrest him for espionage.

    We meet lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) in his workplace discussing a client with his co-worker. He is brought into the office of his associate Thomas Watters Jr (Alan Alda) to discuss the case of Abel. Donovan is given the report on Abel's case, and Donovan knows what kind of reputation he would gain for defending a suspected spy.

    Donovan has dinner with his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) and kids Carol (Eve Hewson), Roger (Noah Schnapp) and Peggy (Jillian Lebling). Carol is upset because her date stood her up. Donovan tells his family about the case, just as his other co-worker Doug Forrester (Billy Magnussen) enters with documents involving the case.

    In a motel room, pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is undergoing a lie detector test. Later, he and a group of fellow pilots are brought into a room where they are told their mission - they are to become spies for the CIA to detect any nuclear activity occurring in the Soviet Union.

    Donovan meets with Abel in prison. Abel never admits to any wrongdoing and doesn't want to fully cooperate with the United States government.

    On a rainy night, Donovan is followed by CIA Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd). The two sit together at a bar where Hoffman tries to get Donovan to tell him what Abel is telling Donovan, for the sake of the country, though Donovan refuses to say anything.

    The pilots are brought into the Peshawar Air Station to see the U-2 planes that they will use in their mission, complete with cameras and the like.

    Roger's class watches a video on the dangers of nuclear warfare and the precautions that ought to be taken in the event of a catastrophe. He then sets up his own "duck and cover" station at home, worrying his father.

    Abel's trial begins, and nobody is on Donovan's side. The people in court think Abel deserves the death penalty for his supposed crimes, and nobody thinks Donovan can get Abel acquitted. On the train, everyone that Donovan sees is reading unkind headlines for his case, and one woman on the train looks at him scornfully. To make things worse, someone shoots at the Donovan home one evening, harming no one, but also not earning any sympathy for the family as most of the country thinks Donovan is a traitor.

    By the end of the trial, Abel is found guilty on all charges, but Donovan convinces the judge to give him a 30 year prison sentence instead of the death penalty.

    Powers and his comrades undergo their mission over the USSR. His plane suddenly takes a hit as it's shot down by a ground-to-air missile. He goes down but manages to eject himself from the plane and sail down on his parachute. Powers is later captured and held by the Soviet Union.

    In West Germany, American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) rides his bike by the construction site of the Berlin Wall, to meet his girlfriend Katje (Nadja Bobyleva). Pryor is confronted by East German Stasi agents who find him suspicious. He shows off his books to prove he is a student, but he is subsequently arrested.

    With both American men in detainment, an exchange is planned between the U.S. and USSR to trade Abel for Powers. However, Donovan thinks they should get Pryor back as well. The CIA only wants Powers back, but Donovan plans to make a negotiation regardless. He travels to East Germany to meet with Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), a German lawyer who can broker a deal. Donovan meets three people posing as Abel's family before meeting Vogel. Donovan sees through the ruse, however.

    During his time in East Germany, Donovan is forced to stay in a cold and crummy hotel room. As he passes by the wall on the train, he sees several East Germans trying to climb over the wall to escape, but they are shot down by guards. The sight of this horrifies Donovan.

    The East German government refuses to give up Pryor after learning that the USSR was involved in the negotiation. While the CIA thinks they should leave Pryor, Donovan makes a bold move by threatening the East German government. If Pryor is not released to them, the whole deal is off, and Abel would be interrogated, leaving bad blood between Germany and the USSR.

    The men on both sides meet on the Glienicke Bridge. Powers's buddy Joe Murphy (Jesse Plemons) is brought over to confirm that it is definitely Powers on the other side. Meanwhile at Checkpoint Charlie, Pryor is brought over. After he is confirmed, the exchange is made, and Abel crosses over to the other side, but not before letting Donovan know that he left him a gift. The two men share one final look before departing the bridge. On the plane ride, Powers tells Donovan that he never told his captors anything, to which Donovan states that none of it matters anymore. He then opens the gift from Abel, which is a painting of Donovan himself.

    Donovan returns home to his family. The kids see the news story on the exchange and are shocked to hear their dad's name mentioned, thinking he was away on a fishing trip. Mary then walks into the bedroom to find her husband lying there, resting comfortably at last.

    Donovan rides the train where he sees people are now reading positive headlines. The lady who stared at him earlier now looks at him with a smile. As he looks out the window, he sees children climbing over a fence, reminding him of what he saw in Germany.

    The ending text states that Rudolf Abel returned home and was never acknowledged as a spy. Francis Gary Powers died when his plane crashed in 1977. Frederic Pryor went on to become a professor at Swarthmore College. James B. Donovan was asked by President Kennedy to negotiate the release of 1,000 Cuban exile prisoners from Cuba after the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. He would eventually get over 9,000 men, women, and children released.

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