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Bridge Of Spies

A beautiful documentary perfect for the History channel, but deficient in terms of story.

Structure: 2/5 | Entertainment: 2/5

When confronted with a film that plods on and on with little to no emotional investment, you can account most of that to an incomplete storyform. The major structural pieces may be in place, but upon closer examination the narrative breaks down and leaves one wanting more.

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is no tale as the four major Throughlines lock into place fairly early. James Donovan (Tom Hanks) provides the Main Character Throughline wherein we experience what it feels like to be the one man in a unique position to prevent nuclear annihilation. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) offers us the cynical numbed-out alternative perspective to Donovan’s optimism with his Influence Character Throughline. And the two develop an unlikely friendship out of what began as a simple business transaction within the Relationship Throughline.

The remaining Overall Story Throughline is a forgone conclusion in this case: the US and the Soviet Union posture back and forth on the brink of nuclear war. Here the narrative shines, employing the genre of Information to clue us in on what actually happened back then.1 Devoid of much emotion (save for the few scenes between Donovan and Able), the film plays out in large part as a very pretty documentary. Once we engage with Powers and his U2 mission over enemy territory, the relationship between the two falls away. When we catch up with Abel again we find ourselves surprised—as if we had completely forgotten that there was a hint of a story here.

This is a very light storyform. The Domains are there (Situation for Main Character, Activities for the Overall Story, Fixed Attitude for the Influence Character, and Psychology for the Relationship Story) and so are the Concerns (How Things are Changing for the MC, Doing for the OS, Impulsive Responses (or lack thereof) for the IC, and Playing a Role for the Relationship Story), but dig any deeper and the storyform grows murkier. As a result, the repeatability of the film comes into question. Fully developed storyforms demand additional viewings. Anything less can be viewed once, enjoyed, and acclaimed—but is less often chosen for a second screening.

The cinematography is gorgeous, the narrative direction is masterful, and Rylance’s performance is both subtle and captivating. The story—while functional—could have been more. Abel’s decision to support Donovan on the bridge is the right event for a narrative with a Steadfast Main Character and a Changed Influence Character, but it arrives without the necessary steps in-between. Bridge of Spies is an excellent History channel documentary wrapped within the guise of a fully complete story. Taking the time to fully explore each Throughline from top to bottom would have gone a long way towards creating a great and lasting emotional impact.

Note: My thanks to author Sebastien de Castell for challenging my original assertion that Bridge of Spies was simply a tale, and not a story. He is correct, the major pieces for a storyform are there—they simply could have used greater development.


  1. The Dramatica theory of story sees four different Genres, or areas of conflict: Entertainment, Comedy, Drama, and Information. Successful stories flow from one area to the next within a narrative and vary between the different Throughlines. ↩︎

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