The Words on the Page

Bridge of Spies

May 2, 2017

Bridge of Spies

Written by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Final Shooting Script - December 2014

Drama, 109 Pages

 

"What's the next move when you don't know what the game is?" - Abel

 

Bridge of Spies by Charman and the Coen brothers is a compelling read. Taking place during the Cold War, it centers around an exchange of prisoners. From the beginning it is evident that its conclusion will hit that coveted mark of being both inevitable and surprising (and not just because it's "inspired by true events").

 

The story starts by following Abel, an accused Russian spy in the US. He's captured on page 3. Donovan, the protagonist, is introduced on 5. We, and he, discover that he'll be defending Abel on 9. On page 18 the B-story starts with the introduction of Powers, a pilot who will ultimately be captured by the Russians and exchanged for Abel. The two stories don't come together until page 53 (the midpoint), but on page 37, at what I would consider to be the end of a lengthy Act 1, Donovan encourages the Judge on Abel's case to keep Abel alive as "It's possible that in the foreseeable future an American of equal rank might be captured by Soviet Russia. We might want to have someone to trade." Right there, we know what the rest of the movie will be about. We know exactly what is going to happen and, like hooked fish, cannot wait to see how it plays out. The set up is almost formulaic and yet works wonderfully.

 

Donovan becomes responsible for negotiating the exchange, but there's a complication. Another American, a student in the wrong place at the wrong time, is captured by the wall in Germany. Pryor isn't introduced until page 57. We don't spend a lot of time on his story, and we aren't that invested in him. The fact that Donovan won't make the exchange without securing both Powers and Pryor shows us the type of man he is. It's believable because it was set up on page 25 when, after being cornered by a CIA employee, Donovan takes a stand and refuses to bend the Constitution and rat on his client even if it is in the interest of national security. We know he is a man of integrity and that he will not cave to outside pressure.

 

While the plot, stories, and characters were all brilliant, I was equally intrigued by the way they were presented on the page. 

 

Normally a slug line includes three elements - whether it is interior or exterior, the physical location, and the time of day. This script used only locations. I believe this was a contribution of the Coen brothers as all of their scripts I have ever seen, including those from the 90s like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, use this truncated slug. It works in that it is very visual, and I feel trusted as a reader. If you tell me "Motel Room" and then present me with a conversation of two people talking, I can easily surmise that we're inside. Although the time of day and passage of time weren't clearly spelled out, I didn't have any difficulty following the story.

 

The place I got a little confused is that Charman and the Coen brothers often skipped over the opening action line of spelling out exactly who is on screen. For example, we meet Donovan's on page 11. The opening action:

 

"The family is at the dinner table. Mary exits from the kitchen with plates of food."

 

Who exactly is the family? Donovan starts talking, so he's there, and Mary is likely his wife. Soon Carol walks in, a daughter, and then Roger speaks on page 12. I thought it was a family of four until Peggy suddenly reached for a dinner roll on 13. While there was something interesting in meeting the family one by one, I think I would have liked knowing who all was there from the get go as that would better match what an audience would see. Additionally, page 45 has a line that reads:

 

"Donovan walks back into the now-quiet living room, where a shell-shocked Mary, Carol and Becky lie together on the sofa."

 

As the family members were never clearly established, I can't quite be sure that Becky was a typo for Peggy and not a sixth member of the family.

 

The bottom line is that the script excels in showing and not telling. As a reader I am left to make my own determinations - how old I think the kids are, picturing the time of day, etc - and therefore become an active participant in the story creation. I become more invested. 

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Writing for film, television, and the stage is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult - and most rewarding - art forms. The language needs to be visual and evocative as each script must achieve two important tasks...
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