Period smoking in “Bridge of Spies”

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Mark Ryland in “Bridge of Spies,” playing Soviet agent Rudolf Abel. Abel died of lung cancer in his 60s.

I wrote a few weeks ago how there was virtually no smoking whatsoever in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” which is set in 1963, an era in which the majority of males smoked.

“Bridge of Spies,” also a period piece taking place from 1957 to 1961,  is a PG-13 rated film. In watching it this week, I noticed it did have smoking in it, though it wasn’t what I would call “pervasive” smoking. Was it more than necessary? Yeah, maybe.

Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and head of the CIA Allen Dulles are both depicted in the movie smoking. Abel, while he is in prison, asks for and receives a pack of cigarettes from his attorney, played by Tom Hanks. What is interesting about one scene between Hanks and Ryland, Ryland holds a cigarette the whole time, but never actually takes a smoke. He holds a burning cigarette and flicks ashes, but doesn’t actually smoke it.

Meanwhile Dulles spends a short scene smoking a pipe. (I think some KGB guy might have smoked in the movie, too. I can’t remember.)

bridge of spies smoking with inset
Mark Ryland, left, the real Rudolf Abel (inset).

The thing is, historically, both Abel and Dulles were smokers. In fact, the actor playing Abel (Mark Rylance, he won the award for Best Supporting Actor) actually did a remarkable job of mimicking exactly how Abel held his cigarette. Check out the photo I posted from the film, with the inset of the real Rudolph Abel. Dulles was also well-known for always smoking a pipe.

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Allen Dulles in “Bridge of Spies,” at left, and in real life, at right.

Did seeing smoking in a PG-13 film bother me? A bit, I guess, but I have to concede that the movie was trying to be historically accurate, and in order to be historically accurate, it would be a bit awkward to have no smoking in the early 1960s. I give Steven Spielberg credit for not going overboard with the depictions of smoking. The truth of it is, in 1960, the majority of males did smoke. That’s a fact, and it’s certainly historically accurate to show people in that era smoking. I certainly didn’t think the smoking in the movie was what I would call “pervasive.” And the MPAA has loopholes for the R rating if smoking is shown in a historically accurate way and if it is not, in the MPAA’s words, “pervasive.” There’s also two “fucks” in “Bridge of Spies.” Like smoking, the F-bomb, as long as you’re not describing the sex act (A really silly rule, I know), will not trigger an R rating if it not “pervasive.”

Do I think it would have lessened the film if Spielberg had eliminated the smoking? Not really. People might have pointed out the inaccuracy of showing Dulles without a pipe. But, to be fair, despite, the PG-13 rating, it was a very adult film, slow, talky, no explosions or CGI and was definitely not marketed to teens.

Anyway, I was really struck how this movie differed from “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” in how it treated smoking in the early 1960s.

As an aside, Rudolf Abel died of lung cancer in 1971 at the age of 68. Allen Dulles died of pneumonia at the age of 75.