One of the hallmarks of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich, a dramatization of the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympic games, was that it examined the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a nonpartisan way. He takes the same approach in his new film, Bridge of Spies, which dramatizes the true story of James B. Donovan, a Brooklyn-based insurance lawyer who, at the height of the Cold War, found himself negotiating a prisoner transfer as the Americans, the Soviets, and the East Germans embroil themselves in a power play.
It would have been all too easy for Spielberg to take sides, to make his film an idealized ode to all-American values. But he wisely avoids that angle of approach; in true patriotic fashion, he understands that you can love your country without loving everything it does.
Viewed at a distance, the opening scenes are rather languid; the camera makes slow, steady movements, not much action takes place, few characters are introduced, and very little dialogue is spoken. But if you pay close attention, you’ll understand that the opening scenes are a triumph of tone, pacing, and even historical significance. In those quiet moments, Spielberg expertly exposes the American 1950s that existed behind the façades of economic prosperity and sanitized film and television – the America that feared nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviets, that demonized communists and their sympathizers. The opening might seem low key, but is in fact tautly wound, in great part because, in the spirit of Hitchcock, Spielberg is very selective about what he has the camera focus on.
In the film, Donovan, played with tremendous skill by Tom Hanks, is recruited to represent Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a skilled artist. To be more precise, he’s recruited to give the public the impression that Abel will be tried with fair representation; in reality, the American legal system, in conjunction with the government, found Abel guilty before the trial ever started and had every intention of convicting him and pursuing the death penalty. This rubs Donovan the wrong way. He doesn’t believe in witch hunts. He does believe in due process, which is guaranteed in the Constitution. It’s not that he agrees with Abel politically. It’s simply that he sees Abel first and foremost as a human being, and as such, he’s entitled to the same rights afforded to other alleged criminals.
Needless to say, Donovan’s efforts to genuinely defend Abel aren’t met with much public acclaim. He’s even berated by one of the very police officers sent to investigate those responsible for shooting up his living room and nearly killing his teenage daughter. But Donovan isn’t deterred. And naturally, he sees the situation clearer than anyone else; it would be wiser, he argues, to keep Abel alive and used as leverage in the event that an American is captured by the Soviets. So it comes to pass that American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who was recruited by the CIA to survey the Soviet Union in a supposedly undetectable U-2 spy plane, is shot out of the sky and, upon opening his parachute and landing safely, is arrested, held prisoner, and repeatedly interrogated by Soviets.
It’s now Donovan’s task to travel to East Germany and somehow negotiate swapping one political prisoner for another. But then he catches wind of Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American college student studying Soviet economics abroad; he, too, has been arrested on suspicion of being a spy. Despite the fierce objections of all three countries involved, Donovan has set his mind to including Pryor in the prisoner exchange. As for the exchange itself, I don’t see the need to get specific, even though the outcome is a matter of historical record and easy to look up. What I will say is that the location of the exchange – the Glienicke Bridge, which really did come to be known as the Bridge of Spies – served as the set piece for Spielberg’s dramatic reenactment.
Bridge of Spies is by no means anti-American. If anything, Donovan is developed as a Capraesque figure – an idealistic, persistent, unselfish, all-around decent person who champions fairness and doing the right thing. However, this doesn’t mean that critical observations of American political tactics are avoided. Essentially, Spielberg and screenwriters Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers are telling us that, in matters of social and political sovereignty in times of war, we’re no better and no worse than most other countries. We will be underhanded. We will bend the rules. We will mislead. And herein lies why this movie is not only immensely entertaining but also very important: By not being given a side to take, we’re asked to take all sides. This is, I believe and would argue, the highest form of patriotism.