DreamWorks/20th Ct. Fox/Participant (2015) 142 min. PG-13
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Matt Charman, Joel & Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski; Editing: Michael Kahn
Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Rena DeAngelo & Bernhard Henrich; Costumes: Kasia Walicka-Maimone; Score: Thomas Newman
Stars: Tom Hanks (James B. Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Sebastian Koch (Wolfgang Vogel), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Scott Shepherd (Hoffman), Dakin Matthews (Judge Byers), Billy Magnussen (Doug Forrester), Will Rogers (Frederic Pryor), Mikhail Gorevoy (Ivan Schischkin), Jesse Plemons (Joe Murphy)
At the height of the Cold War, insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is assigned the case of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy apprehended in the act of espionage. Though he’s pressured not to put together much of a defense, Donovan believes not to do so would be unethical. Arguing for imprisonment rather than execution, he convinces the feds Abel could be used as a bargaining chip with the USSR at some point in the future. Not long after, U-2 spy Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and another American, college student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) apprehended on the East German side of the Berlin Wall. Asked by his country to intercede on America’s behalf, Donovan attempts to negotiate an exchange of prisoners.
The case at the core of Bridge of Spies bears ramification on still pertinent issues concerning American civil liberties. As an accused Soviet spy Abel is not deemed entitled to the same privileges and protections granted other suspected criminals under the law and Donovan sees this violation of due process as an infraction of his client’s inalienable human rights. The way the case is presented, Bridge of Spies is using strained U.S. and Soviet relations during the Cold War to draw comparison with more current events, specifically federal policy in the wake of America’s War on Terror, in order to raise ethical concerns regarding jurisprudence.
With allusions to the government sanctioned violation of private citizens’ rights under the Patriot Act following 9/11 and the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, the movie slickly dovetails between our sense of past and present in its political allegory. We’re assured by anti-commie reactionaries for instance that the Reds will set their destructive sights on emblems of American freedom like the Empire State Building to undermine national morale, just as Al-Qaeda did the Twin Towers. So what Donovan’s final court summation is really asking, in its indirect way, is whether political prisoners today should be accorded the same rights in times of national crises as any other, or whether we should sit silently by and allow the writ of habeas corpus to be suspended for the duration, as Lincoln did in the Spielberg biography.
As presiding judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) opines “Justice has its first allegiance to the U.S. I don’t see how an alien, if he’s here illegally suffered deprivation of rights. Rights as what? An American?… This Russian spy came here to threaten our way of life.” As the director and screenwriters Matt Charman, Joel and Ethan Coen see it, and as given voice by their mouthpiece Donovan in the movie, such inhumane treatment of spies and double agents threatens everything America stands for. If we reduce ourselves to violating prisoners’ rights out of revenge or a sense of retribution, then we’re no better than the Soviets (and by extension ISIS and Al-Qaeda) who torture their hostages for information and execute them for show, and the country undeserving of being held up as a bastion of democratic enlightenment.
The pervading air of paranoia that served to see such accused Russian spies as the Rosenbergs executed for treason despite widespread public protest, serves to make Abel’s possible fate more palpable to us (“Espionage is a grave offense, capital crime.”). It gives us some semblance of Donovan’s uphill battle, as he seeks to differentiate his client from the Rosenbergs who were Americans selling atomic secrets to the Soviets, whereas Abel he argues, never became a naturalized citizen and therefore owes no allegiance to his adopted country. Indeed memories of the Rosenberg trial, still fresh at the time the movie is set, may have been what partly attracted Spielberg to this material, given that the couple’s Jewish heritage was used by conservative interests to manipulate public opinion against them, making them seem that much more alien and unchristian to the American mind.
With his long winded courtroom spiels, Spielberg is again taking to task the unbalanced scales of the judicial system as he did in Amistad and Lincoln, depicting it as just as corrupt and biased during the ‘50s Red Scare as that of Southern states prior to Civil Rights. Much like lawyer Gregory Peck, when he took an equally unpopular political stand by defending a black man accused of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird, Donovan is reviled for defending the Soviet spy, treated as a pariah by the very public and press whose fundamental rights he’s trying to uphold. His firm wants him to put on a show of mounting a solid defense, telling him “it’s important to our country that this man is seen as getting a fair shake. American justice will be on trial… It can’t look like our justice system tosses people on the ash heap.” Justice however proves anything but blind when the decision handed down is a foregone conclusion, Donovan being told “I salute you, we all salute you for taking on a thankless task. This man has to have due process. But let’s not kid each other. He’ll receive a capable defense and God willing, he’ll be convicted.”
When Donovan is perceived as trying too hard to do a capable job, he’s given the cold shoulder by his boss Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) who turns against him after having assigned Donovan the case, icing him out of the lawyer’s inner sanctum as Hanks previously was in Philadelphia. He becomes such a persona non grata taxis won’t even pick him up. Mordant humor is further mined during Donovan’s morning commute, as everyone around him sees the newspaper headline accompanied by his picture as the public defender, then stare him down with murder on their minds. Public response is so hostile “He should take some insurance out on himself.” He seems to have more to fear from the cops posted on guard duty than the unknown assailants who open fire on his house, especially after they take the opportunity to attack him themselves for having the gall to defend a commie.
Yet Donovan considers doing so to be his patriotic duty, same way the actor portraying him considered retrieving Private Ryan to be a matter of national pride. To the unimpeachably ethical Donovan, America herself is on display, her actions in these crucial hours dictating her longstanding perception on the world stage and in the court of public opinion (“Shouldn’t we, by giving him the full benefit of the rights that define our system of government show this man who we are?”). As he well realizes, America’s treatment of Abel will be used to determine if we can keep our wits about us, uphold the grand principles upon which the country was founded, even in times of uncertainty. Donovan wants to show the World that the American system is superior to the Russkies by giving their spy a fair trial under the same Constitution they’d just as soon annihilate.
When CIA agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd, who works up a great Mutt and Jeff routine with Hanks) warns there’s no rule book to play spy games by, he’s admonished “We call it the constitution and we agree to the rules. And that’s what makes us Americans. It’s all that makes us Americans, so don’t tell me there’s no rule book.” But for all his grand Gettysburg Addresses, at day’s end Donovan only manages to drum up support for his lost cause by engaging in “legal gamesmanship,” of a sort himself, the typical wheeling and dealing of his profession by advising the government to keep their captured spy on ice as a prospective bargaining chip. As he states, “It’s the kind of probability that people buy insurance for. If we send this guy to his death, we leave ourselves wide open. No policy in our back pocket for the day the storm comes.” This insurance lawyer wants Abel alive as insurance against a possible thermonuclear meltdown.
The continuity becomes jumbled at the midway point, following Abel’s sentencing, since we watch Donovan score his ethical victory in court without benefit of seeing him prepare for the big case beforehand, despite all the buildup. And from what we can tell he’s a one man defense team, aided and abetted by no one beyond an intern assistant. The direction down which we felt sure the movie was heading is peremptorily rerouted at this juncture in order to embark upon a whole other train of thought. Following the capture of Gary Powers, the U-2 fighter pilot the Soviets famously shot down over their air space, Bridge of Spies switches from court drama to a tale of comparative cultures, a ‘battle for civilization’ intended to endorse the superiority of the American way of life. Weighing the relative advantages of democracy, there’s even a Hilton on the Western side of the Berlin Wall that serves big American breakfasts worthy of the land of plenty.
The feds are fine dining while abandoned Donovan is experiencing how the other half lives in a bombed out hovel without heat, digs in such despair he can honestly claim the prison cell he’s confined to in the Eastern sector isn’t much worse by comparison. “Truly a battle is being fought between two competing views of the world,” and the seductive allure of silken capitalism enjoys a definite edge (we certainly don’t see anyone trying to make the migration West to East across the Berlin Wall). As Donovan asks in court, “… is that (sort of pro-American propaganda) not the greatest weapon we have in this Cold War?” Once safe at home in Brooklyn we’re supposed to breathe a sigh of relief that he’s back in the land of the free as he watches a group of boys clambering over backyard fences that serve as no impediment, the implication being that there are only good fences here in America and kids are never shot by border guards for trespassing, as we’d witness happen to those defectors along the Death Line back in Berlin. Bridge of Spies uses this moment in world history as an imperialistic demonstration of America’s moral, judicial and cultural superiority. The Gary Powers incident is pointed to as justification for why less enlightened cultures warrant having our way of life foisted upon them.
In order to prove our punitive superiority Bridge of Spies compares the Soviet’s brutal treatment of Powers, which includes sleep deprivation, water torture and brainwashing, with the humane treatment Abel is accorded in this country, Donovan inquiring into whether excessive force was employed following his arrest. At heart, moral arbiter Donovan is really here to advocate the golden rule, ‘treat their spies the way you’d want them to treat ours,’ resisting the impulse to subject them to conduct more becoming enemies of the State. Speaking of Abel, the lawyer declares, “He was treated as a combatant in that (Cold) war… Accordingly, he was not given the protections we give our own citizens. He was subjected to treatment that, however appropriate to a suspected enemy, was not appropriate to a suspected criminal…” Abel himself goes further, pointing out “you have men like me doing the same for your own county. If they were caught, I’m sure you’d wish them to be treated well.” This statement precedes a slow fade from Abel’s face to Powers to ensure the comparison can’t be lost on us.
But for all that, the movie doesn’t really show us that Powers is being particularly ill-treated by comparison. Though doing hard time, his interrogations seem nothing out of the norm considering the act of war he stands accused of. Indeed, the movie to a discernible degree skims over Powers’ side of things altogether. We aren’t even apprised of whether he’s been permitted fair council, as Abel was with Donovan. Instead his mockery of a public trial before the Soviet state is put over in a few quick shots of indoctrinated hand clapping with clockwork sycophants cheering the harsh sentence meted out to him. Serviceman Powers is shunted into a position of secondary importance in the film, and despite Bridge of Spies’ enshrinement of the American values, our own detainee on the other side of the Iron Curtain seems graced with nowhere near the same degree of poise and composure as the Soviet. All men may matter (“Everyone deserves a defense. Every person matters.”), but on Bridge of Spies’ own terms they’re not all created equal, since it takes the swap of two Americans to equal one Abel.
It’s testament to the filmmaker’s talents that they could milk any sort of suspense whatever out of such a well-known historical episode as the Gary Powers incident, so they disguise their source for a good portion of the film by focusing instead on the less well known Soviet spy exchanged for him. Like the sign painted on the concrete prison wall declaring ‘No Excessive Noise,’ the unflashy performance of Mark Rylance, with his persecuted eyes and slight, leprechaun’s physique, is perfectly quiet and circumspect. He offers a a master class on how to express so much while appearing to do so little. Through an economy of gesture he infuses the character of Abel with such fortitude, wisdom and misguided good will we can’t help but sympathize with him, which is fortunate since all the other Soviets we meet come off as broad comic strip caricatures out of the funny pages. Bureaucrats like the vaguely Renfield-ish Ivan Schischkin (Mikhail Gorevoy) are treated in a buffoonish manner more akin to Boris and Natasha. It’s much the same way Spielberg depicted the Japanese Imperial Army in 1941. So there’s no real sense of menace in them to show us the danger Donovan may be up against. We feel more threatened by that gang of rowdy boys who accost him on the street.
As is observed, “there’s a lot of fiction going on,” with everyone posing as someone they’re not, proving themselves a double agent of one sort or another by putting on an act worthy of a Hollywood spy movie. Schischkin, who actually turns out to be the KGB’s chief in Western Europe, poses as the second secretary of the Soviet Embassy for instance, while Donovan repeatedly mistakes a succession of stand-ins for Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch, the spitting image of Jeroen Krabbé), Donovan’s enigmatic contact on the other side. As for Vogel himself, no one quite knows who he is. As Hoffman surmises “He might be who you said he said he was.” The woman purporting to be Abel’s wife certainly isn’t. The fact that Moscow doesn’t believe in tears is made evident when she creates a weepy spectacle of herself to play on Donovan’s sympathies, then snaps into an officious iron maiden the instant the jig is up and her commandant ushers her out of the office. In the country unofficially, to represent his government, not even the insurance lawyer is really who he claims to be (“So, some fiction on our side as well.”).
The quirkier moments of off-the-cuff humor that come through are undoubtedly attributable to the input of the Coen brothers, who co-wrote the script and brought a similarly wry spirit of kookiness to their own spins on American history in Miller’s Crossing; The Hudsucker Proxy; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; The Man Who Wasn’t There; and others. There’s an absurdist quality to such quaint bits of business as messenger boys riding their bikes through the corridors of the East German embassy and the hyped up scenes of Donovan suspecting his steps are being dogged by unseen men in black. Spielberg seems to be forcing the fact at first, trying to pump up false thrills. But since the scene itself ends up being a bluff, inserted for purposes of satire by proving paranoid Donovan was worried for nothing, its overstressed nature suits the occasion.
His entrapment between two countries setting the story in motion, Rylance makes a fascinating enigma of world weary Rudolf Abel simply by not overemphasizing himself. Given that Scrooge McDuck-thick Scottish burr he adopts for the majority of the movie (“pretty sure that’s just the way he talks. He’s got the Russian name but a British passport.”), we can’t be any more certain than the authorities, who speculate he was born in Northern England, of Abel’s true country of origin. This man referred to as ‘colonel’ finally drops the affectation and speaks his mother tongue however, and the story he relates, that as a child his house was overrun by partisan border guards, indicates he spent some period of time in Russia during his formative years. Yet Rylance is such a consummate, self-possessed actor he cultivates an aura of fascinating stillness, getting us to care deeply for the character despite never learning how he became enlisted in the communist cause, his politics or background. Though we’re given the impression that the film is going to paint an intimate picture of the spy in the first person when we see Abel painting his own picture, similar to the opening scene of The Queen with Helen Mirren sitting for her portrait, we never feel we really know him, either as an individual or as a historic facsimile, any more than we do Powers. Abel’s the sort of nondescript type who can meld into the busy New York throng, easily eluding the pursuing feds. Indeed, as they trail him through the congested subway, one agent is costumed so similarly to Abel our first thought is he must be a body double planted as decoy. It’s this Soviet’s innate dignity and grounded deliberation however which serves as our steadying rock, as it does Donovan, the unflappable way he doesn’t let anything ruffle his feathers, knowing he has no influence over events larger than himself and outside his sphere of control.
Stoic Abel possesses the fatalistic air of a European; he’s so resigned to his destiny he never worries, even when he probably should. This makes his stricken look of panic at the end, a horrifying sight on a nonplussed man who always seemed so becalmed beforehand, that much more upsetting to us. But the movie does something very odd in this regard. Working up our emotions, Abel explains how Donovan can tell if the Soviets intend to execute him upon his return by embracing him if all is forgiven, or placing him in the backseat of their official state sedan if execution is imminent. And yet the epilogue that scrolls up before the credits roll completely invalidates what he’s just said. This betrayal of the character is tantamount to the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist where Tangina, the little psychic medium we’d grown to implicitly trust, incorrectly assured us that the haunted house was clean. For a fact-based historical incident, there seems a certain degree of fabrication going on here as well. It’s as if the movie wanted an all-around happy ending for everyone involved, and merely invented one for the occasion. In The Falcon and the Snowman, which also treated the subject of Cold War espionage, naïf American drug courier Sean Penn, after colluding with the Soviets, accepted the ultimatum of returning to his own country, and lived to regret his decision. With the ending of Bridge of Spies, the irony has been reversed. Here the Abel character comes to the opposite realization, too late, that he should’ve stayed in the land of the free where he might have been imprisoned but his physical wellbeing was assured. Yet if Soviet Russia is as backward and brutal as the film depicts it, the border guards callously destroying Pryor’s much labored over graduate thesis as though they were book burning Nazis, we’re at a loss as to how such an art loving, intellectual aesthete could have been persuaded to spy for them in the first place. We’re shown Abel scrutinizing his secret missive, which unfolds in a triangular pattern suggestive of the U-2, with the same sharp, eagle-eye he brings to his painting, but the script doesn’t give him voice to explain himself or defend his actions, so that we might better understand where he’s coming from. Keeping Abel at a frustratingly remote arm’s distance, his behavior remains utterly inexplicable to the American mind.
In ‘50s Cold War allegories like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, Russians were literally conceived as alien ‘others’ by Hollywood standards. So it seems fitting somehow that the exchange of prisoners at the end here, when Powers is surrendered back into U.S. custody, has been staged by Spielberg in a manner intended to recall the return of training Flight 19 by the extraterrestrials at the close of Close Encounters. Bathing the night in spectral, luminous floods, the feds trot out Joe Murphy (Jesse Plemons), a fellow soldier from Powers’ outfit to identify him, while Abel wonders who will arrive to vouch for him since he was still a young man when he left Russia (“I hope it’s not your East German family. I doubt they could identify each other,” Donovan smirks)
During his comparison of Eastern and Western blocs, the theme of double agents appears to have gotten stuck somewhere in Spielberg’s craw. He’s structured his entire movie as a parallelogram for purposes of contrast, with the dexterous editing of Michael Kahn jumping back and forth between Abel and Powers, making us feel very much as if two stories had been sandwiched into one. Such a clear allegory has been drawn between the spies, Spielberg seems to be doing a Cold War variation on Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The bilateral exchange of prisoners at the end, as they cross over that titular bridge, possesses the electric charge of bottled lightning, attended by the roiling herald of drums. Peering at one another and seeing their glass darkly reflected from the other side, they’re simply ships passing in the night, with no time given to bonding over their mirroring experiences, or convivially swapping war stories. No words are exchanged between them at all, though we can’t help feeling they possess an indivisible bond as they trade places, fraternal twins tethered at the navel. Especially since the movie’s view of Soviet and American is encapsulated in its contrasting portraits of these two, their images transposed in virtual split screens, much as their pictures will be printed side by side in the newspaper.
Far from the dashing, James Bond spy we’re familiar with, Abel hardly has time to get his grill in before the feds are trying to make him talk. He’s shown to be a neuralgic, physically desiccated, bookish intellectual drawn to the arts. With his perpetually befuddled expression, he’s the picture of a woolly headed, absent minded, professorial sort. Abel is the proverbial disaffected loner we’ve been taught to believe naturally grows into presidential assassins. With his mélange of indistinct accents cobbled from various nations, Abel is an uncertain man without a country who experiences serious qualms about his political commitments, what he’s done in the name of mother Russia. By way of contrast, there’s the film’s conception of the American spy Gary Powers (his fey first name Francis being dropped for the most part), a wholesome, athletic, fit-to-fight six-footer, the veritable quarterback of an Air Force regiment that more closely resembles a clean cut, collegiate starting line. As American as apple pie, he’s so unswerving in his duty to the stars and stripes he expresses his allegiance to the country during that lie detector test with a vehemence most men reserve for assertions of heterosexuality. While Abel is unquestionably guilty of what he stands accused, having passed along State secrets to the Soviets, and gone about collecting them in a deviously underhanded manner, Powers, always on the up and up, dutifully embarked on his mission in unquestioning ignorance as this film would have it.
So despite the equanimity of the trade, comparing the actions of one to the other, as the script overtly does during Donovan’s court summation (“If he is a soldier in the opposing army, he is a good soldier. He has refused to serve his captor. He has refused to betray his cause.”), seems patently absurd. Just following orders, Powers expresses no reservations about being asked to engage in what Russia considers a preemptive strike, and one would never guess that this pilot, when shot down over enemy territory taking reconnaissance photos, was imprisoned for equally good cause from their perspective. Instead, the way things are slanted, it’s somehow made to seem that Powers is being unfairly railroaded. Kahn expertly crosscuts between Bridge of Spies’ multiple plot strands as Donovan wangles his exchange, but any deeper correlations we’re supposed to be drawing between one spy and another, apart from the stated superficialities, aren’t evident.
It’s left to Schischkin, low in the chain of command himself, to draw the similarities when he points out that “we little men, we just do our jobs,” Abel and Powers both just pawns in a larger chess game, being moved around at the behest of their rival nations (“Should he die for doing the job they sent him to do?”). Just as chess tournaments became a matter of national pride during the Cold War, pitting the super powers against one another in simulated war games, Donovan’s calling East Germany’s bluff is likewise treated in sportsmen terms. Where Abel counsels that they can’t anticipate what the opponent’s next move will be when they don’t even know the game, Donovan himself recommends that their two countries get off the merry-go-round they’re trapped on rather than continue the circular standoff that can’t help but lead right back to where they started. Both governments want their spies back for punitive reasons more than humane ones. With their heads full of classified information it’s the only way to insure that they won’t talk. But while the film hinges on Abel’s menacing treatment at the hands of his superiors once handed over to the Soviets, it soft peddles America’s less than heroic reception of Powers, who’s regarded much like Gus Grissom after he jettisoned the space capsule upon splashdown in The Right Stuff. Rather than a national hero, Powers is professed to be the most hated man in America, “after Rudolf Abel, maybe,” for not having committed hara-kiri as his government requested, instead allowing himself to be taken alive. After going to such pains to secure his return, the unspoken suspicion arises that Powers, who is paraded on Soviet television like spoils in a triumphal procession, dishonored his uniform by spilling the beans to his captors. With the effrontery to return sporting a furry ushanka on his head, the remorseful airman avers to anyone who will listen he gave up no intel, was an honorable soldier until the end, just as we’ve seen his tight-lipped, carbon copy Abel to be, but he still remains suspect. When he tries to thank the men responsible for his release for instance, they give him the cold shoulder, filing past without acknowledgement as if he were beneath contempt.
Subjected to a battery of psychological tests and placed by the recruiters under fishbowl scrutiny as intense as that missive Abel poured over beneath the magnifying glass at the beginning, Powers was passed with flying colors. So there seems no need to question his allegiance. For our part however, we’d still like some positive proof the pilot’s shamefaced denials can be relied upon, especially since the sequencing of events is purposely intended to leave us in doubt about whether he talked. Or at least some explanation provided as to why he didn’t off himself as instructed, though by intercutting Donovan’s speech in court with scenes of Powers lifting off from Pakistan on his reconnaissance mission, there is the implication that he “…refused to take the coward’s way out.” While the movie sidesteps definitive answers, it still raises the possibility that Powers’ blind allegiance to flag and country might have been just as misguided as Abel’s was. That lethal potassium cyanide pin concealed in a hollow silver dollar, same as Abel’s binary code was concealed in a hollow nickel, was a failsafe intended to protect covert government interests, the only way to shut him up if captured.
So there seems to be some sense in what his Soviet programmers say while trying to get into Powers’ head, convince him his country isn’t concerned about soldiers’ welfare, only its own. They confirm the question this guinea pig pilot had himself raised at his initial debriefing. When told it was imperative that U-2 technology didn’t fall into enemy hands, he’d asked rhetorically “What about us?” Fount of wisdom Donovan reassures Powers that suspicions don’t matter since only he can be certain of the actual degree of his own guilt or innocence. And Donovan speaks from experience, having once been as reviled by his own countrymen as Powers is now, treated as a traitor for defending Abel. Doubling back on itself, the script completes its network of crisscrosses and comparisons and contrasts with an echoing scene at the end, as Donovan’s fellow travelers on his morning commute now look upon him with beaming approval as a national hero. The film is structured in such a way as to allow Donovan the chance to repair his sullied reputation after defending Abel in court, by trading him up for Powers.
Slamming closed the cultural window to the West Catherine the Great opened eons ago, East Germany begins barricading itself from such undue capitalist influences by erecting the Berlin Wall during the course of the movie. While the titular Glienicke Bridge, where the prisoner exchange takes place, embodies a bridging of the gulf between East and West, this Wall tries to block and divide by separating people from one another, political dissidence fracturing a once unified Germany into separate national factions. West and East Berlin are now displayed as separate topographical points in typeface at the bottom of the screen, emphasizing how absurd the differentiation is when Pryor simply rides his bike from one side of the wall to the other, crossing the invisible boundary newly constructed between nations.
The drab, grey look the picture assumes at this point resembles the same surface sheen as that of World War II Germany as reconstructed for Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The visual similarity evokes a feeling of one continuous conflict, a smooth, unbroken segue from the Holocaust of WWII straight into the Cold War. When we’re shown the concrete, barbed wire wall manned by officious, heel-clicking Soviet soldiers outfitted like Nazi storm troopers, the similarity forces us to acknowledge how closely akin one extremist police state is to another. Living in the rubble and ruins of a post-War East Germany populated by people still resentful of the Soviet regime who invaded and have taken up permanent occupancy, the entrapped, oppressed inhabitants locked behind the wall are like the Jews of Poland herded into the Warsaw ghetto.
Spielberg goes further by drawing a clear analogy between the defectors trying to abscond from the Eastern bloc and the political dissenters and resistance fighters we’ve watched in other movies trying to escape Nazi Germany. The movie treats flight from the Soviet state with as much trepidation as films like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold once did. It’s a matter of life and death, with much conspiring, mapping and reconnaissance detail before defectors are mercilessly mowed down attempting to scale the wall. The film may look similar to Schindler’s List with shavings from Saving Private Ryan and the Band of Brothers miniseries Spielberg and Hanks produced for HBO, but at other moments, with the panicked populace fleeing before the inexorable approach of the invading army, it just as clearly recalls the director’s other WWII epic Empire of the Sun, which focused on the Pacific theater. With only a few routes left open to the east and no roads leading out, Berlin still seems a war-torn city under siege.
As Hoffman warns, “Food is scarce over there and things are starting to fall apart. There are gangs and rule of law is less firmly established…” Things are going to the dogs under the communist regime as we see hungry animals prowling about, just before Donovan encounters their human equivalent in the form of that tough youth gang resentful of the wealthy foreigner parading his prosperity through their streets. Despite the social protest implicit in the scene, as Donovan is intimidated into handing over his expensive overcoat from Saks, the boys are depicted as common street thugs and the theft daylight robbery. Moreover, one aspect of this disturbing event is never resolved. During his subsequent interview with Schischkin, Donovan learns that he’s already aware of the holdup, making it clear he’s been under close surveillance since entering the Soviet satellite. But while this news establishes an air of paranoia, we never learn quite how the intel was gleaned. If Donovan’s been trailed this whole time and the gang set upon him purposely for purposes of intimidation, to see how easily he’d crumble, we wonder why his shadows didn’t step in at some point to avert another potential international incident.
Having recruited Donovan for this secret diplomatic mission, the CIA informs him since he’s acting as intermediary without official U.S. sanction, if things get bungled the government can’t acknowledge him publicly. Meaning the lawyer will be on his own, left flapping in the breeze same as the men he’s trying to recover. The loss of his overcoat, which leaves him bared to the cold becomes symbolic of Donovan’s own political exposure now that he’s no longer warmly wrapped in the sheltering security of his governments’ flag, leaving him susceptible to and at the mercy of hostile elements. Much as the term Cold War was used metaphorically at the time (“We are engaged in a war. This war at the moment does not involve men at arms it involves information.”), the concept is elaborated upon here in this tense political climate.
Traipsing through these chilly scenes of winter, every character in the film comes down with a severe case of the sniffles. We think it might be a common head cold with Abel and his ever present handkerchief, until we observe that the infirmity is catching, Donovan regularly beginning to blow his own nose as Abel alone once had. “The Cold War is not just a phrase,” he relates, “Not just a figure of speech,” and feeling the draft himself once in Berlin, asks them to turn up the car heater. The more people come into contact with patient zero, the more this contagion is passed around like an airborne flu, hopping from one carrier to another. Even seemingly impervious CIA agent Hoffman comes down with the symptoms. The iciness of international relations east and west of the wall seeps into everyone’s bones in the end, the big chill infecting them all. As Donovan admits, he just wants to get home and out of the cold, advising both respective countries to ‘chip away the ice that’s grown up between them.’
It’s only warmhearted Donovan’s diplomacy that succeeds in thawing out international relations, his exchange of prisoners pulling us back from the brink. This insurance lawyer is helping to insure that we can sleep safely at night, secure in the knowledge that the world has been made safe for democracy. Advised to maintain a low profile so as not to stand out, Donovan promptly ignores orders, reasoning that the higher and more public a profile he can maintain, the more difficult it will be for his country to up and abandon him should events come to that. He becomes a rogue agent operating outside official channels, deciding without his government’s knowledge that there be no exchange unless they get both men for Abel. Only his loquacious lawyer’s gift of gab manages to get him out of the sticky situations he walks into. Assured that he can talk his way out of anything, he possesses such a silver tongue and unparalleled bartering skills (Vogel calls him a haggling rug merchant after learning that Donovan has been dallying with the Soviets as well, trying to sell his wares to two different customers) he can even convince an antagonistic world power to remand its detainees into U.S. custody.
As Donovan races against time to negotiate the prisoner exchange (Schischkin terms it “the impatient plan”), the film has a built in suspense factor, the clock ticking down like a detonator (We learn that if the Americans don’t hear by the end of the day that they’re getting both captives for the price of one, he has to tell the Soviets that they’re not getting Abel at all). In fact the time element is repeatedly stressed throughout, with Donovan jumping line at the checkpoint station to arrive at his appointment in East Germany on time, Vogel racing through the streets, his speedometer topping out to make his own appointment in Ku’damm. After the Soviets arrive later than scheduled at the bridge, making Donovan’s heart skip a beat, eternity seems to tick by as they stand their ground waiting to see if Pryor will be delivered as agreed. Like Munich, Spielberg turns the actual historical incident into a visceral nail biting thriller and the simple, unalloyed joy such well-oiled craftsmanship can bring to an enterprise like this shouldn’t be underestimated. The director has always been at his best and most resourceful in scenes of action adventure rather than ethical chamber drama. He dealt with pilots previously in movies like Always and given the awe-inspiring way he photographs Powers’ spy plane here, as it soars up into the wide blue yonder, the scene could as easily have been taken by Christian Bale’s aviation obsessed little boy from Empire of the Sun.
The director himself never appears to have gotten over his own gushing boyhood love of toy airplanes and he’s right at home during Powers’ mid-flight crack up, and similar instances of pure visceral excitement, of which this film is in short supply. In some ways Spielberg is seeking to relive his own childhood here, growing up during this time period when nuclear annihilation seemed imminent. Most directly, he does this through the proxy of Donovan’s young son Roger (Noah Schnapp), who’s obsessed with preparedness in the event the Russians drop the bomb. Terrified by the nightmarish duck and cover shorts he’s shown at school, he subsists in a state of perpetual anxiety, using a garden hose to keep the bathtub and sinks filled with water as a precautionary measure in case power in lost in the event of a nuclear attack. Following the drive-by, he’s proud to report that he sat with his back against the wall, away from the windows as his teachers had taught him to do in the event of an attack, even if he ends up having more to fear from his fellow Americans than the Russians. Still, these scenes serve to highlight the uncertainty of the times, so Donovan is not mincing his words when he says the next mistake in communication between East and West could be their last.
The world situation at the time had become so complex, maybe Spielberg chose to present it in comic strip terms to make events more comprehensible. The U.S.’s refusal to recognize that the German Democratic Republic even exists since it was annexed by the Soviets in ‘45 merely fuels that country’s burning desire to negotiate with another sovereign power on equal footing. Doing so will legitimize this self-declared country’s standing on the world stage, putting East Germany on the map for brokering a deal with the U.S. Vogel is resentful of the Soviets who decided the proud Germans not rebuild their shattered capital after the war, leaving the east to “live in this ruin made by our Russian friends. Go ahead make your deal with these Russians. We won’t be part of it.” Abandoning Donovan in the Eastern sector to give him a taste of Soviet rule, letting him experience firsthand what it’s like to be incarcerated in a foreign country, he proves that life under the communist regime is little different from what Germany had been forced to endure under the Nazis.
The flickering, burnt out fluorescent lights in the prison corridor give things a shadowy look suggestive of a Third World gulag, making it clear to Donovan why he needs to get both our boys out as soon as possible. Being interred just as his fellow Americans have been causes Donovan to develop a greater empathy for the men he’s trying to extradite. To further strengthen his bond with them, he’s photographed by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski through the keyhole of his cell, from the same vantage point as Powers had been earlier, his face initially obscured so we can’t be sure which man we’re looking at. Moving past his carefully cultivated emotional detachment evident at the beginning (“Don’t say ‘my guy.’ He’s not ‘my guy…we’re talking about a guy who was insured by my client. So, don’t make him ‘my guy’.”), Donovan begins to take responsibility for the men he represents, knowing he’s the only insurance they have. Where the East German embassy won’t even deign to glance at Pryor’s picture when his girlfriend brings his head-shot to make inquiries, Donovan has no qualms about doing so when Vogel presents Pryor’s portfolio, acknowledging him as a person rather than an anonymous bureaucratic number. Rather than telling others to stop using the possessive as he formerly did when referring to clients, he now accepts ownership, checking his watch at the bridge when the Soviets are late, asking rhetorically “Where’s our guy? Where’s our guy?” And of course Donovan displays his most humane tendencies toward Abel, whose genteel demeanor brings out his finer, protective qualities as well. As conceived by the writers, Donovan’s character arc apparently intended encompassing the concept of the cynical, shyster lawyer who reclaims his humanity by being made to empathize with those less fortunate, but it’s handled in such a lackadaisical manner the argument seems downright tenuous. Rather than relinquish their golden goose before he’s cracked, the East Germans try offering up the other American they nabbed on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, Yale grad Frederic Pryor. Unduly complicating matters, he’d been caught carrying a camera, casting instant suspicion upon himself so soon after Powers’ reconnaissance flight.
Being tested to determine if he’ll switch out one for the other, Donovan is given Sophie’s Choice and must display the wisdom of Solomon, presenting an impervious front to demonstrate that American resolve remains implacable (“This whole thing has been to feel me out. Would I swap one for one, and which one. But I said ‘No, two for one.’ So they know where we stand.”). Presumably in England fishing for salmon, having cast his bait he waits to see what big game he’ll reel in. While the East Germans try to make Donovan believe he’s getting the better deal, exchanging a Russian at the end of life for a student at the beginning of his, to the CIA it doesn’t represent an even trade. To them, this college kid who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time is a nobody, certainly no one special enough to bother dickering over. They may even harbor their own doubts about this “Ivy League boy who thought it was a good idea to study Soviet economics in Berlin in the middle of the Cold War.” Powers is the whole ballgame as the feds tell their negotiator, assuring him that they can get Pryor out at another time. But while his superiors argue that the fighter pilot takes precedence in importance, Donovan doesn’t see it that way, reasoning that in a democratic society all men matter equally, that every person counts.
Extending the mirroring effects, Pryor is the same age as Donovan’s young legal assistant Doug Forrester (Billy Magnussen) who his daughter (Eve Hewson) has secretly been dating, much as Pryor has been illicitly dallying with a girl from the other side. The similarities between the two young men give Donovan a personal stake in proceedings, make it seem even more critical for him to secure Pryor’s release, knowing how easily Doug could have found himself in the same predicament, hopelessly abandoned by his unfeeling government in a hostile foreign country. The realization causes it to hit home precisely why priority can’t be placed on securing prisoners’ releases. Bartering for lives, playing at a dead serious game of Russian roulette, he’s like Oskar Schindler wanting to save everyone, and Spielberg has bestowed the same aura of heroic martyrdom upon him. Like Schindler, Donovan believes that everyone has an equal right to life, that one can’t pick and choose among the worthy. Unable to live with the thought of any man being left behind, this tough negotiator is determined to make his three way trade, bringing both Cold War superpowers to an old-fashioned, Wild West standoff waiting to see who’ll flinch first.
A stand up kind of guy, like that man in the anecdote Abel relates, every time Donovan’s knocked down he just keeps getting back up again, rising like Antaeus stronger than ever. His committed resolve to stand his ground, doing what he believes to be right despite the pressures placed on him from all sides, echoes Kennedy’s own refusal to back down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. So we’re not so surprised to learn that the historical Donovan would go on to successfully negotiate with Fidel Castro for the release of many more political prisoners. A fellow artist, a painter, it’s Abel’s respect that is ultimately seen as the seal of approval by Spielberg. Whenever anybody in the film proves his true mettle, revealing character and a finer nature, it’s certified by having his likeness sketched by Abel, a man of honor, just as he was seen painting his own self-portrait at the beginning, stately studies suitable for display in Statuary Hall. He’ll jot down Judge Byer’s profile after he commutes his sentence from execution to life rather than bowing to popular opinion, as well as Donovan’s following his orchestration of the prisoner exchange, the single most thoughtful expression of gratitude he could have thought of.
Only Tom Hanks could have played this caliber of intercessionist and mediator, one capable of diffusing such a tense political situation, the way he tried to do in Captain Phillips. A seasoned pro at straddling the political fence, he may be our least threatening, most earnestly noble actor. It’s mentioned in the movie that the recreated, period court scenes seem to be restagings of the Nuremberg trials, which Spencer Tracy presided over in Stanley Kramer’s 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg, while the Hanks character himself is said to have “distinguished himself as a criminal lawyer at Nuremberg,” making the circle of associations complete. Considered the only man with the upstanding moral fiber to defend the war criminals, Hanks has become his generation’s Spencer Tracy, even winning back to back Oscars in the ‘90s as Tracy had in the ‘30s. Much like Tracy’s harried Father of the Bride, through modest, humble Hanks the movie intends to show how the seemingly inconsequential master of the house ends up commanding his henpecking wife (Amy Ryan) and dismissive family’s respect by saving the free world. The ending shows him as subversively triumphant in his way as a W.C. Fields character, proving that preventing WWIII is all in a day’s work at the office.
It was former child actor Ron Howard’s Big which made Hanks a star and Robert Zemeckis’ Forest Gump which made him a superstar, and like both signature roles Hanks has never seemed to grow up on screen in a sexual, political or social sense. Graced with a deliriously successful career for the last thirty odd years, a stable marriage and squeaky clean private life, he’s always seemed as carefree as a Disney cartoon, so it was no surprise when he played the man behind the Magic Kingdom in Saving Mr. Banks. Under the guiding hands of Howard, Zemeckis, and Spielberg, under whom Zemeckis was once apprenticed, directors who can equal Hanks in the wide-eyed, childish wonder of their simplistic good vs. evil world view, he always seems in his element, his work for them invariably proving a match made in heaven. Hanks has acted for Spielberg many times, achieving a perfect synergy in their first outing with Saving Private Ryan, and he returns here to the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit era of Catch Me if You Can.
Indeed Hanks is just about the only actor left in this day and age who can still embody the director’s non-ironic notion of American nobility (Hoffman tells him not to go boy scout and bleeding heart on him), in the same clear-eyed way it used to be represented onscreen, before the country’s conscience became so troubled in the ‘60s. Having grown into such an unassertively conservative actor over the years, he’s become something of a throwback to an earlier era, which means he makes for perfect casting in Spielberg’s unabashedly old-fashioned film. I don’t mean to speak of the director in past tense, but there used to be such carefree, joie de vivre in Spielberg’s work, the thrill of a kid with a new toy. Critics kept telling the director to grow up so often however, he finally made the mistake of listening, turning out Schindler’s List, and has never been right since. He’s approached each subsequent undertaking as another opportunity to take the sins of the world upon his shoulders. Something similar happened to Hanks around the same time, when he appeared in Philadelphia, and while it’s taken him longer to completely succumb, he’s getting to that point as well.
Following Captain Phillips, his good-natured earnestness is being pressed into service and used as salve, same as the director’s; he’s trying to carry the full weight of the country’s guilty liberal conscience singlehanded. Bridge of Spies is one of Spielberg’s lesser efforts. Given such recent espionage titles as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Imitation Game, his movie seems unduly familiar. It’s a glorified Pack of Lies (TV movie; 1987) with stray strands from The Americans and 1984’s Daniel mixed in for good measure. Rather than simply being inspired by them however, Bridge of Spies unfortunately feels more like a direct throwback to Cold War films than was probably intended, appropriating the same gleefully jingoistic, slightly paranoid, flag-waving fervor. It’s almost as if Spielberg still wanted to duke it out with the Russkies on screen. One could simply laugh it off as a quaint time capsule, its anti-commie sentiments a relic of their time, if Bridge of Spies hadn’t been made in this day and age and if the subtext, which parallels our Cold War past to America’s present War on Terror, didn’t seem such an ill-advised tack for an otherwise thoroughly restrained, middle-of-the-road movie to take.