Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks (Larry Crowne, Toy Story 3, Angels and Demons) is another carefully plotted exercise in moral equivalence and equivocation. The fact-based spy story is measurably better than Mr. Spielberg’s modern Arab terrorist apologia, Munich (2005).
The DreamWorks picture begins with meticulous details of espionage absent its intent and purpose. As with most Cold War-themed movies, such as X-Men: First Class, the nature of the conflict between the world’s only nation based on man’s rights and the bloodiest dictatorship to exist on earth is, to a large extent, ignored or evaded. Instead, as usual, America and Soviet Russia are generally depicted as morally similar or equivalent, with one crucial exception later in the movie. The exception is powerful, but it is incidental.
Details are nevertheless engaging, especially if you know American history. In 1957 New York City period setting, costume and music, in lush film awash in dark blue, black and brown, Mr. Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Lincoln) shows a Communist spy fronting as a painter named Rudolf (Mark Rylance, perfect in the role) fussing with a double-edged razor blade, a coin and a book of matches. When detained by the FBI, as prone to incompetence here as they are today, he quickly establishes guilt to the audience.
The weaselly Soviet’s threat to the United States is neither framed that way nor made evident to his Bar Association-designated lawyer, James Donovan (Hanks), who chooses to defend him—every other attorney declines to represent him—on the grounds of giving the accused a proper defense in a republic based on the Constitution. This portrayal of insurance lawyer Donovan, a Democrat later picked by President Kennedy to negotiate with Communist Cuba who ran for and lost a seat in the U.S. Senate, makes him out to be a non-partisan Constitutionalist, which I’ll leave to historians to address. In Bridge of Spies, Donovan is a decent if agnostic American lawyer, partner, husband and father.
Doing what he regards as his duty, at great risk to his family and firm and over objections by his law partner (Alan Alda), Donovan argues to the Supreme Court on behalf of a man accused of aiding an enemy which may seek to wage a nuclear act of war on the U.S.
When asked if he is curious about the accused’s guilt, Donovan replies: “No, not really.”
This is the main flaw in Bridge of Spies; the leading character, whom the audience is to believe capable of real bravery and integrity, is daft, cavalier or knowingly ignorant about the impact of intelligence gathering for acts of war. Contrary to his lack of curiosity about whether the accused aims to aid the enemy in gaining a capacity to destroy New York City, Donovan later shows curiosity about whether the accused is in danger. Donovan’s higher regard for the life of a suspected KGB agent than for potential harm to his own family, firm and country poses a serious character credibility problem.
When a single vote determines the Soviet’s appeal, Bridge of Spies takes a turn. It starts to feel like Mr. Spielberg’s answer to Munich critics. Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit) and Matt Charmin, with strong, even performances by Hanks and Rylance, and Amy Ryan as his wife with Dakin Matthews as a judge, everything dovetails to international intrigue culminating in an attempt to deal with Communists in Berlin, the post-World War 2 city decimated thanks to National Socialists and divided into east and west. It’s a Cold War climax in director Spielberg’s masterful hands. Berlin serves as a staging ground for Donovan’s possible redemption, though Bridge of Spies is murky about this, too.
With a jazzy score, fading, serpentine transitions include one from the sound of a CIA spook’s creaking footsteps to the sound of a federal judge’s zipper. Another goes from schoolchildren taking the Pledge of Allegiance to a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb detonation. Bridge of Spies shifts to Pakistan, where U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers prepares for a mission on a secret airplane with new reconnaissance technology. The destination: Soviet Russia. The film’s title tips its reconciliation theme, which is to be ignited by Donovan. Indeed, it’s Donovan who uniformly adopts a “humane attitude” about the Communist, the downed U.S. Air Force pilot and the young American in love with a girl in East Berlin. One of them, and it’s easy to guess which one, pegs Donovan as a man of principle. A shot of the man who stands alone on the bridge of spies is a signature on this selective Cold War portrait. The question of what principle he stands for is the real enigma in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.
Bridge of Spies is gently made, shot, framed, scored and arranged. It is also frosted with Cold War facets that sneak up like a deadly ghost. The expression on Donovan’s face when he witnesses an act of Communism in practice—matched by a contrasting expression of his awakening to an act of liberty in practice—makes Bridge of Spies an interesting and thought-provoking, if mixed, movie about a man’s moral character and dilemma.
But it is important to note that Bridge of Spies trivializes an undeniable low point in U.S. history. The actual events depicted in the film’s climax foreshadowed in history deepening American loss and appeasement to Communism. The U.S. caved to Communists over the Berlin Wall, South Vietnam, the USS Pueblo, USS Mayaguez, a Soviet shootdown of a jumbo passenger jet with innocent passengers and a U.S. congressman on board in 1983 and President Bush, in his first foreign policy test in 2001, yielded to Communist China’s seizure of a U.S. spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet that killed the American pilot. As with Munich, it is impossible to detach from Steven Spielberg’s elegant and romanticized Bridge of Spies the facts of history.