Spielberg makes two kinds of pictures, his entertainments and his serious film. Of the latter he works mostly in the realm of history, either by fact or by inspiration. In his historical films I have tried to find a commonality and what I have come up with this that the common thread is negotiation. In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler negotiates to get Jews onto his work list. In Amistad, the 19th century lawyers negotiate around the law to get the Africans sent back home. In Lincoln, The Great Emancipator negotiates his way around the political system to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed. And in Bridge of Spies, his latest film, an insurance lawyer has to negotiate to keep a Russian spy from being executed.
Bridge of Spies offers me a creative challenge. All of the other films in the series give me the advantage of hindsight, but this one does not. How can I fairly assess the impact of a movie that only came out five months ago? Of that, I can only describe my feelings revisiting the film just this afternoon. It is a superior Cold War drama made up mostly of words and ideas. It is simple in its overlaying concept, but the issues are far from simple-minded.
The movie opens with an image that I’m unable to get out of my mind. We see a tiny, unremarkable man sitting alone, painting his own portrait. On his right is his canvas. On his left is the mirror. He works carefully, putting the finishing touches on a painting of what must be the saddest face you’ve ever seen. Over his shoulder we see these images, but we never see the man’s face except in the mirror. It’s an image that speaks to the duality of this man whose two faces will remain always in question.
His sad man is Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) soon to arrested for espionage against the United States for the Soviet Union. His chance for leniency does not exist. This is the 1960s, the Cold War is boiling, the geopolitical and ideological struggles of The U.S. and the Soviet Union are about to cut Germany in half and American school kids are being instructed that they can prepare for nuclear war by hiding under the their desks and keeping a bathtub full of water at home.
Needless to say, Abel’s chances for a fair trial are slim to none, but in this American system of ours, everyone is entitled to a fair trial, right? The unenviable task of representing Abel is given to a New York insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who doesn’t want the case – he hasn’t practiced criminal law in years. Yet, that’s not the point. The point is for Donovan to dutifully stand by Abel while the jury finds him guilty.
Quietly impressed by Abel’s calm demeanor, Donovan becomes determined to try the case and not simply stand by as a dummy fixture while Able is railroaded to prison. Failing to get by on the facts, such as an illegal search and seizure, Donovan sets out to keep his client from the death penalty. Abel is a Russian spy and sending this man to his death, Donovan reasons to an implacable Judge, might provoke an incident. Someday the U.S. may need Abel for a prisoner exchange.
Enter Francis Gary Powers, a Korean vet who is tasked with flying a U2 spy plane over Russia to take photographs. If you know the story of Powers and his run-in with the Russians then you kind of already know where this story is going. What is remarkable is that Spielberg, and his screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen take a story based on historical fact and balloon it up into a tense and very effective thriller that isn’t based on gunshots or tanks, but on ideas and quick-thinking. Donovan is a lawyer, a man whose job depends on being able to talk, deal and snooker his way around a difficult situation. What starts as a simple court case escalates into an international incident that takes him into the heart of East Germany to save his client and two American men held by the Soviets – along with Powers, Donovan has to negotiate the release of an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) who was arrested in East Germany for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bridge of Spies feels like an espionage thriller fit for John le Carré but filtered through the true-blue American sensibilities of Frank Capra. We’re in the midst of The Cold War, but we still feel that post-WW2 atmosphere of tried and true American Pride even as the global saber-rattling is making a nuclear exchange with the Russians inevitable. As he did with Schindler’s List, Spielberg keeps the tone of the film at ground level. He doesn’t pump up the action for effect, but simply lets his images and his actors create the moments. There is tension here but not out of manipulation.
What I love about this film is that despite it’s modern-day polish, it feels like a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood, when American films held the red, white and blue ideologies close to the chest. Most of this comes through a wonderful performance by Tom Hanks who gives us the kind of character that Jimmy Stewart use to play. Donovan is honest, but he’s also prone to think on his feet – he’s a lawyer. He sees Abel for what he is but he doesn’t dismiss him. There’s an admiration for this little man with a curious accent who seems unfazed by what is happening to him. Donovan is a good man who sets out to do the right thing, to bring home Powers and Pryor and use his legal know-how to do it.
The beauty of Bridge of Spies lies in Spielberg’s special ability to be able to put his hands around historical events and pull them close enough for us to see with more clarity. That resides not only in his screenplays but in his storytelling. Bridge of Spies is told with a simplistic clarity that is never simple minded. He keeps the energy of the story alive even to the conclusion which is inevitable given the history but is still fascinating given the filmmaking. After 40 years, Spielberg is still the best storyteller that we have.