Enough time has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union that we now have an entire generation for whom the whole baleful business of duck-and-cover drills, domino theories, and deterrence has no more relevance than polyester shirts and leisure suits. For those post-Cold War babies, Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies may prove a startling revelation. Though the current generation lives in a world of climate change, terrorism, and school shootings, Spielberg's film evokes the decades when the fundamental conflict of East vs. West, with its ever-present threat of total nuclear annihilation, was a constant low hum that permeated every aspect of life from the highest geopolitical levels to the most mundane. For those of us who did experience those times, the movie brings back the memories with piercing clarity.
The film's title is actually somewhat misleading, as Bridge of Spies isn't a spy story in the vein of John le Carré or Frederick Forsyth or even Ian Fleming. It's really a "based on true events" story about a lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), and his dedication to a higher set of principles than Cold War expediency and political convenience. Aside from the opening sequence, in which we witness nondescript Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) exercise some classic espionage tradecraft in the streets of 1957 Brooklyn just before being captured by the FBI, Bridge of Spies features far more lawyering than spying, more bureaucratic wrangling than gunplay.
A pro forma defense of a dirty Commie
An insurance lawyer by trade, Donovan's considerable courtroom experience, including a stint at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, gets him the unenviable task of defending Abel at his espionage trial, a task universally considered a necessary annoyance. Everyone knows the dirty Commie spy is guilty as hell, but the law still entitles him to a defense, however pro forma. But Donovan refuses to go through the motions, mounting a spirited and serious defense of his client all the way up to the Supreme Court, in the face of professional and personal threats, and knowing that it's a lost cause with a foregone conclusion. Donovan does manage to save Abel from the electric chair, however, arguing that aside from the obvious humanitarian considerations, it might be handy for the United States to have a Soviet spy in their back pocket just in case.
Donovan's prescient suggestion becomes useful several years later, when American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Russia while on a spy flight for the CIA and captured alive, a major propaganda coup for the Soviets and a major international embarrassment for the United States. Working in an uncomfortably unofficial official capacity as a private citizen with no diplomatic cachet (thus conveniently deniable and disposable), Donovan becomes the key player in an effort to arrange a swap of the American spy Powers for the Soviet spy Abel at the titular "bridge of spies," the Glienicke Bridge between West Berlin and Potsdam. But when an American college student is detained in East Germany at the Berlin Wall, Donovan tries to get him back as well, rejecting the willingness of the CIA to write off the student as an acceptable loss but also endangering the success of the entire deal.
An alien world
The visuals and design of Bridge of Spies are wholly immersive and impressive, whether depicting the grittiness of 1950s Brooklyn, the insular and illusive safety of 1960s middle-class America, or the bleak physical, social, and spiritual landscape of East Germany. When Donovan crosses through the Wall into East Berlin, it's an alien world, and we feel his disorientation and danger. That stranger-in-a-strange-land feeling works on various levels for various characters.
Abel is an obvious outsider, an imperturbable entity who refuses to save himself by cooperating with his captors, maintaining a personal sense of honor and dignity that Donovan comes to respect, largely because he shares it himself, even if from different motivations. Donovan regards both Powers and Abel as merely soldiers of the Cold War, even if one takes pictures from 70,000 feet above the USSR in a U-2 while the other works through dead drops and microfilm. As opposed to other famous spies (e.g., the Rosenbergs, as the film points out), neither is a "traitor" in Donovan's view, because they haven't betrayed their countries or themselves. They're simply combatants on opposing sides who have both performed their duties with courage and conviction.
If the Cold War was ultimately a conflict between two competing political philosophies and systems of government, between freedom and tyranny, then it's also true that lofty ideals were sometimes blurred, disregarded, or lost as each side constantly struggled for advantage over the other. But not for Donovan. The same allegiance to the constitutional legal principles that he invokes in his defense of Abel impels him to stand up for the student, an innocent noncombatant swept up in Cold War posturing. For Donovan, abandoning the humanistic principles that guide and define America just to score political and propaganda points against an ideological enemy renders those principles moot and thus the entire conflict worthless. That conviction ultimately leads him to the Glienicke Bridge and allows him to bridge East and West, if only long enough to get three weary and dedicated pawns of the Cold War back home where they belong.
Author’s note: Viewers who wish to further explore the weird twilight world of East Germany glimpsed in Bridge of Spies should check out the brilliant Oscar-winning 2006 German film The Lives of Others, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and starring Bridge of Spies's Sebastian Koch, available via streaming on Amazon and on DVD.
For Armen Pandola's review of Bridge of Spies, click here.