Spy novels and movies of the last 50 years have relied upon certain conventions—the foggy, wind-swept streets, trench-coated figures leaning against lamp posts, and knife fights in alleys. During the Cold War, Berlin was certainly uber-noir, its spookiness symbolized by a Berlin Wall decorated with barb-wire and patrolled by gorilla-faced guards.
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies does not neglect any of these old reliables. Everyman Tom Hanks, playing the real-life lawyer and World War II intelligence veteran James Donovan, bears witness to escapees being machine-gunned, walks dark alleys where he is being tracked by the CIA or the Stasi, or both. Here cynicism reigns, and Hanks, channeling Jimmy Stewart as the Caprasque patriotic go-it-alone hero, is regarded as a naïve “boy scout” by a heartlessly pragmatic CIA.
As the film proceeds, we find out Donovan is anything but naïve. He is a patriot, proclaiming that America should “show our enemies what we stand for” by adhering to the Constitution and giving the captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, fair treatment in his espionage trial in New York City. By the same token, the politically shrewd lawyer knows that Cold War America will not countenance Abel being freed, so he structures his defense of the KGB man along the lines that if his client is treated well (that is, not given the death penalty as the jeering crowd wants), perhaps the Soviets will reciprocate by treating captured American spies humanely.
The famously liberal Spielberg (he urged Barack Obama in the 2012 election to hit Mitt Romney with the supposedly corrupt practices of Bain Industries, a management consulting firm that the Republican once chaired) at times seems to follow in the relativistic tradition of John Le Carre by condemning both superpowers in equal measure. On the American side, we have pipe-smoking military-industrial complex figures and Donovan’s own law firm demanding that Abel’s trial be fixed to ensure the death penalty. “You’re asking me to betray the Constitution,” Hanks as Donovan declares. And he’s right.
The Soviet occupation zone of the German Democratic Republic is not let off the hook, though. Spielberg shows the failure of communism, evidenced by droves of East Germans trying to escape to the West. GDR guards literally bat them back.
The movie also contrasts the treatment the Russians meted out to an American spy, the downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, with how Abel is treated stateside. Although hounded by hostile crowds, Abel is not subjected to the official abuse that Powers faced. Unlike Powers, Abel does not have ice water hurled in his face to keep him awake nor is he threatened with death as was Powers.
Later tasked with swapping Abel for Powers in Berlin, Donovan decides to sweeten the deal by getting Frederic Pryor, an American exchange student wrongly imprisoned by the East German authorities, freed as well. Not only is this historical figure shown giving America a victory in a Cold War horse-trade, he is, by his tough yet principled actions, shown to be on a higher moral plane than the CIA. (The Agency was more than willing to leave Pryor behind.)
This may be one of Spielberg’s greatest films. At times, it expresses an ambivalence about the Cold War. But this is tempered by the portrayals of Donovan and of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who was much-criticized at the time for failing to hit the self-destruct button on the plane to deny the Soviets an intelligence coup. In the climactic scene in the skies above Sverdlovsk, we see that Powers could not hit the switch because he was still tethered by his oxygen mask and buffeted about by centrifugal force.
Passions flare on both sides of the Cold War conflict in Bridge of Spies (the lawyer’s house is shot up), but this movie has allowed Steven Spielberg to express patriotism in a genre that seldom shows much of that quality.
Ron Capshaw’s interview with Francis Gary Powers, Jr., son of the downed pilot, is here.