Bridge of Spies, is Spielberg’s homage to the historical period after WWII known as the Cold War, whose primary antagonists were the U.S., the Soviet Union, and their allies. With precise cinematic artistry, Spielberg recreates the look and feel of the late 1950s right down to the tone and atmosphere of fear that pervades homily scenarios as children discuss nuclear attack preparedness, and in street scenes of bombed out Berlin and East Berlin. It was a war of paralysis and the Soviets were the bomb-dropping bogeymen ready to pull the plug on civilization. Spielberg establishes that many in the population were casualties of fear, even those in high government positions.
During the arc of the film Spielberg subtly underscores the following details about this period without being preachy, but by telling a story inspired by true events. He reveals how the Cold War was a war of subterfuge, of surreptitious machinations, and gamesmanship. There was the justification that despite the negative proportional risks of population annihilation and radiation poisoning, there had to be an escalation of nuclear weapons manufacture and secret technologies innovation. It was a time when the citizen’s act of turning over military secrets to the U.S.S.R. was punishable by death and indeed, the Rosenbergs were executed. It was a time when the budget of the Military Industrial Complex and Defense Department burgeoned and the CIA enjoyed unprecedented power over civil government.
Indeed, espionage, the CIA’s purview, was made the front line of the war. It was considered one of the most effective weapons to gain the high ground and forestall a nuclear attack or armed aggression which neither country desired but which they fronted as a necessary option to be pursued if the other side provoked an incident. Into this period, were thrust two players, both noble in their own right, and one of them an unsung American hero. Spielberg and his screenwriters, Matt Charman, Joel and Ethan Cohen relate with simplicity, humor and power the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks is at masterful command as the citizen soldier who upholds principles of justice and civil rights), and Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance is perfect as the loyal, fatalistic Soviet spy who will not be turned).
Because of their unquestioned integrity, and the trust the two have for each other, the filmmakers show how Abel and Donovan managed to negotiate a bridge of communication between the warring countries. When all around them are losing nerve, Abel and Donovan keep their sanity. With caution and temperance, they overcome the frightening tensions of the period and in their sphere they moderate power grabs by U.S. government officials and agencies. In foreshadowing how such agencies (CIA, Justice Department, FBI), are willing to sacrifice U.S. principles to complete their own agendas, Spielberg stencils the blueprint of yesterday and superimposes it on current times. In the scenes of yesteryear are suggested the dark, infamous lines of the Patriot Act and the erosion of Constitutional principles like due process, justice and human rights; also intimated are today’s NSA surveillance abuses, rendition and the heinous violations of Abu Ghraib.
The film focuses on a little known American hero, James B. Donovan, a level-headed, stalwart lawyer who embraced and upheld American principles set forth in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Called upon to defend Soviet Spy Abel to prove that American justice is the kind-hearted antithesis of the Soviet Gulag, Donovan, a lawyer who assisted at the Nuremberg Trials, attempts to put on a viable case by showing that the FBI is guilty of violating the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure. But the presiding Judge Byers tells Donovan to back off. Abel’s guilt as a spy is a foregone conclusion. Donovan sees that the trial is a sham and he is the puppet counsel doing his “patriotic” duty. Excoriated by negative press publicity, Donovan falls on his sword to uphold the U.S. government’s “unblemished” image. The public, CIA agent Hoffman (a wonderful performance by Scott Shepherd of the presumptuous, arrogant agent), the justice department, Donovan’s family, and all except Donovan are thrilled that “right” has triumphed. Donovan knows better.
Figuring that Abel will be sentenced to the electric chair like the Rosenbergs, a position 99% of the public supports, Donovan negotiates with Judge Byers behind closed doors. He inspires the judge not to level the death penalty; Abel might be useful in an exchange if an American spy is convicted in the Soviet Union. Judge Byers relents; Abel is sentenced to life, and Donovan who has become friendly with Abel assures him that he will take the trial on appeal to the Supreme Court despite opposition by the CIA, the justice department, the American public, and his boss finely portrayed by Alan Alda.
Meanwhile, Francis Gary Powers has been shot down in his U-2 spy plane and has not killed himself with the poison the CIA gave him. Powers is convicted by the Soviets and the CIA’s bungled mission is an embarrassment which causes the failure of a hoped for easing of cold war tensions in the Four Powers Paris Summit. The longer Powers remains in a Soviet prison, the more the CIA and Agent Hoffman fear that Powers will be turned. In contrast, Abel has said nothing about spying for the Soviets; Donovan considers Abel’s loyalty to be superlative and respects the man whom he cannot get released from prison. He loses his Supreme Court appeal 5 to 4. Donovan, believes that Powers, like the loyal Abel, will not speak under torture. The CIA and Hoffman are not convinced and want Powers home. Donovan’s canny prescience has proven to be accurate; Abel will be used in a spy exchange for Powers.
However, to save face and not destroy their image of spotless, pure strength, CIA assets and government agencies want no part of a negotiated exchange. This section of the film, though there is humor throughout, is darkly ironic. The gaming by these various department assets is ludicrous, especially when they mangle their mandate. Spielberg shows that given what is at stake (the military technology is in Soviet hands), and the fear and embarrassment they experience because Powers has flubbed the mission, it is understandable that they refuse to negotiate. What if they fail and look even more ridiculous?
The turning point of the film occurs when once again, Donovan’s services are needed for his country. But when Donovan flies to Germany to negotiate the exchange and goes to East Berlin to meet the Soviet mediator, there are extraordinary convolutions. The complications involve East Germany which attempts to pull off a diplomatic coup to be recognized by the U.S. Donovan is ingenious; he makes the right intervening decisions and under intense duress remains steadfast as he balanced on the head of a pin.
Spielberg and screenwriters Matt Charman, Ethan and Joel Coen present one terrifying and confusing scenario after another: Donovan is driven through bombed out Berlin and ends up in East Berlin the flash-point of the Cold War within close proximity to the Berlin Wall. Donovan arranges an additional exchange which is opposed by CIA Agent Hoffman, but he has nothing to lose. He knows that his government will allow him to fall on the sword once more and his life may even be at stake; but if he dies, his principles will hold. Despite tremendous pressure from the East Germans, the Soviets and the U.S. government, he is a “standing man.” His righteous energy and apprehension to distinguish the truth from what is obfuscation and lies is without equal in this film. The only other individual who has demonstrated an equivalent strength of character has been Rudolf Abel.
These are the watchmen awake to see what is going on. They are “old school,” patriots and citizens willing to die or be sacrificed for ideals that others have died and been sacrificed for. They do this with mediation, without picking up a gun, and without internalizing fear and allowing it to overcome them in the face of death. Spielberg and the writers have portrayed them as heroic and the director suggests that only because of them is the exchange effected.
In contrast the leaders portrayed are merely politicians who follow their puppet’s line to bow to those behind the scenes who are pushing another agenda, not necessarily what is good for the American citizen. These waffle, modify their integrity, and are blown whichever way the wind carries them. The parallels Spielberg and the screenwriters draw to leaders in our current government and culture are unmistakable. One wishes for the sanity of a Donovan and Abel. But would they be recognized as such; would they be brought into the inner circles of power?
In Bridge of Spies, the connection between the past and present is clear. Spielberg and screenwriters show how the seeds sown during the Cold War have grown into the weeds which are sending their roots into the Middle East and appear impossible to eradicate. The issues are the same; the countries are different, but behind the scenes the machinations are ongoing. The themes of the film exemplified in the characterizations of Donovan and Abel reveal that the hope lies with citizen advocates. These are the ones who soldier on without guns or weapons or poisons. They uphold the law even when the justice system obviates it because the outcome has “been decided” by darker forces. They question the right of these darker powers to exist. They expose them to the light and hold them accountable whenever possible. Even in the face of failure, they stand. And as they keep on trying, their prescience will prevail. Justice will finally meet its measure in those with the integrity to uphold its immutable power.
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