There’s a very good reason Steven Spielberg’s name has become a metonym for Hollywood itself: Aside from being a visual storyteller of unmatched influence, he embodies and perpetuates Hollywood’s uniquely American liberalism more authoritatively than any other director alive. Characterized by unwavering faith in the fundamental goodness of the nation’s institutions and founding principles, this left-of-center patriotism has been the staple of such rightly-cherished political films as Seven Days In May, 12 Angry Men and Three Days Of The Condor.
Having previously studied the practical application of these values in 2012’s splendid Lincoln, Spielberg continues his probe of current political issues through historical parallels in Bridge Of Spies. Through the remarkable true story of lawyer-turned-diplomat James B. Donovan’s role in the defense of convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and his later exchange with two American captives, Spielberg likens our present Islamist-inspired climate of fear to Cold War-era existential anxiety, and argues the case for integrating empathy and due process in our response.
Spielberg is arguably Hollywood’s most idealistic living filmmaker and Bridge Of Spies reflects that idealism to a fault in a typically classical style that occasionally slips into emotional shortcuts and easy roleplaying even as it continues Lincoln’s approving exposé of backdoor politics at the service of freedom.
The first half of the film, which sees Donovan and his family tossed in the center of a geopolitical storm most of them only understand in broad simplistic terms, keeps itself content with meeting audience expectations without exploring the personal ramifications of its protagonist’s actions or his relationship to his country’s state of mind beyond a few clever ideas: A beautifully-edited sequence in which the trial’s opening ceremony transitions to a classroom reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before watching a propaganda cartoon warning of Soviet attacks; Donovan’s youngest son following the cartoon’s instructions when his own countrymen take shots at his house… These elements aside, the Donovan family never truly deviates from Rockwellian patriarchal archetypes. Amy Ryan in particular is given little else to do but play the concerned housewife fearing for her family’s safety and reputation, a role so trite and common it’s virtually invisible.
Most of this section follows Donovan as he develops a respectful rapport with his client and argues for him to be treated as an honourable enemy combatant with every right and privilege granted by the Constitution despite him not being an American citizen. Tom Hanks plays Donovan as a living personification of America’s liberal conscience, a privilege earned from decades spent as the face of his country’s populist spirit and one he exercises with the kind of natural ease Henry Fonda used to display. As if to counter Hanks’s comforting familiarity, Spielberg cast little-known stage, TV and arthouse veteran Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, a move that proves most judicious but is ultimately one of the film’s missed opportunities; Abel’s character and his interactions with Donovan are merely adequate when they could have been fascinating. A quiet, unassuming bespectacled little nobody whose average looks and demure bearing make him an ideal spy, Abel is too ostentatiously mysterious to be feel authentic. His persistent calm in the face of probable death and near-universal hatred is treated as an occasion for one of the film’s many cutesy recurring lines – “would it help?” is his invariable response whenever Donovan asks him if he’s afraid – and Rylance is allowed few opportunities to show any cracks in that façade. His most prominent one – a monologue in which he recounts a childhood story about a friend of his father’s who kept standing up in the face of multiple beatings – is mostly there to valorize the protagonist via obvious symbolism (and get a dramatic callback at the film’s climax) rather than humanize him a little further.
Routine though most of it may be, the film’s first half does contain its share of surprises and typically Spielbergian masterstrokes: The opening scene, which sees Abel dodging FBI agents while on his way to pick up a microfilm-loaded nickel, brings to mind some of the period’s finest thrillers. The trial itself is completely skipped over in favour of behind-the-scenes negotiations and narrative setups for Francis Gary Powers’ fateful mission over Sverdlovsk1.
But it is not until Tom Hanks is once again sent off to rescue one of the boys trapped behind enemy lines as he did 17 years ago in Saving Private Ryan that the story truly comes alive, as Donovan jumps from hoop to hoop, assisted by CIA handlers that don’t seem especially keen on trusting him with the job, never quite sure of exactly whom he is talking to. Determined to save both Powers and an unfortunate economics student caught on the wrong side of the newly-built Berlin Wall, Donovan bends all the rules established for him by all sides of the conflict to bring everyone back home safely.
It’s easy to see why James B. Donovan’s story appealed to Spielberg so much. Like Oskar Schindler, Frank Abagnale Jr. and Abraham Lincoln before him, Donovan is a historical figure that conveniently fits a certain kind of American liberal mythology: A charismatic, resourceful hero using rhetorical prowess and sheer audacity to outwit a system and solve conflicts non-violently. The inevitable simplification that results from such a reading is compensated for by Hanks’s innate trustworthiness and a politically astute screenplay – credited to Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers – that navigates Donovan through a diplomatic maze filled with verbal traps and political stumbling blocks, where everything, even events as random as a mugging, seems to be purposefully staged and set up to serve an agenda. Watching Donovan flush out these agendas and turn them to his advantage, all without pretending to be more sophisticated or knowledgeable than he really is, is one of the film’s chief pleasures. The little Coenesque touches, such as a comically awkward meeting with Abel’s “family” that ends with his “wife” bursting into tears, do a nice job of gently reinforcing the unfamiliar nature of Donovan’s experience.
If it had taken more chances with its characters and refrained from the occasional bout of audience manipulation, Bridge Of Spies could have been a truly thought-provoking political thriller. Thanks to Spielberg’s steady hand and the Charman/Coen Brothers team’s clever pacing, it avoids most of the pomposity associated with Oscar season period piece. Entertaining though it may be, those of us who appreciated Lincoln and the underrated Munich cannot help but miss Tony Kushner’s insight and wonder why Spielberg did not team up with him again.
1A city now known as Yekaterinburg.