The Guy Who Came In From The Cold: Bridge of Spies Review

Early on in Bridge of Spies, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) finds his house under fire from unknown assailants. When the police arrive to investigate the disturbance, an anonymous officer takes Donovan to task for defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy arrested for covert activities in the United States at the height of tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The officer in effect says that Donovan is getting what’s coming to him, with his treasonous-approaching defense of the spy putting himself and his family in danger. Countless photographers and reporters line the front lawn, insisting on making the humble insurance lawyer an unlikely casualty of the Cold War. While many would fold under the pressure of the moment as unnecessary intrusions to his and his family’s lives, Donovan refuses to back down to the pressures that come with his assignment, countering his own military tenure after the officer brings up his own, signaling both for the officer and the audience of Donovan’s awareness to the prices of freedom.

Anyone familiar with the filmography of Steven Spielberg understands this is part and parcel with his concerns as a filmmaker. Ever since Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg has perhaps been America’s foremost cinematic poet laureate, effortlessly translating national anxieties into narrative splendor. Though the iconic director will be most quickly remembered for his genre defining blockbusters that with every new entry defined the standards for commercial moviemaking, his more low-key historical dramas are nearly as numerous as the films involving outer space aliens or prehistoric monsters. For the last twenty years, Spielberg’s fascination with war seems like a natural direction to go, as he himself has no worlds left to conquer.

Like Lincoln before it, Bridge of Spies holds America’s feet to the fire, testing our ideals and ethics in conflicts that would be most quickly resolved with their abandonment. Donovan is voluntold to represent Abel under the guise that the U.S.’s legal system is a just one. However, Donovan quickly learns that the game is rigged and his job is to be a stand-in instead of a genuine defense. The lawyer and his defendant strike up a surprisingly warm relationship, understanding each other to be faithful citizens to their respective nations. Donovan’s own law firm, nation, and (worst of all) family[1] begin looking at him with suspicious eyes, questioning his ultimate intentions. His continual insistence to the importance of bearing out the freedoms protected in the Constitution never ring hollow. The grimaced, frequently uncomfortable reactions from these parties prove Donovan’s efforts to be truthful, but costly, consequences in living in a democracy.

Spielberg understands that no other actor on the planet can deliver as graceful or as believable performance here than Tom Hanks. Bridge of Spies works as the pair’s fourth on-screen collaboration and it appears to be their most quintessential.[2] Another actor could have made Donovan’s rougher edges[3] more pronounced, a decision that would have surely made the character more complex than the story calls for. Hanks though understands Donovan to be a uniquely American hero whose chief tool in combat was his ability to coax unwilling participants into making the ethical, if not always practical, decision. What made Lincoln work so well was Daniel Day-Lewis’s towering performance of our sixteenth president that simultaneously challenged his mythology while adding onto it. Bride of Spies, on the other hand, expertly utilizes Hank’s everyman persona to show how one ordinary, albeit talented, individual can force the hand of two nations to be humane in a time of war.

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All of Bridge of Spies’s first half legal wrangling turns out to be subtle set-up for the high stakes of the film’s second half. While Donovan fights for his client, the seemingly unrelated story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U2 spy pilot whose mission is to take reconnaissance pictures of Russian armaments, unfolds. However, Donovan’s prescient justification for keeping Abel alive in the event of a mutual prisoner exchange proves to be a fruitful opportunity to return Powers[4] home. In a much more superficial movie, the capture, survival, and recovery of Powers would have been the focal point of the narrative, as Americans will never tire of a story following one of their own countrymen outlasting a hostile, freedom-hating regime. Thankfully, Spielberg and his screenwriters[5] recognize Donovan and Abel as the story more worthy of attention in a contemporary climate that blindly abandons civil liberties for vague declarations of safety.

Donovan is recruited by the CIA to travel behind the Iron Curtain to negotiate the prisoner exchange, further separating Bridge of Spies into a movie of two halves. As it turns out, the methodical legalism of the first portion gives way to the cold and brutalist realities of instinctual endurance Donovan’s brand of diplomacy requires. Though East Berlin was no doubt draped in snow in February of 1962, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński emphasize its all-encompassing presence. The film makes visual the harsh conditions that Donovan (and by extension the ideals of America) is fighting against. To achieve his goal, our hero must contend with disingenuous negotiators, street hustlers, suppressive border guards, and even uncooperative allies. Though the Cold War ended nearly thirty years ago, Spielberg masterfully manages to make a movie that ideologically undercuts a communist East without making easily distinguishable heroes and villains on either side.

This sly control of drama is what separates Spielberg from his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. This humanistic story of Donovan could have easily been produced into a cheap, paint-by-numbers cash grab released in the mid-sixties to unironically champion Powers’s return while short changing Donovan’s more liberal, patient brand of heroism. Instead, the fifty year old story arrives to us in the midst of two failed wars that would have benefited from this broader historical perspective. The fact that many will neglect Bridge of Spies’s contemporary relevance is an understandable result of a populist auteur like Spielberg’s name being attached to it. Critics have even taken to calling it a relatively minor entry into a prolific career, missing the significance Spielberg has had as a historically attentive filmmaker. Regardless, the fact we get to see a new film from the greatest director to ever live is cause enough for consideration.

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[1] One of the most quietly affecting scenes involves Donovan and his son. After the child sees a traumatizing “duck and cover” film in class, he returns home to fill up the bathtub with water, in the event of a nuclear strike from the U.S.S.R. When his son begins showing him plans for survival and questioning his dad’s defense of Abel, Donovan assures his son that they hardly stand any chance in such a situation. But more importantly, his defense of Abel is as importance a moral test as any arbitrary “duck and cover” precaution.

[2] Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me if You Can, and The Terminal precede Bride of Spies.

[3] Which would consist of an at times commitment to work over family and an inability to compromise in the face of steady progress.

[4] As well as another American hostage, student Frederic Pryor.

[5] Which include Matt Charman and the legendary duo of Joel and Ethan Coen (probably my favorite directors!; but we’ll save that fangirling for another day).

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