Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg delivers a tense, well-crafted, thoughtful film about morality and duty in the Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. Based on a true story, it follows Tom Hanks as James Donovan, an attorney drafted into a late-50s spy trial that ends up leading to a prisoner swap in East Berlin.
Spielberg executes flawlessly, recreating the period and populating it with a fascinating cast of talented actors. The film is tight, thanks to a script whose writers include Joel and Ethan Coen, but feels almost languid. Events seem to unfold to their own rhythm rather than an editor’s. In other words, it’s not juiced up for modern, low-attention-span audiences. Hanks holds the film together, bringing the weight of a career playing decent men in dire or indecent circumstances. Both men make what they do look astonishingly effortless.
Donovan’s story would have been compelling cinema, in these hands, at any time, but it’s a tale particularly relevant to the current era. A Soviet spy is captured in the film’s opening moments, and when no one wants to defend the man—when no one particularly cares to give the man a fair trial—eventually Donovan is asked to take the job. An insurance lawyer who’d been on the prosecution team at Nuremberg, Donovan wants nothing to do with the case, but takes it out of a sense of duty. Then he defends his client vigorously, out of that same sense of duty to his client and the Constitution.
When the Russians capture Gary Powers in the embarrassing U2 spy plane incident, an exchange is set up, and Donovan is called in to negotiate, because the United States won’t formally work out a deal. While the U.S. government, in the person of the CIA, cares only about the pragmatic need to quickly retrieve a pilot with classified information, Donovan is equally concerned with an innocent American academic held by the East Germans, and struggles to work out a three-way deal among two touchy Eastern Bloc governments, with zero support from Washington.
It’s a story about principle over expedience, and also about the honor of dishonorable work. Their spy is vilified, but Tom Hanks finds honest nobility in the man. The Eastern officials he negotiates with surely have blood on their hands, yet Hanks can do business with them. His American contacts contrast the Europeans by being brusque, self-righteous and … just dicks, basically. As Hanks stands tall for the Constitution, for the duty of a citizen, and for the honor of any man serving his country—whichever country—faithfully, one can’t help but reflect on the era of NSA lies, Guantanamo Bay, underserved veterans and all the rest, and find ourselves lacking.