Steven Spielberg has long been our foremost, and perhaps finest, liberal humanist, a nuanced artist even as he is also, at times, a nuanced ideologue. For a long time, he put forth his hopeful vision of the human animal within the wrappings of the fantastic; as he has gotten older, more and more often he has turned to history for his subjects, working within a style of high drama that simulates a product that used to be called, in old Hollywood, “prestige” or “quality pictures.” Starting with Schindler’s List (although previewed in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun), Spielberg raised the stakes of his aesthetic by making statements rather than simply telling stories that might happen to have (an often comforting) morality. As Spielberg has aged, his vision of the human endeavor has grown darker, but also more faceted; if his work is still often problematic (Schindler’s List, grim though it is, remains a fairy tale), it is still to be taken seriously, as the characters he portrays are fully three dimensional, and inhabit the middle tones of reality, rather than the high contrast relief of a cartoon. And although his subject matter has shifted from the far-flung, easily enthralling locales and concepts of his early work to the potentially deadly milieus of rooms in which characters do little but sit and talk, his style has kept pace, and we are never bored. Not that I have taken this to heart, for whenever a new Spielberg “quality” film comes out, I tend not to be excited to see it – “more drab gray and brown chromatics, more guys in suits standing around talking?” says I. I wind up dragging myself to the theater, but always come out braced, feeling remiss for not giving him more credit. So it went with Bridge of Spies, which I have only now finally seen, mostly because all my other choices had bottomed out. What is great about the film is that it speaks to our current moment, and appeals to the better angels of our nature (even though, for this viewer, only fools remain, as angels have long since learned that treading on Mars is safer and more interesting) – yet he does so by gentle, and subtle comparison, rather than with thundering histrionics. While he is out to convince us of something, he also believes in the self-evidence of his conviction, and so approaches us not as cynics in need of correction, nor naive patriots needing ammo for battle; that is to say, he treats his audience with intelligence, which is a rare enough thing these days.
Bridge of Spies concerns the seemingly undramatic, if not uninteresting, case of the clandestine spy swap that returned downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet hands. The film begins at the height of the cold war, as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (a great Mark Rylance) is captured in Brooklyn. Well regarded insurance attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to represent Abel, and after due consideration of how unpopular such a role will make him, takes the job, and mounts a vigorous defense. Much to his, and our, surprise, Abel has been prejudged not only by the public at large, but by the officers of the court as well – the judge on the case (Dakin Matthews) dismisses all of Donovan’s more than reasonable motions and makes it quite clear that, in his eyes, Abel is guilty of crimes against the state and should be executed. While Donovan does not dispute that Abel is guilty, he also finds him deserving of admiration, as although an enemy, he remains loyal to his cause and does not turn double agent, selling out his beliefs, or, at the least, his allegiance, for money or protection. Not wanting to see Abel executed, Donovan appeals to the judge’s realpolitik patriotism by suggesting that he be imprisoned, preserved in case the circumstance arises that an American agent is, at some time, captured by the Soviets and a deal need be made to bring that loyal solider home. The judge accepts this reasoning, and sentences Abel to jail, much to the consternation of the general public; Donovan’s defense of Abel, and his desire to move his case further through the appellate system, does indeed make him, and his family, momentary pariahs. Parallel to this story, we are introduced to America’s spying scheme involving the development of the U-2 aircraft, its deployment, and Francis Gary Powers’s (Austin Stowell) eventual capture, imprisonment, and interrogation by the Soviets. Now faced with the eventuality predicted by Donovan, the CIA decides that a swap is necessary to prevent Powers, who was instructed to kill himself rather than be captured, from spilling classified info. They tap Donovan to arrange the swap, as he has been approached, with much subterfuge, by the Soviets via a letter from Abel’s “wife.” Donovan travels to Berlin to arrange the swap without telling anyone, even his wife (Amy Ryan) what he is tasked with. Berlin, having just been rent asunder by the infamous wall, is a dangerous place for Donovan, as he is there without any protection, official or otherwise, and is only allowed to speak, sotto voce, for the U.S. in a fully deniable fashion. He is tasked with going into East Berlin to speak with a mysterious Mr. Vogel (Sebastian Koch), without escort and without contacts. Complicating matters is that, as the city was being divided, an American grad student was captured on the eastern side trying to bring his girlfriend across to the west – the student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), becomes a pawn in this game, as both the newly formed government of East Germany and the Russians, would prefer to trade him for Abel rather than Powers (the Russians for obvious reasons, the Germans to project the prominence of their newly formed state onto the world stage). Donovan, being the Dad and stand-up guy that he is, doesn’t want to leave Pryor behind, even though he is repeatedly warned by his CIA handler (Scott Shepherd) that he is not a priority. Donovan crosses into the east, and with his lawyerly wrangling, tries to negotiate a two for one swap. His success or failure remains unresolved until the last minute, at the early morning meeting on the titular bridge.
What makes the movie so great, and “relevant” (ugh), is that Spielberg echos forward so many of the paranoias and fears that, it must be said, have always been America’s bread and butter, but which have taken on a renewed virulence since 9/11, and he does so simply by showing, rather than saying. We recognize familiar names and sights (the U-2 takes off from an airbase in Pakistan, and looks much like a drone) and are perhaps a little taken aback by how much the now supposedly defunct Cold War still inflects, and infects, our body politic. The setting of the film, although slightly after the Second Red Scare, is at the height of nuclear hysteria, the effects of which Spielberg portrays effectively, both via Donovan’s young son (Noah Schnapp), who is heartbreakingly indoctrinated in the ways of useless fear at school, and by way of comparison with the behavior of Rudolf Abel. Abel, a painter and a man of consummate composure, is portrayed as a stoic – he continually, when asked by concerned seconds if he is not worried about his plight, responds, “Would it help?” We understand this is partly shorthand for the Russian national character, but it is also, when compared against the rabid hysteria and herd mentality of the Americans, a portrayal of our national character cast in relief, and a wise response to a world where the individual increasingly has less and less control or free will. Indeed, Spielberg, working from a script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers (which displays more insight and less cynicism than most of their directorial work), is at his finest in portraying the travails of men in a world of existential dead-ends, doing their work as best they can, and staying authentic by trying to match that work with their own moral code. The film is an excellent portrayal of humans trapped within the context of history – the Soviets are not boogeymen, but simply hysterical in different ways, and equally convinced of the rightness of their competing, and alien, system (which, as with the portrayal of Abel, defamiliarizes our own system, and makes it seem equally strange and absurd). There are some missteps, mostly in the details. Pryor is seen toting the one copy of his dissertation across the border with him on his mission to deliver his girlfriend from Communist hands – really? And the dialogue gets a little breezy and ahistorical (Abel at one point says there “might be a glitch”). No matter, though, as the heart of the film, and the most affecting part, is the relationship between Donovan and Abel, two men who can see beyond the era in which they are both prisoners, and who admire each other for having this quality of timelessness (perhaps the prerequisite for an ethics). Abel at one point tells a story of seeing his parents beaten by anti-Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, and contrasts them with a family friend who fascinated the young man because whenever he was knocked down, he immediately stood back up again, and was ravaged the worse for that trait. He compares Donovan favorably to this man, who he calls the “standing man.” And indeed, if Spielberg has an overarching theme throughout his body of work, it is the standing man – almost all of his films are portraits of him. Spielberg is an authentic artist, and it is also important that in an era where most of us cannot but crawl, that we see the standing man. Yet, this fascination is also Spielberg’s weakness. For there is no shame, or failure, in staying down when one is beaten, and what are we to say about those who cannot stand? Is there no sympathy, no place of honor, for them? Where is the artist who can, with equal eloquence, speak for, and redeem, the fallen, the defeated, the tired, and the weak?