We’re looking at an era of American history wherein a lawyer can petition a judge for fair process on behalf of a nonviolent foreign agent, only to receive “let’s not kid each other” and a swift rejection in lieu of a favorable response. A media addicted to large-font headlines and a political base addicted to the verbiage of charlatans and carnies has whipped the less-informed elements of the public into a paranoid frenzy, ensuring that they look sideways at anyone who reached our shores via passport. Members of government agencies don’t hesitate to sweep aside the Constitution whenever they need to get someone they don’t like locked behind a cell door. And domestic terrorism even increases with the nation’s fear—drive-by shootings and arsons, committed against those who are seen to be sympathizing with “the enemy.” This all sounds like right now, of course. But that’s just when the movie was made.
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies considers Cold War-era politics through the frame of a ’50s- and ’60s-set prisoner-exchange drama. You might call the resulting film a national self-portrait—or, at least, you’ll suspect that that’s what Spielberg would like you to say. That’s what he opens with, anyway: The first composition splits mid-level Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) into three pieces. We’re behind his head watching him paint his own visage; his reflection bounces off the mirror to his left; his melancholic deadpan resting permanently on the canvas to his right. He’s interrupted in his art by his job, and then again by the American agents who’ve decided that today is the day they can arrest him. While they rummage through the undersides of Abel’s property, Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography dresses them in shadow. There’s one ray of sunlight passing through the open window, and Spielberg frames things so that it envelops the exceptionally calm Soviet man. Like a halo.
We fade out of that face and into another one. It’s James Britt Donovan (Tom Hanks), the lawyer who’ll go on to save Abel from the death penalty by arguing with men like that “let’s not kid each other” judge. Bridge was co-written by the crafty brothers Coen—they worked from a script by Matt Charman, who himself worked from texts co-authored by the real Donovan—so when we meet the character, he tells us the subject of the entire film, translated into Coenesque code. He’s an insurance lawyer claiming that the five individual victims of an accident caused by a man insured by his client (“he’s not ‘my guy,’ stop calling him ‘my guy’”) will not be granted their own specific restitutions. Reason being that—even though five people were struck—there was only one single inciting event. So the subjects of this conversation are personal and structural responsibility for relatively anonymous individuals, as well as the interrelated qualities of seemingly separate occurrences. On that note, we cut back to Abel.
The public wants this spy to hang like an ornament off the Christmas tree. But somebody has to defend him in a court of law first, and Donovan is asked to take the job. Then he meets Abel, who remains sure as stone in his refusal to work with the government. He just wants his punishment, and maybe a pencil and some paper, if he can get some. Rylance gives Abel a set of unentitled eyes, and the script gives him an apolitical demeanor, and that combination allows him to win the lawyer over—the spy becomes “my guy.” Donovan does get the death penalty deferred, by arguing that Abel may be valuable as an item for trade in future years. When the judge reads his verdict of imprisonment—30 years—there are more calls for hanging from the crowd. And there’s another ray of sunlight coming in through the window, causing a flare on the screen. And it’s outlining Donovan this time.
Then there’s the second half of the film, which concerns the capture of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers by the USSR, and the efforts taken by Donovan—stationed in Berlin as a “private citizen,” which is to say, as an unofficial spy—to facilitate a trade that would get both of these captors (and maybe a third) back home. Bridge of Spies is built around structural links (the editing is by Spielberg regular Michael Kahn) between American military action and crimes that are committed against the nation stateside. “You have men like me doing the same for your country,” Abel says, stating the film’s primary provocation aloud, while asking for that aforementioned pad of paper. “If they were caught, I’m sure you’d wish them to be treated well.” When we see Powers caught, we see how he’s treated by his Soviet captors: He’s interrogated day and night, with no awareness of the scope of his imprisonment, as though he were locked down in Guantanamo. Spielberg emphasizes the bright lights and harsh sounds used to disrupt his sleep cycle. It looks, most of all, like Zero Dark Thirty. It looks like us.
It was Wesley Morris who wrote: “All movies choose their moment. It’s called a release date. Some moments, however, choose their movies.” He was writing about Let’s Be Cops, a comedy that opened one week after Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson. Bridge of Spies is another case where the moment chose the movie—it just happened to choose this one a month or two late. Spielberg’s movie opened back in October, and has quietly shuffled its way through the nation’s talking points ever since. Nobody is here to suggest that Steven Spielberg and his collaborators foresaw the attempts to remove citizenship and civil liberties from vetted refugees and ordinary Americans of a specific religious faith. Nobody’s even suggesting that Spielberg is linking, say, drone strikes with domestic terrorism. (One CIA agent notes to Donovan, during an international handoff, that he figures the Soviets have snipers. How does he know that? “Because we have snipers.”) The spirit of their subject is not meant to be read in such a specific manner. But the mere necessity of this subject—the effect of American political action on the nature of the American character—is tragic. Sad to say that we might benefit from a film, released in 2015, that reminds us that if grace and dignity exist—and if American ideals exist along with them—then we must extend their qualities across our own border.
You can call that whole spiel naive. Spielberg might too. The film ends with a contradiction, slipped into a composition, that’s meant to leave you wondering just how much good Donovan’s American do-gooderism has done. The question raised there is an integral one, because it’s a reminder that the film is chasing something much more ephemeral than the effect of bureaucracy or the necessity of morality. It’s the rays of light that Spielberg is searching for—the shine that’s been reserved for true patriots—the one that shows up on Donovan once more during the final prisoner exchange. It is significant that the man’s character has been idealized: the real Donovan had been removed from his position on a school board around the time of this film’s action, because he vehemently opposed racial desegregation. You’ll find not a hint of that anywhere here. Like Lincoln before him, Hanks’ Donovan has been painted as one of Spielberg’s better angels. Not a hero to be emulated, nor an ideal to be celebrated, but something more—a yardstick by which we might measure the American character. Searching through the murky shadows of international politics, Spielberg is always sure to leave some light in. Some hope that, beyond those portraits of politicians that tower above so many frames, the ideals that this nation was founded on might be found. Bridge of Spies is indeed the movie of our current moment, and that’s likely to be true for longer than any of us might like.