Director Steven Spielberg has created some of contemporary cinema’s most iconic visual sequences — the terrifying T-rex attack in “Jurassic Park” and the climactic alien encounter of “Close Encounters” spring to mind.
by Noah Gittell
Director Steven Spielberg has created some of contemporary cinema’s most iconic visual sequences — the terrifying T-rex attack in “Jurassic Park” and the climactic alien encounter of “Close Encounters” spring to mind. But in the last decade, he has become fascinated with the spoken word: “Catch Me if You Can” and “Munich” were dialogue-driven masterpieces, while “Lincoln” dramatized a crucial moment in American history through verbal debate and dramatic oratory.
Perhaps that’s why the first few minutes of “Bridge of Spies” are so thrilling. Spielberg offers a return to taut visual filmmaking, and he does it without special effects. Rudolf Abel, an ordinary, middle-aged man, leaves his Brooklyn apartment and travels on the subway, while being tailed by a group of men in suits immediately recognizable as FBI agents. They lose him on the streets, and he ends up on the banks of a river, where he removes a storage device that has been taped to the underside of a park bench. Back at his apartment, the government workers bust into his apartment and arrest him, while the man – now revealed as a Soviet spy – casually crumples a piece of paper removed from the device and hides it in the garbage.
It’s a tense, nearly wordless sequence that efficiently sets the tone, themes, and plot of this quietly riveting film. During the height of the Cold War, the federal government determines that this Russian spy needs a proper defense – in order to preserve the appearance of a fair trial — so they hire insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to take the case. Under siege from angry neighbors who don’t understand why a Soviet needs a defense at all, as well as government officials who want Donovan to break lawyer-client privileges and share information, Donovan is a typical Spielberg hero: a paragon of quiet dignity in morally gruesome times. It’s a role made for an everyman like Hanks, whose looseness and affability is a pleasant counterpoint to his character’s moral rigidity.
“Bridge of Spies,” however, is not a courtroom drama, and the trial is only the first act. After Abel is convicted (but not executed), Donovan is sent to East Berlin, where the Wall is being constructed, in order to negotiate a swap with the Soviets for an American pilot captured behind enemy lines. Diplomacy with both the USSR and newly formed East Germany is a complex game. At times, Donovan isn’t sure whom he’s meeting with, what power they actually hold, or, of course, if they can be taken at their word. Neither can the audience, and while it’s often difficult to follow the actual twists of the negotiation, it’s the message that matters.
After all, “Bridge of Spies” isn’t really a spy story. Donovan isn’t a spy, and his aim isn’t to extract crucial information to win a war. Donovan is tasked with negotiating a simple swap, but when he learns of an American student being held by the East Germans, he decides to add him to the negotiation against the instructions of his U.S. government superiors. In the midst of a Cold War that threatens millions, his charge is to save a handful of lives, and the film shows the value of holding onto our humanity, even in grim, violent times.
It’s an ethos best personified in the slow-building friendship between Donovan and Abel. Both are patriots in their own way; Abel is as committed to the Communist cause as Donovan is to the U.S.
Constitution, and their ability to recognize themselves in each other displays an empathy that, in our politically-divided times, almost borders on revolutionary. While the divisions we face in contemporary society may not be as dramatic as those of the Cold War, they are no less endemic, and this friendship between characters that are ideologically opposed is a powerful political statement.
“Bridge of Spies” may not be a thrilling spy film, but it’s the one we need.
My Rating: See it in the Theater