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Film Review: Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies (2015; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Bridge of Spies is a film of contrary impulses which is tugging fitfully against itself in nearly every moment. A historical drama of paranoid Cold War backroom tension from two of the contemporary American cinema’s pre-eminent creative power-brokers of mass-appeal neoliberal optimism, Bridge of Spies was also (re-)written by two of that same cinema’s wooliest and most idiosyncratic artistic iconoclasts. This tension is ingrained in its tone, themes, and storytelling choices, and grants the film a series of contrasts that are, at times, compelling and, at others, highly problematic.

The optimists in question are director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Hanks, who see in the secret negotiations carried out by insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) for the exchange of a Soviet spy for American captives behind the Iron Curtain a complex but ultimately patriotic parable of their nation’s determined and intelligent preservation of its democratic soul in the face of an implacable challenge from a forbidding enemy who does not share its high-minded scruples. The iconoclasts are Joel and Ethan Coen, who revised Matt Charman’s original screenplay and whose signatures are evident all over the dialogue and some of the outlandish situations faced by Donovan (and even, I would fancy, on Spielberg’s visual composition).

The Coens’ screenplay carries the heavy-handed messages about unimpeachable American freedom and constitutional values that Spielberg and Hanks envision this account of the early 1960s negotiations in Berlin involving imprisoned spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) being traded for captured U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and detained student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) as typifying. But it isn’t difficult to descry a much stranger, more paranoid and ambiguous version of this same story straining to break free in the Coens’ words. One cannot help but wonder what the Coens’ take on this material would be in another world, although it’s far from their particular cup of tea and the brothers have already tackled America’s post-war anxiety in The Man Who Wasn’t There and provided a rebelliously loopy takedown of the U.S.’s secret state in Burn After Reading.

But Bridge of Spies is the movie that it is, not what it might have been with different creative stewards. One has to admit that it isn’t bad, in general terms. To summarize at least some of the plot setup, Donovan is asked to defend the accused Soviet spy Abel in what is essentially a show trial. He accepts, but takes the lofty principles of the American justice system much more seriously than those running it: what was intended as a token defence of an enemy destined for execution becomes a vigorous legal fight all the way to the Supreme Court that sees Abel imprisoned for life instead of being put to death, largely through Donovan’s efforts in the name of due process.

Donovan sways the good-ol’-boy judge in Abel’s case to forgo the death penalty mainly by invoking the possibility that a Soviet spy in an American prison could be a valuable trade asset should an American of similarly high value ever fall into Russian hands. As Donovan proceeds with Abel’s defence, Spielberg sprinkles in scenes of Powers’ preparations for his fateful spy plane flight. Shot down by Soviet missiles over the Urals in the film’s sole spectacular seat-gripping effects showcase, Powers winds up in Soviet custody and, as Donovan predicted, Abel is a tantalizing bargaining chip for the young pilot’s return.

To Spielberg’s credit, Bridge of Spies does not shy away from the tangled and sometimes bizarre details of Donovan’s exchange-brokering sojourn to a Berlin newly divided between West and East by a barbed-wire-topped wall. Donovan’s initial awkward and almost certainly staged meeting with Abel’s supposed “family” plays out like a classic Coens scene, as does much of Donovan’s interactions with his CIA minder Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), whom he bullies into following his lead from their first meeting forward. The arrangement of actors, props, and lighting in a couple of covert-action scenes in the Berlin safehouse even seem like compositional homages to the Coens’ masterfully stark imagery in their revered neo-noirs like No Country For Old Men and Fargo. This is not to say that Spielberg does not assert his own visual sense: the climactic early-hours exchange on a Berlin bridge is a practically monochromatic masterpiece, white snow and the black bridge, dark figures concluding geopolitical machinations upon this simultaneous visual metaphor of tentative outreach and cooperation and Manichean good-evil contrast (more on that in a moment).

Hanks cannot ably resist leaning into Donovan’s Middle-American dadhood (sweater vests, ahoy!) and self-deprecating modesty like the latter-day Jimmy Stewart archetype he’s chased since transitioning to drama, though he is canny enough to slip in a shadow of the recognition that the latter trait at least is frequently employed as a cagey ploy to strengthen his negotiation position through misdirection. He comes to like and respect the taciturn Abel (Rylance is the best thing about Bridge of Spies by many miles; his wry and careful performance is just the type of turn that often earns the Academy’s attention for Best Supporting Actor) enough to entwine a protective impulse with his ironclad values and drive his mission to legally defend the enemy combatant as best he can, despite escalating personal costs (the ever-excellent Amy Ryan provides standard-issue counter-pressure as Donovan’s wife). Sebastian Koch stands out among the rest of the supporting cast as the protean East German representative Vogel, although not least among Spielberg’s adaptations of the Coens’ methods in Bridge of Spies is the careful application of memorable and unique actors for even the slightest supporting roles.

But Steven Spielberg has got to be Steven Spielberg, and he does not choose to borrow the Coens’ cynical (yet finally humane) skepticism concerning the trumpeted values of the American project. Spielberg rose to be the pre-eminent cinematic mythmaker of his era by melding his perspective (which is not always easy to pick out in his films) with dominant conventions and myths, not by deconstructing and challenging them as the Coens have. A notable episode of the Cold War, particularly one that was largely a face-saving effort after the putative good guys were humiliatingly caught with their hand in the proverbial espionage cookie jar, might seem like an odd choice to demonstrate the triumph of American values for the nominally liberal Spielberg (as opposed to a filmmaker more in tune with neoconservative self-aggrandizement). The erection of the enormous secret state, whose pernicious tendrils are now inextricably woven up with the American government and pervade and threaten every aspect of liberty in civic life, is the greatest legacy of the Cold War (with empowered international terrorism and Vladimir Putin’s regenerated post-capitalist Iron Curtain as close podium-placers). A success in this conflict, even one so sublimely telegraphed as being uncompromised as Donovan’s, hardly seems cause for triumph, but Spielberg can find the humanist glow in almost any bleak social or political scenario, much like a latter-day Charles Dickens.

Also like Dickens, Spielberg never trusts his audiences with too much complexity or ambiguity, especially in moral terms. Although Donovan finds in Berlin that Russian and East German interests are not as monolithically entwined as Stateside propaganda would have it, Bridge of Spies must club viewers over the head with this divergence of goals in the early years of the Soviet/satellite relationship, as it must with Donovan’s principled stand for constitutional rights, even for a non-citizen like Rudolf Abel. Spielberg’s habit of mawkish emotional manipulation makes an appearance more than once, as well. Donovan’s teenage daughter endures gunshots through the front window of the family home in response to her father’s defence of Abel, the lanky and innocent Pryor’s capture by jackbooted East German troops at the newly-closed Berlin Wall is wrung shamelessly through his anguished girlfriend, and there is even a tearful schoolgirl watching a classroom civil defence film about the threat of nuclear war.

More than simply emotionalizing the context, Bridge of Spies establishes a blatant contrast between the opposing Cold War superpowers that is unambiguous and cut-and-dry. Even if bluff men in suits declare Abel guilty before his trial even commences, despite cagey CIA types willing to abandon lower-priority American captives to their fates rather than antagonize the Russians, there is never any question that the United States, represented by that angel of its better nature Jim Donovan, wears the white hat while the Soviet Union wears the deepest black. Abel may be rushed along to conviction, but Powers is dwarfed by propagandistic absolutism at his sentencing without even the barest hint of jurisprudence; Abel is interrogated but later allowed to listen to classical music and otherwise is well-treated, while Powers is subjected to sleep deprivation tactics by the Soviets to coerce him into revealing state secrets (the association with America’s Guantanamo detainees is evident, but is smothered by the soft-focus flag-waving that dominates otherwise). Even if America is bad, this film asserts, it is never nearly as bad as those rascally Reds.

Spielberg’s core visual metaphor for the vital difference that he perceives between Communist oppression and American freedom is among the most powerful invoked in Bridge of Spies, but also among its most naive and rose-tinted juxtapositions. While in Berlin, through the windows of a train, Donovan witnesses ordinary Germans gunned down while attempting to scale the wall between East and West on a dark, frigid winter night. Back in New York City, he looks out of the window of an elevated subway car and watches as children, dappled with warm sunlight, leap a fence in joyous liberty. Hanks, to his credit, does not have Donovan smile beneficently in this closing statement summarizing what he has seen and done; he is troubled by the first-hand memory of tyranny, the trajectory of brutality rising unbidden into his life when he does not expect it.

A more daring and confrontational filmmaker might have turned this visual metaphor into something more compelling and less maudlin. Let’s say, an African-American male scaling the NYC fence only to be pulled down and beaten (or even shot) by police. But the instinct to make such an inflammatory association is not Steven Spielberg’s (or, one should acknowledge, the Coens’ either). Questioning America’s firm but insufferable sense of self-righteousness when compared to the Soviet Union, or any other foreign power, whose state-sponsored violence diverges from its own merely by openness and magnitude (and sometimes not even by those measures) is not what Bridge of Spies intends. Or, rather, it does intend that at times, with its depictions of an anti-democratic elite, a lynch-mob public, a cynical and dull-witted intelligence service, and potentially provocative associations between the interrogation practices of past authoritarian states and the contemporary American one. But at key junctures, it elects not to carry through with its trembling critiques of American power, selecting instead a sunny illumination of idealistic American exceptionalism. Bridge of Spies is frequently fascinating in its Cold War intrigue, but ultimately inadequate in its treatment of the implications of that intrigue.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews
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  1. January 1, 2016 at 10:07 am

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