ALERT: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS A LOT OF SPOILERS.
Steven Spielberg is one of the most prominent neo-classicists working today in American cinema. He inherited the masterful craftsmanship, elegance and irresistible allure that characterise the Golden Age of Hollywood. Despite this, or rather because of this, Spielberg has been an easy target for quick critical brush-offs and patronisation: often credited as a great talent for technically well-made Hollywood A pictures with mass appeal, but never as a serious artist. ‘Populist,’ ‘childish,’ and ‘naivety’ are some of the words frequently and instantly conjured up to criticise the filmmaker.
Personally, I think it’s time we developed a new critical language to appreciate Spielberg’s oeuvre. I myself used to be one of his detractors, but the growth he has shown as a cinéaste in the last twenty years deeply impresses me. While still not too enthusiastic about Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, I believe that his career from A.I. onwards is enough to grant him an auteur status, which is not traditionally associated with his name. And his latest Cold War drama-thriller Bridge of Spies is yet another compelling evidence for Spielberg’s ‘artistic’ merits.
Bridge of Spies follows the American insurance lawyer James Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) involvement in what eventually escalates into an off-the-record spy swap negotiation between the United States and the Soviet Union. From the outset, the movie makes it painfully clear that Donovan is no angel. The audience’s first introduction to the character takes place at a negotiation table where his deft trickery and manipulation are demonstrated. He skilfully argues that an accident that has resulted in five injured drivers should be treated as a single accident affecting five people, as opposed to five accidents caused by one.
Hence, it comes across as a puzzling turn of plot when Hanks’s seemingly slippery attorney character is asked to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) whom the U.S. governments believes to be a Soviet spy. Nevertheless, we soon learn that Donovan has previously worked with the government’s prosecution at the Nuremberg trials. Moreover, he turns out to be the kind of man who upholds professionalism and its ethics above anything else—the kind you would typically find in Howard Hawks’s films (Only Angels Have Wings, for instance).
This means that whatever task is given to Donovan, he wants to do it properly: even if that task is to defend a high-profile public enemy like Abel. That he is really there to make the whole trial appear ‘fairer’ than it actually is does not matter to him in the slightest. His serious efforts to win the case unsurprisingly angers many people, from his family to the judge to the whole nation. Numerous challenges including an armed attack on his home notwithstanding, Donovan perseveres and manages to strike a deal—30 years in prison instead of heading straight to the electric chair.
I briefly touched upon the ‘Hawksian’ professionalism found in this film. Take the highly-charged dialogue exchanged between Donovan and the C.I.A. agent Hoffman, for instance. The agent presses the lawyer into violating attorney-client privilege to extract classified information from Abel, insisting that there is no “rulebook” in all this. As a response, Donovan delivers these wonderful lines about the rulebook—that is the Constitution—that makes him, an Irish, and Hoffman, a German, both ‘Americans.’ Like a professional, he always plays by the ‘rulebook’—be it defending a client or just being a ‘good American.’
In Hawks’s To Have and Have Not, this ethics of professionalism is exactly what makes Humphrey Bogart’s character Steve heroic. He does not ideologically align himself with neither the French resistance against the Vichy rule nor the Gestapos. He simply does what he has been paid to do. Yet, somehow he does not turn into one of those shady scumbags like Hank Quinlan brilliantly played by Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. Why? Because he plays by the ‘rulebook,’ and works only with those who do the same. Whereas the Gestapos operate with no spine in their backs, the French dissidents show utmost respect for the moral codes strongly rooted in professionalism; and that’s all it takes for Steve to help them.
Similarly, the question Abel asks Donovan upon their first encounter is “are you good at what you do?” The only thing Abel needs to know about the attorney is whether or not he is a good one. In the same vein, Donovan develops a good deal of respect for Abel because of his steadfast adherence to what I would like to call ‘espionage ethics.’ The Russian’s signature line “would it help?” is the shining example of his amazing stoicism absolutely required in espionage activities, and singularly professional determination. And we know that Donovan’s respect is reciprocated when Abel gives his attorney an endearing nickname “standing man.” Powerful solidarity has formed between these earnest professionals, like in the world of Hawks.
But there’s one particular moment in the first half of Bridge of Spies that complicates the ‘rulebook & professionalism’ equation. This is a scene in which Donovan visits the judge Byers’s home to beseech him to change his mind about electrocuting the defendant. The lawyer makes an extremely convincing case for keeping Abel as an ‘insurance policy’ for a possible swap bargain between the two superpowers. Clearly, this is a departure from his rulebook and legal ethics. But at the same time, it’s also a demonstration of his forte as an insurance lawyer, echoing the previous scene where Donovan absolutely ‘owns’ the bargain table.
What’s more, in the big picture, Donovan’s move reflects his strong will to defend the values of the Constitution. While it is the ‘insurance’ argument that wins the judge over, his sincere belief lies in the humanitarian angle he throws in. For him, the constitutional rights should extend to absolutely everyone, regardless of one’s nationality, ideology, religion, etc. The only way to do anything properly is to stick to the core principles; and being an American is no exception. Only those who are incompetent need to bend rules. Think of the raid scene at the beginning in which C.I.A. agents do not even realise that they have just let Abel destroy what may have been a crucial piece of evidence. Subsequently, the police force pathetically tries to exceed its authority with an unwarranted search as an attempt to make up for the blunder.
So, the U.S. government spares Abel’s life, and as if by a strange turn of fate, the U.S.S.R. soon sends a backchannel letter proposing a prisoner exchange. Donovan’s ‘spy swap’ argument turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy after all. Naturally, the C.I.A. appoints the insurance lawyer as the ‘unacknowledged’ government representative at the negotiation table. The primary American subject of the exchange is the U-2 plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. However, it is soon revealed that there is another American captive named Frederic Pryor, a graduate student from Yale who is working on a thesis concerning the Soviet model of economy. The U.S. officials have no interest in the Ivy League boy, but Donovan, of course, is determined to save both of them.
The show is to take place in Berlin where the political climate is becoming increasingly complicated. The brooding tension between the East and the West side of the city (and the country, for sure) has reached its peak, and the Wall is about to be erected. Meanwhile, Donovan, whose American passport automatically makes him a persona non-grata in the East side of the city, has to make highly risky travels crossing the Iron Curtain, without the guarantee that he would be able make it back safely.
The uncertainty about the protagonist’s task and the future of the divided Germany is best captured in Donovan’s point of view shot of the three East Berliners brutally shot down during their attempt to cross the Wall. The most striking aspect about this rather brief moment is that the shot is taken from a moving West-bound train where Hanks’s character is on board. On one level, the shot’s inability to stand still and bear witness to the murders embodies Donovan’s own helplessness and the weight put on his shoulders. The whole business Donovan has gotten himself involved now looks discernibly lethal, and openly expressed confidence comes across as a sign of, in its mildest, recklessness .
At the same time, the decision to place the camera on a moving vehicle seems to reflect Spielberg’s firm ethical standpoint in regards to the representation of death on screen. Jacques Rivette, as a critic before his directorial debut, harshly criticised the Holocaust drama Kapò because of a single shot that aestheticises death. In this film, the shot where a Jewish prisoner (played by Emmanuel Riva) abruptly throws herself on electric barbwire to end her life is followed by the travelling shot that reframes her now dead body. Of course, this may maximise its dramatic effect and heighten the tragic sentiment that the filmmaker supposedly tried to convey. Nevertheless, it is clearly an act of treating death as pure spectacle, therefore downright vulgarity. Thankfully, Spielberg spares us from suffering through any unnecessary obscenity. And, in fact, this ascetic representation of death makes the shot much more powerful and even shocking.
One may guess that Donovan would feel utterly resigned after the realisation of his impotence before the horrifying reality of Cold War. Yet, precisely the opposite happens. He is now more determined than ever to save both Americans, and somehow just knows that he can manage this seemingly impossible task. At the end of the day, he is able to make the victims of a six-vehicle crash divide a single-accident compensation, as opposed to each getting a full payment; so, why not 2 for 1 deal?
Right from the beginning, however, Donovan runs into troubles. First, he has to deal with the faux bureaucrats representing Union of Soviet Socialist Republic AND German Democratic Republic; second, the names are way too long (a comedic device, which I believe is the work of Coen Brothers who also worked on the screenplay). While the Russians, holding Powers, would like to keep the whole event as discrete as possible, the East Germans, holding Pryor, see in all this an opportunity to establish themselves as a major influence in the global politics.
What does Donovan do? Again like a Hawksian hero, he comes up with a Machiavellian scheme (but within the boundaries set by the rulebook)—he threatens the East German authority by claiming that the failure to return Pryor will in turn wreck the spy exchange between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., thereby infuriating the Soviets. Of course, the Germans cannot afford to take the blame for the damage of such scale, so they comply. And just as we have expected, in the end both Powers and Pryor return home safely, and Abel is taken back to Moscow.
Most of the audience members may be perfectly aware of the film’s happy ending well in advance. But the exchange sequence that cross-cuts between the Glienicke Bridge and Checkpoint Charlie is nonetheless very gripping. It’s not exactly a ‘suspenseful’ moment in the Hitchcockian sense. Yet, the intensity of the sequence fascinates us as though what we are observing is a miracle of sort. Once Abel makes it to the Soviet side, the camera frames Donovan starring at the other side of the bridge, then slowly pulls back. Abel’s steady poker face creates a stark contrast with what is unmistakably the ‘Spielberg face’ on Donovan’s. The sense of awe and disbelief displayed on Hanks’s face exactly mirrors my reaction to the power of Bridge of Spies. But the film doesn’t end there.
Spielberg takes Donovan back in Brooklyn, and reminds us that he is just an ordinary man. It’s as if the filmmaker just had to demystify this character, prompted by the fear that he may mistakenly come across as one of those larger-than-life heroes in the classic Westerns. The lawyer doesn’t even bother to tell his family what he has been up to. When they do find out, no celebration takes place; he’s too busy catching up on sleep. Next day presumably, he gets on a morning train headed to his workplace. As it turns out, the photograph of his face is all over the front page of the major newspapers. But, Spielberg doesn’t give us the triumphant moment of a hero’s return home. Instead, another point of view shot taken from the moving train—like the one I discussed above—of a group of young people playfully climbing over a wall. This poignant moment of contemplation that echoes the grim reality of East Berlin accounts for Donovan’s maturity, as well as, without doubt, Spielberg’s.