There is the bright-eyed, boundless adventurer version of Steven Spielberg and the classical, historically reverent version of Steven Spielberg. Both are relentlessly old-fashioned, almost Rockwellian in their iconic orthodoxy, though the difference lies in the thematic underpinning. Whereas the adventurous Spielberg is about the simple joy of rollicking thrills, the reverent Spielberg is more contemplative and conflicted, applying traditional iconography but peeling back the imagery to reveal a murky underbelly of hazy morality and compromised principles.
Bridge of Spies sits firmly in the latter category, a pristinely mounted fact-based historical drama steeped in backroom deal-making in the face of seemingly insurmountable geopolitical inevitability. Set in the heart of Cold War strife, as spies were deployed and hunted by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as the Berlin Wall was being built and anyone who dared to cross it was gunned down, the film is less about the intricacies of the espionage game than about the universal human toll of such an enterprise. “Every person matters” is the film’s constant refrain, which is a sentiment that surely got lost in the midst of a conflict wherein a person’s value was based solely on the suspicion of what secrets they were harboring and/or transmitting.
One such person is Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is the personification of the “melting pot” – he lives a quiet life in Brooklyn, speaks with an unassuming British accent, and is apparently a KGB officer transmitting secret messages from the Soviet Union. In a fabulous cat-and-mouse game of an opening sequence, Abel is followed and eventually arrested for espionage by the CIA. Not that it does the American government much good, since Abel is as tight-lipped and stoic as one might expect a Soviet spy to be; he reveals no secrets and refuses multiple offers for clemency in exchange for information.
Since due process – or at least the appearance of it – is at the center of the American diplomatic strategy, the thankless role of defending Abel in court falls to James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer who is a noble humanist, but who also knows how to cut deals and work the system to his liking. We meet Donovan in a seemingly innocuous exchange with an opposing counsel in which they parse words and numbers over the definition of “client” and the number of offenses that can be compiled within a single event. Those hazy definitions take on increased complexity as Donovan is unwittingly pulled deeper into the geopolitical maze when American spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is arrested after his plane is shot down during a CIA reconnaissance mission. The CIA sends Donovan to the Soviet Embassy in West Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange – the U.S. will give up Abel if the Soviet Union releases Powers. But the waters are further muddied when Donovan learns an American doctoral candidate – a true innocent – has been detained in East Germany just as the dividing line of the Berlin Wall is set. Donovan wants to bring both Americans home in exchange for Abel – his “client” list ever-expanding, true to his desire to handle multiple offenses within one event.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple, especially when negotiations are at the center of an ideological battle between nations. The complexities of said ideological battle, as delivered via the human element that said nations often ignored, is the thematic thrust that elevates Bridge of Spies above all its trappings – from the spy genre conventions to the period restrictions to even Spielberg’s stylistic mayonnaise, which is always gorgeous but no longer trailblazing. The Coen brothers are credited as screenplay contributors (with Matt Charman), and their unique flair for blending quirky humor with sneaking menace pervades scene after scene, invigorating what might otherwise feel like stale fact-based drama. Donovan could’ve been viewed as a noble, black-and-white family man, but in this screenplay he is a colorful snarky shark, ready and willing to work the angles. Even tertiary characters are vividly odd, which imbues the material with a sense of humorous unrest; anyone could turn and anything could go wrong.
Through this elaborate spy game, populated with these quirky characters, in this uncertain environment, Spielberg is free to indulge that contemplative and conflicted side of his thematic consciousness. Bridge of Spies becomes an exploration – in ways both subtle and overt – of the entrenched system of disharmony and mistrust that led to the Cold War and, thus, to this specific tentacle of it. Cultural divides, civil unrest, and geocentrism sowed the seeds of prejudicial assumptions, and those assumptions escalated a global conflict. That aforementioned Rockwellian surface image disguised the internal conflicts of the Cold War era in ways not dissimilar from how our current surface image of progress and societal evolution disguises some of the still-festering prejudices of the present day. As ever, those prejudices will lead to conflicts both at home and abroad, and will likely continue in perpetuity until that mythical day when we all realize that every person matters.
What a daunting bridge to cross.