Steven Spielberg is evolving as a man, a filmmaker and an American legend. While he’s never shied away from the “big issues” humanity has faced — like the Holocaust — he is at heart a great entertainer. With Lincoln and now Bridge of Spies his work has turned inward, to the place where questions of right and wrong are decided in the human heart. Does the new Hollywood still have a place for such quiet contemplation? Bridge of Spies will soon put that to the test.
Bridge of Spies is about an unlikely hero, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who is tasked with defending public enemy number one, a caught spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is caught when he retrieves a hollow coin that contains KGB information. The film doesn’t declare Abel a spy and therefore immediately leaves his actions suspect. The point here is that Donovan doesn’t know if Abel is a spy or not, and he doesn’t even ask. What matters is that the accused has a right to due process under the law. Turns out, Donovan is the only one who believes that. We watch Abel watch Donovan, wondering whether this man’s integrity will collapse under the growing wall of fear built up during the Cold War.
In the end, this is a film about that formidable integrity that doesn’t waver but holds honorable men true to the principles around which our laws were written and upon which the country was founded. In the wake of post-WWII fear and hysteria, America itself became a mirrored reflection of its enemy. There were no clear cut enemies, but myriad perceived ones. Defenders on both continents fight their side because they have to. The film is a mirrored reflection of those two sides, like the hollow coin that gets Abel arrested in the film’s first scene — two sides of the same coin. Spielberg, and his screenwriters Matt Charman, and Joel and Ethan Coen, have little interest in telling that story. What they aim for and ultimately achieve is to hold up a mirror to Americans and our psyche as we are in 2015. Donovan and Abel strike up an unlikely friendship amid hostility flying at them from both sides. Spielberg references the theme both visually and thematically. In one beautifully shot scene both Abel and Donovan take their sides in the mirror. Spielberg’s eye and Janusz Kaminski’s camera repeatedly set up these two sides of the same coin.
The film takes its time. First examining Abel’s case, and then it moves to Berlin where the wall is coming up between East and West. Those desperate to escape the trap that East Germany became will risk life and limb to climb the wall, the wall that has since been torn down. The wall itself another reference to the two-sided coin, or the mirrored reflection between East and West Germany. In Bridge of Spies, reality comes second to appearances. Guilt or innocence is often determined simply by how someone looks because back then no one’s word could be trusted.
The difference is, Donovan is a man who doesn’t accuse and condemn based on appearances. He stresses that there is a moral line that a person must never cross. Do the right thing, no matter what the cost because eventually history will right itself and you want to be on the right side. Donovan was a stand-up guy who took on a difficult task and saw it through to dutiful result. For that, this film remembers him and shines a hopeful beacon for anyone who goes against public opinion in the name of justice.
Like Oskar Schindler and Abe Lincoln, Spielberg’s vision of Donovan is that of a good man who cared more deeply for others than for his own fate. If each of these three films ends with a trace of lament about the hopelessness of that trajectory, it’s only the stoic resolve for what we know about the way of such things and how impossible it is to give our doomed humanity that tacked on happy ending.
The literal and figurative bridge between the two sides — where prisoners are exchanged and favors are traded so that some kind of peace and security can be maintained — is ultimately the only solution to ongoing division. Once again, the coin, the mirror, and the bridge invoke the two sides of the same quandary — a shadowy interpretation of what can be seen, rather than what or who is really there.