Keeping the Dream Alive
by Jeff Reichert

Bridge of Spies
Dir. Steven Spielberg, U.S., 20th Century Fox

There’s quiet at the outset of Bridge of Spies, but only for a few moments. After a title card bearing a few lines proclaiming the year (1957) and the scene (the threat of thermonuclear war hangs heavy on the world; spies from the two main Cold War antagonists are everywhere), it opens in a cramped, sunlit apartment. A man paints a self-portrait. We see him first in triptych: the back of his head planted between his face reflected in a mirror on one side and emerging on the canvas on the other. The silence is shattered by a ringing phone, and as he rises to answer, the camera tracks revealing a room stuffed full of gadgetry—cameras, recording devices and other indiscernible objects. There’s a bright light shining directly at the screen, silhouetting the man as he listens silently to his caller. This glow doesn’t seem to be motivated by any practical implement in the room, and seems much brighter, bluer, and more direct than the sun would likely be, so, clearly, we must be in a film by Steven Spielberg.

The unknown man is soon off like a shot. After he descends onto a subway platform, the camera suddenly turns away from him into a sea of brown and gray suits and hats (this is 1957, after all) and alights on another man and begins moving with him, but we’re not sure for a moment if he’s important. What happened to the first man? Soon we pick up a third subject, and ride the train with all of them. As the sequence progresses, we realize the camera’s movements and the film’s editing are working in tandem to execute a series of wordless handoffs that reveal to us that the first man, the painter, is being followed by a group of other men. We’re not just watching a few guys riding the subway in period Brooklyn, we’ve been eased into a breathless chase sequence largely unawares.

Thus this opening to Bridge of Spies is classically Steven Spielberg, here reminding, should we have forgotten, that he’s one of the most cinematically dexterous filmmakers to ever work the medium. But this sequence also reminds that what’s perhaps most remarkable about his talent is how gently he wields his easy facility with imagemaking; there’s no arrogance here—information is not withheld for the purposes of backhanding the viewer with a cheap revelation later. It’s withheld because Spielberg intuitively grasps the pleasures to be gained by a viewer in the sussing out of what’s happening, and we can sense his own delight in helping audiences along in how each shot over-delivers. Spielberg’s camera doesn’t move unless it’s to be the best move. It doesn’t settle until it’s on the right frame. There’s an initial moment of discomfort when we lose the painter in the crowd, but we needn’t have worried at all. We’re near-always safe with Spielberg; his films are built around an unparalleled clarity of space, and when their imagery functions to disorient our perspective it’s only in order to make the reorientation even more effectively stabilizing. He aims to please.

This first, short movement of Bridge of Spies, which results in the arrest of the painter on charges of espionage, sets in motion a true-life Cold War thriller made at a time when our national preference for movie enemies has drifted towards the brown, bearded, and Arabic-speaking. It’s a movie thick with old-school espionage, with Russians and East Germans, with heavily coded talk, heavier curtains, swirled Armenian brandies and rampant Atomic Age angst (this last gets a serious look after the hilarious piss-take it received in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). There’s a twist though: our hero is not the painter, or any of the men who caught him, but Tom Hanks, who plays John Donovan, mild-mannered father, husband, partner in a New York insurance law practice, and avatar of America entire.

Donovan, who cut his teeth playing a minor but crucial role in the Nuremberg trials, has been asked to defend the painter, alleged Russian spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (née Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, played here by Mark Rylance with a set of facial mannerisms that oddly recall Estelle Getty’s on The Golden Girls). He’s been picked up in a sting, dubbed “The Hollow Nickel Case” after the key clue, a hollowed-out coin containing microfiches turned over to the authorities by a fourteen-year-old newspaper boy. The evidence against Abel is overwhelming, and the judge seems to have made up his mind before the trial has even begun (as has the entire nation). Donovan is being courted by the U.S. government to make a point to the world: even though the threat to national security represented by Abel is grave, holding fast to the Constitution, or at least the appearance of such, sends an important message abroad about our values. Though Donovan’s wife (Amy Ryan) and children have misgivings, there’s no question in his mind about what he’ll do.

And he does it very well indeed—though he loses the case, clever backroom maneuvering staves off the death penalty in favor of a lengthy jail term. His appeals, which question the constitutionality of search procedures employed by the FBI to collect evidence against Abel, take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. At every step he’s met by skeptics—from his neighbors on the train to work, to a cop dispatched to his house to investigate gunshots in the night. Why represent Abel so ably when it’s so clear that he’s guilty of espionage? (Many say “treason,” but Donovan’s first legal re-frame is to defuse that word’s power; how can Abel be a traitor when he’s in the U.S. doing exactly what he’s been hired to do and for whom he’s been hired to do it?). Donovan’s jowly, round jaw squares against the onslaught—he’s not just defending Abel, he is defending principles crucial to our country’s DNA. For him, being true to America means willing to take on the unpopular task.

As the narrative of Donovan’s defense of Abel progresses (compressing four years into a fleet first act), we meet Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a young pilot drafted into running U-2 spy plane flights over the USSR from Pakistan. Crosscutting of Donovan orating before the Supreme Court with the fighter squad learning the ins and outs of their U-2s makes a clear point: American strength is to be located in both of these activities, and neither more than the other. On his first mission, Powers is hit by anti-aircraft artillery, and ejects from the plane (this is a sequence so virtuosic that it might be annoying in different hands) landing him behind enemy lines. Earlier in Bridge, when pushing the judge against a death penalty sentence for Abel, Donovan suggested keeping the Russian spy alive in the event of a possible future prisoner swap. Conveniently, he was right. Donovan is soon dispatched to a newly partitioned East Berlin (it’s now 1962) under a cover of secrecy to negotiate the exchange, the first such between the two superpowers.

Bridge of Spies remains talky in this East Germany-set chapter, but moves more quickly—the warmly autumnal feel lent to Donovan’s spirited defense of the Constitution gives way to a blustery cold bout of Realpolitik in snow-covered Berlin. Thus commences a set of complicated negotiations, involving Donovan, a representative from the KGB, and an East German operative (a quite slimy Sebastian Koch) intent on using Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American economics student captured on the wrong side of the wall, as bait to get the U.S. to formally recognize his fledgling nation. Donovan’s handlers only care about Powers, the Soviets only want Abel, but the East Germans threaten to scuttle any simple Abel-Powers trade. In their thinking, if they can get Donovan to cough up Abel for Pryor, they’ve gained a seat at the table with the U.S. and pleased their masters in the USSR. With no experience in such matters and no official legal standing, Donovan responds by doing what he thinks is right: bluff and negotiate and charm and sip various brandies until he’s cut a deal to get both of his people back. He’s the off-battlefield twin to Saving Private Ryan’s maddeningly persistent Captain Miller; Oskar Schindler with a law degree.


Bridge of Spies arrives into the world mere days after Vladimir Putin began flexing his military muscle in the Middle East. (As I write this, the headline on reads: “U.S. aircraft diverted to avoid Russian fighter in Syria.”) It’s tempting to look at confluences like this and find meaning. Yet, the release date for Bridge was, no doubt, determined solely by a set of crass calculations tallied up by accountants and marketers somewhere in a studio dungeon with little forethought that a Russian offensive might be just beginning. Even so, in the case of an artist as enduringly popular as Steven Spielberg, some kind of dynamic must exist between ephemeral concepts like the “culture” and the “popular. ” Why else would we keep turning up to theaters if he were not somehow anticipating, reacting and then providing the stories we want and need? Are popular artists of a certain level, who get to choose the projects they work on, soothsayers after a fashion? Do they absorb the concerns and interests around them and then use their art to refract them back to us?

Though Bridge was completed with Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine well in the rearview mirror, it is less a film warning us of the bad old Ruskies than asking us to beware of certain tendencies within ourselves toward suspicion, rash action, weak pragmatism, and fear mongering. This makes Bridge an unlikely companion to Lincoln. That earlier epic, a masterpiece of stolid civics filmmaking, was a paean to the American legislative process, the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, and the idea of an America that even in the wake of its deepest, bloodiest division was able to muster up, albeit in an ugly, unruly fashion, the will to make the good, challenging choices. It too had a sense of prescience associated with its release: after a landmark election, in the middle constant political turmoil. Less than a year after it hit theaters, the 1965 Voting Rights Act—perhaps one of the more successful pieces of legislation ever enacted in this country, and a clear descendent of the legislative goals valorized in Lincoln—would lay gutted and the government would go silent in the wake of a political temper tantrum.

These two films, for all their wild disparities in plot and genre, hold deeply to an ideal vision of “America”—which might be something contained in the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution or written on the winds through years of interpretations and misinterpretations in art and politics of both. Like Lincoln, Bridge places value on conversation, negotiation, honor, decency, the ineffable power of giving one’s “word” to another. Spielberg aims to please, yes, but in the one-two punch that is Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, he’s also aiming for something grander. Always a uniter, never a divider (except perhaps in the case of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, his most uncompromising work), he seems to have looked around at the beleaguered state of our Union and crafted two major works (though one should mention his earlier stab at Constitutional filmmaking, Amistad) with the express intent of bringing the American people back together, of motivating us to remember our core shared ideals. He’s cinema’s Thomas Paine, with a Hollywood-sized pamphlet.

Of course, Bridge of Spies is a movie and one that’s a product of an industrial system that places commercial demands and strictures on every issuance from its loins, no matter how personal. As such, for all of Bridge’s noble aims, there is plenty to quibble over here. We are reminded throughout that at this point in his career Tom Hanks can only spin variations on Tom Hanks; luckily, Spielberg’s vision of Donovan calls for little else. Screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman plays things a bit fast and loose with time (everything seems as though it happens much more quickly than the half-decade or so that elapsed) and employ screenwriting contrivances—repeated jokes, payoffs and punchlines to help move things along comfortably. As Donovan’s wife, Amy Ryan seems utterly adrift, her best moment as a performer also one of the film’s most risible: when her husband arrives home from what she was told was a fishing trip to the U.K., the television simultaneously announces the successful swap and that her husband was the negotiator. Her eyes go wide and her mouth drops, we laugh at the ridiculous narrative irony, admire her chutzpah, and cringe at the subtle sexism of a role left so undercooked.

Despite all this, when we reach the Glienicke Bridge, eventually dubbed the “Bridge of Spies” by journalists for all the prisoner exchanges that would happen there, and both sides are arrayed against each other across a river divide, we feel the same primal cinematic pull in the face of the unknown as in the finale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Two sides meet, anything can happen. After the transaction is completed, an exhausted Donovan returns home in a military plane. His tired figure pinned against the cavernous aircraft interior recalls the antiseptic close of Zero Dark Thirty, though everything about Bridge of Spies rebukes Bigelow’s nattily gritty production. Spielberg’s fractured, often dystopian Bush-era output fully interrogated the adolescent fantasies of his Reagan-era films (E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and the valedictory, satisfied liberalism of his Clinton years works (Amistad, Saving Private Ryan).

Now, his two movies of the latter half of Obama’s presidency confidently marshal classic, expensive storytelling techniques to agitate for a coherent vision of America, one intent on showing audiences how good we could be and have been. Are Bridge of Spies and Lincoln naive fictions of a sort that need to gloss over complexities? Of course—they’re movies. But they’re movies of deep, abiding faith in an America where good is possible, where a wrong committed is not the final word in our history. Their vision is one still worth believing in.