Spielberg’s America Is Alive And Well In Bridge Of Spies

Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan in the incredible story of an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances in DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.

What is America? For many it seems to be only borders and symbols, that maybe are only truly deserved by white, Christian conservatives. For these people, the idea of “preserving” America only goes so far as maintaining the traditions and landmarks with which they are familiar, and they are willing to sacrifice or overlook a lot of moral transgressions in pursuit of that cause. But for others, America is defined by its ideals, by an evolving philosophy and clear-cut, equal lawmaking. To those of us on this end of the spectrum, moral and ethical sacrifices made to “preserve” our country only degrade the ideals that truly define it. It is the latter perspective that is strenuously advocated in Bridge Of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s latest ode to true American values. Like Lincoln before it, this film takes what could be a dry and rote exploration of legal, political and diplomatic wranglings and turns them into an energetic and tense piece of cinema that says something simple but important about the nature of America.

Given the title and marketing, it would be understandable to expect Bridge Of Spies to be, y’know, a SPY movie. And while there is certainly some clever old-school spycraft on display, Bridge Of Spies is mostly a legal thriller that morphs into a diplomatic dramedy. The first half of the film focuses on James Donovan (Tom Hanks) mounting his legal defense of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in the face of immense personal and public judgment, while the latter half sees Donovan pulled into the at-times absurd diplomatic wranglings that would see Abel traded for a downed American pilot… and maybe an imprisoned American student as well. Structurally this makes for an interesting film, and almost a scatterbrained one; in particular the technical specifics of Donovan’s legal strategy are never really examined, and the trial itself happens entirely offscreen. Thankfully the entire story is bound together by Spielberg’s strong moral compass, leading to a film that, much like Lincoln, serves as a potent examination of American virtue.

But while Lincoln deals with domestic policy (specifically the notion that our core American ideals should define our laws rather than of-the-moment biases and traditionalism), Bridge Of Spies explores foreign policy and national defense. In particular, it argues that if America cedes the moral high ground that our ideals and laws should afford us, it could ultimately be a greater threat to America’s future than the supposed outside threat. In the Cold War setting of the film, America is in the grips of a paranoia regarding the Soviet Union that demands a vigilance and aggression that is not wholly compatible with our concepts of due process and empathy. People are so concerned with beating the Reds (or at least outlasting them) that they lose sight of the ideals that supposedly differentiate us from them. Many Americans in this story seem content to simply exist, whether we remain “American” in any way that truly matters or not. In this existential struggle, Donovan becomes America’s Jiminy Cricket, trying to guide us down the right path even as we obnoxiously insist on going in exactly the opposite direction.

bridge-of-spies-fall-moviesSome criticism of Bridge Of Spies has tried to paint the film as an overly-simplistic homage to a time where there were clear good guys and bad guys. To me, this point is not just reductive (and perhaps indicative of the politics of the critics behind it) but ignorant of the film’s value. I don’t see how anything in this film paints either side as much more or less morally compromised as the other, and even if it did it would only further Spielberg’s ultimate point, that there is no threat worth sacrificing our principles to fight. It’s a blunt point, yes, but that’s only because sometimes morality IS this simple. And just as the threat of nuclear annihilation didn’t supersede the right to due process in the 1950s, so too does the potential for terrorism in the present day not justify torture and illegal imprisonment. This film is very much a moral fable, a dramatization of American virtue in the face of American jingoism and bloodlust. Spielberg is using this supposedly black-and-white period in history to illustrate the ever-relevant need to hold on to our national conscience

In the telling of this fable, Spielberg has once again brought together an all-star cadre of collaborators, each contributing exactly what is needed to make this story work. In Tom Hanks, Spielberg has the Average Joe stand-up guy that America’s conscience would have to be. Hanks is stoic without being grim, folksy without being corny, and smart without being superior. He effortlessly embodies the ideal of American virtue, a figure whom we could all aspire to emulate. In Mark Rylance, the other major player in the story, we have a soft-spoken and noble man who we like in spite of his definitive guilt. He represents the enemy and humanizes him, a walking reminder that to sacrifice our moral compass is to punish this man who is just like the rest of us. And finally, besides two great performances, there is the screenplay, credited to Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers (yes, those). The script is tightly plotted and effortlessly paced, juggling the multiple threads of the story with poise, while also delivering a healthy dose of absurdity and misdirection once Donovan goes over the Berlin Wall. The end result is a beautiful cornerstone on which Spielberg and his usual production collaborators practice their craft with ease.

Steven Spielberg has long been one of America’s greatest artists, so it is fitting that he makes films like Bridge Of Spies that so encapsulate America’s virtues. While filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone regularly speak to the dark ugliness of America’s reality, Spielberg continues to celebrate America’s ideal. He sees the promise in America and tells these aspirational tales as a call to action, in hopes that more people will stand up for what’s right, for what’s truly American, just as James Donovan did. Hopefully we can stand up alongside him to answer that call ourselves, when we need to.

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