Film and TV

Spielberg's Bridge of Spies Finds Murk in Moral Certainty

Steven Spielberg’s true-story Cold War procedural Bridge of Spies has a wintry chill. The colors are gray and green, the skin tones pale as frozen fish, and the film stock fuzzed and snowy. Our protagonist, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), spends half the movie waylaid by a cold and takes his important meetings huddled over Scotch, as if for warmth. It’s easy to feel how the U.S. and Russia thought this permafrost would last forever.

The story starts in 1957, the year Donovan was drafted to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) on three counts of espionage. Abel was never going to be acquitted. Before the trial even starts, Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) bellows, “This man has to have a capable defense, but let’s not kid each other.” With his client’s guilt already decided, Donovan earns his pay merely by yanking Abel from the electric chair. Most people in America, the government included, would have preferred that he hadn’t.

But Donovan, a former insurance litigator, thinks Abel is valuable collateral. In the second act of the film — set five years later, in 1962, as East Germany is erecting the Berlin Wall — Donovan has a chance to prove it, by attempting to trade him to the Russians in exchange for Yankee pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), captured on a mission to photograph Soviet territory from a high-flying U-2 surveillance plane.

Spielberg elbows us with the hypocrisy: We’d like our man back unharmed, even though we screamed to lynch theirs. And both captives face the same peril. Even if they’ve stayed loyal and kept their lips shut — and even if they somehow make it back home — their own people might assume they’d squealed.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski lights the actors’ profiles with a harsh white glare so they appear two-faced. In a hat tip to the look of The Third Man, the shiny-wet street scenes are drained of pigment until they could pass for black and white. Yet rather than examine the shifting loyalties characteristic of film noir, Spielberg purposefully drains the plot of intrigue. It’s clear that Abel is guilty from the first scene, in which he slices open a hollow nickel to extract a code. We’re never in doubt where anyone stands. With the uses and themes established, Bridge of Spies is free to ask a more modern question: Are the good guys that much better than the bad?

Standing on the Glienicke Bridge of the title, Donovan is alarmed to spot German snipers on the other end. His CIA handler shrugs: Our side has them, too. Draw a line bisecting the Eastern Bloc from the Western, and they could be mirror images: two gun nests, two prisoners, and two sides that stoke fear in their people by calling each other the enemy. And when Donovan slinks into East Berlin’s Soviet embassy to cut a deal, pretending to be disavowed by his own government even as it pressures him for intel, is his subterfuge more innocent than that of his incarcerated client, who by any measure was a KGB failure?

Flop or not, the American people believed that Abel might have brought them to the brink of apocalypse. In 1960, three years after Donovan’s headline-making defense of Abel made him the most noble, and the most loathed, man in America, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird. Could Donovan’s headlines have crossed her writing desk in Alabama as she revised the racist Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman into a lawyer who fights for justice, even when the courts would rather skip a few steps? In turn, Hanks’s steadfast Donovan seems inspired by the movie version of Atticus, embodied by Gregory Peck.

Most espionage thrillers send in James Bonds to save the day. Bridge of Spies sidelines the glamorous heroes — the spies and soldiers who spend the movie in cells — to celebrate the valor of ordinary men. You can hear the Coen Brothers, who co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, when Donovan’s Russian counterpart sighs, “We little men just do our jobs.”
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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.