Steven Spielberg’s resurgence as the premier and prominent dramatist of Hollywood cinema is warmly welcomed. While perhaps the greatest of Spielberg’s traits lie in his ability to encapsulate the wonder, enchantment, terror and peril that all culminate together to create the ultimate American Hollywood “story”, his second greatest attribute is his ability to create accessibility to the darkness of human nature. While some may find this glossy finish on gritty subject matter to be “hokey” or “kitsch”, there is a manner in which the greatest commercial filmmaker, and certainly the most influential, of the last 50 years of American cinema accomplishes this juggling feat that it culminates in powerful and personal cinema.
Since Speilberg’s last truly great film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, we haven’t gotten much out of him in terms of memorable cinema. The Adventures of Tintin I can attest is definitely much lower ranking amongst the pantheon of Spielberg outputs on most people’s lists that I have to shove aside my personal unfettered and unwavering love for Herge’s graphic novels and characters which singularly defined my childhood. That movie is 100% nostalgia for me and nothing else, so I concede I am biased.
The auteur’s last two outputs however are a different story, one of them being this year’s Bridge of Spies, a collaboration between Spielberg and the Coen Brothers (who wrote the script). The film is a showcase of good ol’ American exceptionalism when it comes to negotiations and foreign politicking. We get to see Tom Hanks strut his stuff as the insurance lawyer James B. Donovan picked by the higher ups to do a “routine” defense of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance is an accomplished theater actor who proves his silver screen chops here), a suspected and eventually convicted Soviet spy in the U.S. The reason routine is in quotations there is because the judicial processes of giving a Soviet spy, a “communist” (gasp! That word!) a fair trial is really a dark and upsetting joke in the film. Here, the exceptionalism in the United States in standing by its principles of liberty and justice are revealed to be a smoke-screen. Behind the fog exist deep seeded anger and paranoia, a hatred for the “other side”.
It is one thing when it’s civilians; the police officer who confronts Donovan at his home about his defense of Abel, the train passengers who stare Donovan down with all the conceit and suspicion in the world, and his own son who questions his father’s loyalty to the nation after he is fed the exaggerations and fear propaganda of the Cold War in his classroom. Regular people are suspicious, they go by what they read, what they see, the influence of society and its perceptions, the uneasy fear of foreign threats and ideas, something which is rearing its ugly head in today’s American society as well. But when it is elected officials, government workers, and those in power who let that paranoia and hatred get in the way of the liberties the United States offers to foreign citizens, criminal or not, which no other country is so generous to offer, then the system collapses and we, slowly and surely, become them.
Bridge of Spies depicts an America at the crossroads of turning on itself (yet again). In an era where people were blacklisted, ostracized for their political and social beliefs, something we said would always be a freedom in this country, an era where a government official (Joseph McCarthy) went on an obsessive witch-hunt against all those he defined as “traitors”, “communists” and a list of other propagandist impact-words, an era right after World War II in which we incarcerated in concentration camps Japanese Americans because of our paranoid fear of them and their mere presence being considered an ill to society, America continued evolving into dark, troubling, and socially broken versions of itself, one decade after another.
It’s the truth many people don’t want to hear, and in Bridge of Spies, James Donovan is Spielberg’s plea to the American people that the liberty and justice we offer is only special because it applies to even those who can’t do anything for us. For it, he received bullet shots through the windows of his house. His house where his children and wife lived, bullets were sprayed by other American citizens. (cue Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II)
Is there a semblance of parallel from Coen/Spielberg’s Cold War America to our America today? Perhaps the timeliness of Bridge of Spies is not by accident, but rather, by blessing. Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker known for his accessibility and serviceability to the American audience. He brought the complexity and enormity of the Holocaust into our homes with Schindler’s List, a cinematic achievement which would have been impossible without his sensible touch. There is no condescension in the way Spielberg (or The Coens for that matter) presents the American xenophobia of the Cold War era, in this case, not a matter of race, but of ideology.
Rather, Bridge of Spies works like an old yarn your grandfather would tell after dinner. It arrives with lightly treaded footsteps and grows ever so dark as it goes, the suspense (meeting the Russians), the chills (interrogations of prisoners), the horrors (climbing the Berlin Wall) but it prevails with an All-American pride, one in which Donovan’s compassion towards a Soviet spy, at the time the worst of worst criminals (why aren’t we HANGING HIM? the court disturbingly erupts after a lenient sentence), is the true symbol of America because it can be empathetic and understanding where no one else can.
This doesn’t mean Spielberg equates the nations and their ideologies, oh no. This is the greatest juggling feat of all, and probably one which most people in American need to hear today. Spielberg puts the worlds of Eastern Germany and the Soviet bloc in perspective. As Donovan rides on a train through Berlin he witnesses a helpless couple try to climb their way over the wall only to be shot and killed in cold blood only inches away from freedom. But this is not a viciousness that resides in the hearts of individuals, but in the hearts of national leaders.
Throughout Bridge of Spies we get a brilliant contrast between Donovan and Abel’s American-Soviet friendship, juxtaposed with the cruel and unrelenting distrust between national figures. As Donovan first goes into the negotiating room, after having his jacket haggled from him by some East German hoodlums, and meets the “secretary” Ivan Schischkin to the Soviet base… and he later realizes the man he’s meeting is a top ranking official… and the jacket that was stolen from him was correctly identified by Schischkin as a Sacks 5th Avenue. No words or actions can be taken at face value here, and Donovan’s combination of both whimsy and serious business, perfectly captured by Tom Hanks’ performance, is a microcosm of what we consider an idealistic vision of America’s foreign policy, but one which, in reality, is hardly carried out in such a diplomatic manner.
This difference of dealing with Soviets and dealing with Rudolf Abel is a nation vs person conundrum that most people still can’t seem to grasp. In today’s America where people, especially immigrants, are consistently labeled on a collective basis rather than an individual one, ironic considering recognition of individualism is this nation’s claim to success, there needs to be a restructuring of the social connection between us that remembers a story like Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. As Donovan rides on the train once again at the end of the film, this time a hero and with other passengers looking at him with admiration rather than (as previous) contempt, he looks out the window and sees a country of people freely walking amongst the streets, with cars, clothes on their back, kids climbing over the fence joyous and care-free (a signature melodramatic touch by Spielberg to the earlier heartbreaking scene at the Berlin Wall), and a nation comparatively prosperous and well put together to its nemesis East Germany’s crumbling, decaying infrastructure. It’s a moment to be proud to be American, but it’s also a somber moment because the individuals in the East Bloc suffer from the actions of their leaders, something outside their control.
Countries and governments fight, they engage in backstabbing, and they negotiate on hardline terms, but we as individuals share a direct connection of experience that doesn’t define us by the actions of those in power. We can see each other as Donovan saw Rudolf Abel. It is not a traitorous notion, nor is it un-patriotic to befriend despite polarized ideologies, but rather, as Spielberg declares in Bridge of Spies, part of what is truly American.