In the many years of Movie Monday on this blog — honestly, it’s been the most consistent feature — I have mainly focused on trash. This is for a number of reasons: a lot of it is easy to find on the web, it’s fun to write about and, crucially, it tends to be short, with glaring flaws that I can make funny jokes about.
So here I am writing about a Big Serious Film from Big Name Director Steven Spielberg, and it’s about the Cold War and oh Lord here we go.
OK, so. Bridge of Spies is based on a thing that did really happen, and is pretty faithful to its inspiration by the standards of a historical drama. In 1957, the FBI arrested a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (here played by Mark Rylance); he was defended by a lawyer named James B. Donovan (Hanks), who fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court despite the fact that no one wanted the guy acquitted. In 1961, Donovan was also involved in exchanging Abel for good ol’ Francis Gary Powers, the pilot whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down by the Soviets in 1960, together with an American grad student named Frederic Pryor who had been arrested by the East Germans basically for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And that’s quite an interesting story, but as we all know, historical movies must be About Something. So what is Bridge of Spies about?
Well, I guess it’s supposed to be about integrity. Donovan is supposed to be a guy who is sort of fundamentally honest, willing to appeal the Abel case because Those Are the Rules, but who grows into a more humane honesty when he tries to save Pryor (who is of no value as an intelligence asset) as well as Powers (who is, of course, very valuable).
Cold War movies tend to be spy thrillers, war movies or stories about finding the shared humanity with people who are supposed to be your enemies. Unless they’re set exclusively in America, in which case they’re about people of principle standing up to a paranoid and repressive American security state (e.g. Good Night and Good Luck). Here, it’s … a little more complicated?
So we start out with the story of Donovan v. Paranoid and Repressive American Security State (hereinafter PRASS). In this one, PRASS, in the persons of a cynical CIA agent (Scott Shepherd), a rich jerk judge (Dakin Matthews), a rich jerk law boss (Alan Alda), and so on, wants Donovan to just bend the rules (inform on Abel, take a dive in court) for the sake of America, but he believes that the rules are America, fights hard for his client and his principles, and incidentally becomes friends with Abel, who is an unassuming guy with a wry sense of humour.
Now that might lead you to think that this is one of those movies about how the Cold War twisted American society into a rotten old maze of institutionalised hatred and partisan self-interest and whatnot, but in the second part of the movie our action moves to East Germany. And of course East Germany is a total shitshow, a mixture of repressive institutions, desperate poverty and the good ol’ Russian boot. And once there things become even twistier and more ambiguous than they were back in the US.
Put these two parts together and the movie becomes both more nuanced and a little simpler: the world is a snaky mess of dirtbags, even if they are dirtbags with nuance and human value, and in such a world it’s important to be as little of a dirtbag as you can be. Something like that, anyway? I mean, you know, Tom Hanks as a figure of weary everyman integrity, just like … most movies.
Historically, it does the things most such films do: it compresses its story, it punches it up and it simplifies it. So, for instance, people were not happy with Donovan in real life, but in the movie someone shoots at his house, which I believe did not happen. Pryor was arrested in East Berlin, but in the movie East German troops beat him up at a half-built Berlin Wall, which was already complete by the time he was arrested. Donovan had a rough time in East Berlin, but he didn’t get mugged like he does in the movie, I don’t think. And of course the film just basically skips the years between 1958 and 1961, making it seem like the whole story takes place in the space of, I don’t know, a few months.
Movie-wise, you know, it’s a film about the Cold War that does, I think, a pretty decent job of showing the murkiness of international relations of the era and which, while critical of American institutions, doesn’t sugar-coat the nature of Eastern Bloc states in doing so. Oh, and it actually deals with the differences between the USSR and its clients, which is something you don’t often see. And it has good performances and a pretty good script and a good general sense of the weirdness of things. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, but I enjoyed it.