Steven Spielberg probably holds the title for the most quintessentially American modern filmmaker, and Bridge of Spies continues the famed director’s tradition of appealing to the best aspects of the American conscience.
With xenophobia rearing its ugly head in the political arena, Spielberg has crafted a compelling story of human empathy and moral resoluteness, and while Bridge of Spies may be a minor triumph in Spielberg’s filmography, it is a triumph nonetheless.
Inspired by true events, Bridge of Spies is a Cold War thriller that tells the story of a lawyer from Brooklyn, James B. Donovan (portrayed with ordinary dignity by the always-likable Tom Hanks), who is thrust into the national spotlight when he represents a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (played by stage actor Mark Rylance).
Donovan, however, believes that the trial should pursue fairness, and the idealistic lawyer fights to give Abel actual due process to the consternation of the court, his family and the American public. Eventually, these events lead to Donovan finding himself in the middle of Berlin and negotiating a prisoner swap for an American U-2 pilot shot down in Soviet airspace.
The first act of Bridge of Spies, which plays out the courtroom trial, makes for the most compelling part of the film. The script, penned by Mark Charman and the Coen brothers, weaves the personal and global plots together with finesse. Hanks and Rylance play their respective roles with grace, as Donovan comes to realize that Abel is an honorable man in his own right: a soldier doing his duty to home and country.
In a time when paranoia ran rampant, Donovan stubbornly insists that the greatest threat to America is not Soviet weaponry, but rather a fear that will drive Americans to “throw out the rulebook,” a theme highlighted in confrontations between Donovan and the CIA, who pressure Donovan to disregard due process for the sake of quick prosecution and execution.
Spielberg alternates between mounting tension (a dialogue-free cat and mouse sequence right off the bat is filmed tightly, credit belonging to frequent collaborator Janusz Kamiński) and tender, illuminating character moments (Abel’s artistic endeavors as well as several humorous exchanges between Donovan and Abel).
A juxtaposition of the courtroom pushing for Abel’s execution with a class of children reciting the pledge of allegiance makes a jarring cut to one of the era’s infamous nuclear disaster education videos. In less than a minute, Spielberg encapsulates an entire generation’s greatest fears, along with the moral compromises Americans made when faced with the red menace.
The middle act in Berlin loses some steam, emotional potency fading the farther the story moves from the central Donovan/Abel relationship, but Spielberg’s world-building skills still provide an insightful and harrowing look into East Berlin during the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Thankfully, the finale returns to this compelling relationship, ending on a noble and touching note. Bridge of Spies honors the shared humanity of Donovan and Abel, an American lawyer and a communist spy. The nations they represent fade to the background, and on the Glienicke Bridge, Spielberg posits that the noblest thing an American can do is leave fear behind and embrace a Soviet as a fellow human being.