Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg)

Posted: October 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

Back in the 1950s, Arthur Miller wrote the play “The Crucible” to make the Salem Witch Trials an allegory for the then-contemporary HUAC and later Senate McCarthy hearings attempting to purge Hollywood of alleged Communist sympathizers.  Well, now it’s 2015, the Soviet Union has been dead almost 25 years, and “Bridge of Spies” is at least partially using Communism as the allegory for our contemporary fears of radical Islam and terrorism.  Spielberg’s last film, 2012’s “Lincoln”, was also an allegory, albeit one that seemingly went over everyone’s head.  “Lincoln” was an allegory for the then-contemporary fight over Obamacare. Lincoln was representative of Obama, who wanted a middle of the road solution. The Radical Republicans of Lincoln’s time, who thought freeing the slaves using the 13th Amendment wasn’t enough and that former slaves deserved full citizenship, represented Liberals who wanted a public option or, even better, Single-Payer.  And then the Slave states and the Democrats, who wanted none of it, represented the modern day Republicans who opposed Obamacare with any number of scare tactics.  The allegory in “Lincoln” was pretty spot-on, whereas “Bridge of Spies” suffers a bit more because the Soviet Union and radical Islam are not as similar as Spielberg would argue.  Perhaps if I wasn’t so damn interested in old Communist and Soviet history, this would bother me more, but the subject matter of this film plays right into my wheelhouse so, well, I loved the movie.

The story revolves around an American insurance lawyer named James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks in a particularly Hanks-ian role.  Donovan is tasked with defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and accused Soviet spy who the film makes it clear to us is indeed guilty of the crimes he’s accused of.  Despite this, the film portrays him as likeable and relatively harmless.  With the benefit of hindsight, and having had the Soviet archives opened following the fall of the Soviet Union, we know that the Soviets were not nearly as much of a threat to the American way of life as we thought they were at the time, which also helps us as an audience to like Abel.  In 1957, however, this wasn’t the case. Kids were terrified in schools by with short films about how to “duck and cover” to avoid a nuclear blast (the films shows us this, but modern generations are likely more familiar with this from “South Park”).  This is prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, where nuclear war could have happened and was avoided, but the fear that the Soviets would launch a nuclear attack was palpable in the minds of most Americans.  As such, the American public wants to hang Abel and doesn’t much care if he gets due process or a fair trial.  This may remind contemporary audiences of how we treat suspected terrorists these days.  Many on the Conservative side of the spectrum want to lock up suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay without a trial indefinitely, claiming that terrorists aren’t deserving of our due process.  Some have gone further into saying torture is justified against these people.  The United States itself has tortured suspected terrorists because, regardless of whether our actions make us no better than our enemy, we assume we have moral and ethical superiority simply because we’re us and they’re them.  Odd that when we faced the Nazis, another existential threat, we didn’t resort to torture, and we still tried Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.  The film even lets us know that Donovan worked on the Nuremberg trials.  “Bridge of Spies” lets us know that Abel, despite being a suspected spy for American’s Mortal Enemy that Abel was not beaten or tortured.  Later, when the film shows us an American spy pilot captured by the Soviets, all the Soviets due in the way of torture is sleep deprivation, not rectal force feeding of humus.

With enemies on all sides, from the American public, to his boss and his wife, and strangers on the train, Donovan sticks to his ideals and the rule of law.  No matter how unsavory a person may be, no matter how despicable their alleged crime is, every human being deserves an adequate defense, basic rights, and the rule of law.  It’s easier to argue these things using events that are firmly in the past.  If Spielberg made a movie about a lawyer defending a suspected terrorist by filing a habeas corpus petition, modern Conservatives would be decrying him on Fox News for making more Liberal propaganda from Lefty Hollywood.  This is why allegory is a powerful tool to use when making a political point, as Arthur Miller demonstrated in 1953 with “The Crucible”, or George Orwell demonstrated with his novel “Animal Farm”.

The issue with Spielberg’s allegory comes because “Bridge of Spies” has two distinct halves.  The first half of the film is solely about defending Abel and whether or not we abandon the Constitution and our rule of law or whether we as a country truly stand for the ideals we claim to have and that make us better than our purported enemies.  This half is a solid allegory.  The second half of this film is different.  The Soviets capture one of America’s spy pilots (Austin Stowell) and the DDR/East Germany arrests an American student (Will Rogers) who was studying the Soviet economic model at an East German School.  The CIA asks Donovan to negotiate a swap of Abel for the pilot, and Donovan wants to try to swap Abel for both the pilot AND the student.  This second half is tough to see as a direct allegory.  For one, radical Islamic terrorist groups will always behave differently than official nation-states.  One cannot really equate the Soviet Union with Al-Qaeda or ISIS because the latter two are rouge groups (despite ISIS referring to itself as a “state”) and the Soviet Union was a nation-state (or a nation-state with ostensibly sovereign satellite states), and those types of entities act substantially different form one another.  As the second half of “Bridge of Spies” is about negotiations, one immediately thinks about the negotiations for the nuclear treaty with Iran.  “Bridge of Spies” started production in 2014 and the negotiations for the Iran treaty began in late 2013, so it’s possible that a allegory toward that was what the filmmakers were going for.  Either that or the allegory was confined to the first half of the film, with the second half simply being a telling of the historical incidents which took place.  Since the second half of the film is not as direct an allegory I cannot say, except to note that if the United States was willing to negotiate with its mortal enemy in 1957, it seems odd that modern day Conservatives balk at attempting to negotiate with a hostile nation-state in 2015.  “Bridge of Spies” certainly argues that negotiations can work among hostile parties as long as each side genuinely wants something from the other side.  Iran, like the Soviet Union, is a nation-state.  No one is arguing we try to make a treaty with Isis, though I suppose the United States has tried negotiating with the Taliban, which once ran a nation-state but could now be considered a terrorist group.

How much you like “Bridge of Spies” will depend largely on how much you like politics in general and the Cold War and Communist history in particular.  I love both, and so I loved the film.  Most audiences are not as familiar with this history as I am, so for them I cannot speak to their enjoyment.  Indeed, some audiences may find a film that is largely comprised of people talking o each other in rooms to be slow.  This is a spy film where nothing blows up and there are no action sequences.  Personally, a tense conversation is often more suspenseful to me than James Bond driving a sports car through Prague, but today’s audiences have a shorter attention span and perhaps a smaller intelligence than audiences used to have.  “Bridge of Spies” suffers at points from Spielberg’s trademark sappiness (the music underscoring Abel’s “standing man” speech is painfully melodramatic and on-the-nose), but otherwise this film feels more like the intelligent films of the 1970s than the hyperkinetic idiocy of today’s motion pictures.  Sure, most audiences will not watch the scene that takes place in the Soviet embassy in Berlin and want to take home many of the props they see (a giant painting of Lenin, busts of Lenin and Marx, a giant bronze Soviet seal, etc), so they will not get the uniquely personal thrill I got from this film.  Also, having been to Berlin and visited the DDR museum, I was pleased to recognize places and iconography I have seen in person.  These are joys unique to me and a few other history buffs and modern Marxists.

One of the surprising things about the film is just how FUNNY it often is.  I attribute this to Joel & Ethan Coen writing parts of the script.  The Coen Brothers are incapable of writing a drama without any humor in it.  Sometimes this works really well, like in their greatest film “Fargo”, and sometimes it is annoying as hell and tanks the film for me, like “Blood Simple”.  Here, the humor works well without capsizes the film.  The other writer, Matt Charman, likely helped reign in the Coen’s penchant for slapstick and ironic silliness, so we get a drama that occasionally makes us laugh, but ultimately works as a tense and suspenseful drama and enjoyable history lesson and allegory for our modern times.

I sort of wish the allegory was a little clearer in the second half.  I wish Spielberg didn’t resort to sappiness when he makes a drama like this.  I wish Spielberg wasn’t so in love with filming everything with a silvery-blue tint nowadays (not as bad as when he made “Minority Report”, a film ensconced in silvery-blue), but the look isn’t too distracting.  That being said, “Bridge of Spies” is still one of the best films of the year.  It tells a compelling story in a wonderful way, makes a political point, is well-acted, has a tight script that hits all the right notes and balances drama and humor well, and feels like a film from a better era of moviemaking. I loved it. A-.

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