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Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a fact-based espionage drama set during the simmering cold-war Fifties. The film’s main character, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), is a successful insurance lawyer selected by his firm to represent Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), then chosen by the CIA to negotiate with the Soviet Union and German Democratic Republic an exchange of Abel for captured U.S. spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Donovan is a Greatest Generation relic representing an outmoded ideal. Likewise his journey through mid-century realpolitik is ostensibly mediated by Spielberg’s mawkish cornball schmaltz. Compared to a zippy twenty-first century journalism procedural like Spotlight, it is tempting to classify Bridge of Spies as an enjoyably frivolous bit of throwback prestige—a period piece by a celluloid filmmaker of diminishing importance in an age of digital reproduction.

And yet Bridge of Spies is an estimable accomplishment in Spielberg’s body of work. With its deft storytelling and urgent parallels to the fiery rhetoric of the media in the summer of Trump, Bridge of Spies is magnificently self-reflexive. The film continues the director’s meditations within the arena of the American Argument—the Constitution being, for Donovan, a frame through which an alert citizenry engages with itself as language and whose borders fluctuate. The dynamic of the American “frame” resembles the cinematic one. The title of the film itself suggests seeing as a means of connection across barriers. Spielberg’s admonition is that we close our eyes at our peril.

The screenplay, written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, seems to bridge several disparate short films about prisoners whose fates are interwoven through unlikely diplomacy. Donovan is the consummate due-process attorney, but his efforts are brushed aside by the trial judge (Dakin Matthews)—who is all too eager to satiate the public’s frothy-mouthed demand for a quick conviction and execution. Donovan is also under the intimidating eye of the CIA, embodied by Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), and they’re not exactly thrilled to see a lawyer doing “too good” at defending a Soviet. And he’s found himself in the press’s crosshairs, making him one of the country’s most unpopular men. As the case proceeds, the film develops an alternate storyline about Francis Powers, who gets captured and tortured by the KGB after his U-2 spy plane is shot down over Russia. Donovan meanwhile receives mail from Abel’s purported “wife” in East Germany, interpreted by the CIA as a motion to engage in “fiction,” where Donovan will act as an unofficial representative between the superpowers to arrange the exchange of Abel for Powers.

Then the film embarks on another story, involving American economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who is arrested as a spy trying to cross the newly completed Berlin Wall. While Donovan’s mission is to get Powers back, the German Democratic Republic and the Soviets use the innocent Pryor—worthless to the CIA—as leverage in a man-for-man exchange. For Donovan, as for the viewers, every person on this cluttered canvas matters, whereas to their governments they are just neatly charted pawns, mere data. Even if real people are involved, the spy games remain, like the movies, fiction. But if the filmmaker succeeds in bridging the gap between the frame and our seeing, then we will take the meaning of the fiction home with us.

Spielberg introduces his overarching idea in a magnificent opening that triangulates sight, thought and application. Bridge of Spies’s camera eye opens with our point-of-view becoming the perspective of our nation’s enemy, KGB agent Rudolf Abel, looking into a mirror. The image pulls back to show Abel’s spectacled eyes looking at himself. He turns and applies paint to a self-portrait on the canvas adjacent to the mirror. While a good likeness, the transfer from reflection to reality reveals pointed distinctions. The man in the mirror is wearing a neatly buttoned shirt, while the man in the painting is haggard with an exposed undershirt. Abel’s painting is interrupted by a ringing phone, which he picks up without saying anything. He leaves his apartment—under the watchful eye of the FBI—and sets up a canvas by a Brooklyn bench where he carefully picks up a hollow nickel, the contents of which he will decipher with his advanced photographic equipment. From his introduction to his eventual arrest soon after, we’re given no sense of what this man is thinking or believes. He’s akin to Spielberg’s camera, a mediator between message and action.

The problem of seeing is underscored by the taciturn prologue of federal agents stalking Abel through fifties Brooklyn before arriving at his hotel with a warrant. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski captures Abel’s covert methods of collecting and hiding information with heightened sharpness in close-ups while the hand-held tracking shots through bustling locations stress the cinematic rectangle’s rigidity and therefore what is not included in it. What we don’t see is as important as what we do.

Compare that with how Spielberg presents the capture of Abel’s American counterpart. Shot down in a spy plane carrying highly advanced 4500mm camera lenses, Powers’s plummet is accordingly captured as a stratospheric greenscreen CGI spectacle. Whereas Abel is a photographic professional intimate with his equipment, Powers is detached in his pilot’s seat, somewhat removed from the state-of-the-art machinery on which his survival depends. In the spies’ dual representations, seeing is knowledge—but that knowledge is determined by how we read the optical mediation of either the old-school artist (Abel) or the future-driven machine (Powers’s aircraft, fittingly referred to as “The Article”).

Considering Bridge of Spies’s emphasis on the tension between what we accept as a picture’s veracity and what we understand as augmented fiction, it’s interesting to bounce back on the director’s previous foray into the Cold War, the rather infamous Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Audiences were not pleased with the story’s implausibility or the jarring computer generated effects distinguishing the new sequel from its three predecessors. Yet how else could it be? The eighties blockbuster found itself in the unfamiliar territory of CGI’s “space between spaces” (as John Hurt’s Dr. Oxley refers to the home territory of the film’s beguiling extraterrestrial archaeologists). Similarly, the pre-WWII hero Dr. Jones is hurled into a stunning paradigm shift with the arrival of the atomic age. Familiarity with “reality” is parodied in Crystal Skull’s notorious nuclear test, when Indy runs from safety in the suburban idyll created by New Deal growth, accompanied by the smiling comforts of Howdy Doody on television. The residents are, to Indy’s dismay, neatly dressed dummies. Having repeatedly defeated the Nazis decades ago, Rip Van Indy (and Rip Van Audience) wakes up to a new world where the population appears to have succumbed to some of the very totalitarian tendencies it claimed to have vanquished. Donovan in Bridge of Spies isn’t unlike Indiana Jones. A prosecutor at Nuremburg who did his time in the service, he’s from a time of—so it would appear—moral clarity, but what he encounters in the maddening geopolitical theater is no less disarming, or less silly, than the sight of Shia LaBeuof swinging through trees with CGI monkeys.

As with Bridge of Spies’s immediate predecessor, Lincoln, words are here represented as obfuscating entanglements subject to judicial interpretation. (When someone in Lincoln’s cabinet says the Thirteenth Amendment is unnecessary because of the Emancipation Proclamation, the sage reply from Attorney General James Speed is “Different lawyers, different opinions.”) Like Abraham Lincoln (also an attorney), James Donovan swerves through law and language during the Abel trial and his East Berlin negotiations. More than communist spies and CIA spooks, words trip Donovan up in nonsensical arrangements and damning newspaper articles that turn a docile public against him as he is depicted as a Soviet collaborator.

Yet Donovan and Lincoln are also similar in how they are guided by the Word, as they struggle to uphold  the U.S. Constitution. When Agent Hoffman insinuates with pointed malice that Donovan shrug off the rules when defending a communist spy, the lawyer replies that it’s precisely that rulebook that has preserved the equality of an Irishman like himself and someone of German heritage like Hoffman. What Donovan suggests is present in the Constitution is similar to what Lincoln finds in his musings on Euclid’s first common notion: “It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That’s the origin.” Donovan and Lincoln bind the rulebook to an ethic of reciprocity, seeing inalienable rights in every person. This is the principle behind Donovan’s methods as defense lawyer and negotiator, and it’s Spielberg’s modus operandi as a filmmaker, the showman aspiring to make us feel what his characters feel.

The alternative is the ossification of the Word, the dismissal of its potency with settled certainty. Real-life events become walled-off by certainty and alienated from meaning. When Abel is arrested with the evidence stacked against him, “who cares about the goddamn Constitution?” Certainty is a wall much like the one we see in Berlin, imperiously policing against protean cognition. Bridge of Spies’s motifs of walls and portraits and mirrors link back to the idea of framing, and touch on the long-standing argument about the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. The way Spielberg the filmmaker frames both sides of the Iron Curtain, crosscutting between the people screaming for blood and applauding the harassment of adversaries, is consistent with how several of the eighteenth-century framers feared the “tyranny of the majority.” There is no argument, no due process, no translation or interpretation or discussion, just the surrender to angry, tribal impulses. Our capability of seeing the integrity of other people, in real life or on a motion picture screen, is commensurate to how adept we are at keeping the Word alive, keeping in mind how the framers saw history as an argument without end.

As history moves we have to constantly interpret and translate, reorganizing the frame to make meaning. In Bridge of Spies, Spielberg adjures us to see beyond the Word’s surface. As action moves into Europe, he makes the unique directorial choice here of waiving subtitles or accented English standing in for other languages. Like Donovan, we have no idea of what’s specifically being said when East Berlin thugs rob him of his Saks Fifth Ave. coat, or when he’s interrogated by obdurate guards, or sitting in embassy offices as bureaucrats bicker with each other. We look at the body language and decipher. It’s imperative that we be active readers, translating the dialogue with our eyes.

During Abel’s kangaroo-court trial, Spielberg cuts from “please rise” to schoolchildren rising and blankly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, words drilled into malleable minds. But the children are more activated by watching films of atomic detonation, their terrified faces framed in close-up. Whereas “liberty and justice for all” evaporates into nothing, the visually implanted fear follows them, Donovan’s own son readying the house with a nuclear-holocaust survivor plan. Real devastation is soon after dramatized, ripping through the safety gauze of escapist images as Donovan’s teenage daughter watches TV. Bullets are fired through the window, the girl’s terror caught in the same head-on close-up we saw with the schoolchildren. The titular bridge stretches from the screen to the living room, the world changed by what’s happened in and out of the frame. While we’re naturally safe as spectators, the migration of terror from a classroom movie to a character’s living room should make us pause to consider how we as viewers are related to the violence in this movie.


Consider those “duck and cover” smiling consolations in the classroom alongside the “I Like Ike” poise of Bridge of Spies and its happy ending where Donovan returns to a privileged 1960s landscape of white faces, unperturbed by domestic unrest. The father has returned home after winning Powers and Pryor their freedom and sending Abel back to the Soviet Union. Our hero’s stalwart nobility is documented in newspapers read by his fellow passengers, who raise their eyes from the headlines to look admirably on Donovan. Order is restored.

And yet there are two anomalous figures in that final image. One of them is Donovan. The other is a woman of color, sitting behind him, looking at the open papers surrounding her. On the eve of social tumult, race riots, assassinations, Vietnam and political corruption, Donovan’s cold symptoms prefigure a prolonged and contagious illness for the Greatest Generation. The scene’s context offsets the warmth of Thomas Newman’s music. As with the battered flag concluding Saving Private Ryan, the wear and tear prompting us to question whether or not we have indeed “earned this,” Spielberg hints at what lies behind—or beyond—the story his film has ostensibly been devoted to telling us.

Earlier in the film there is a telling intertextual gesture, when Abel listens with great admiration to Shostakovich, one of the great enigmas of twentieth century music. Did Shostakovich embody the ideals of the Soviet Union? Or was he an artist who used his excessive orthodoxy to satirize a system that would have had him killed were he to speak his mind? The question also applies to Abel, whose pertinacious refusal to collaborate with the CIA may have more to do with his loved ones back home than with any kind of ideological commitment.[1]

In movies, the triangulation of memory and reflection and projection collapse into a single frame, as we see in the remarkable image of Mary Donovan looking over her slumbering husband, finally asleep. Her admiring gaze is reflected on a floral painting above the bed, the screen image a wistful portrait of that hollow “Greatest Generation” suspended in a blissful dream about itself. The American masquerade, perpetuated by the likes of Allan Dulles, J. Edgar Hoover, McCarthyism, and the looming cloud of Nixon, is withering.

The assurances of a country’s goodness and meaning are limited by the citizenry’s capacity for reflection within it. That idea is realized as Donovan looks at a painting of himself, something Abel leaves as a parting gift. “I hope it has some meaning to you,” Abel says before moving across Glienicke Bridge. What the portrait “means” links back to the film’s incipient image of the artist looking at himself in the mirror and painting what he sees. What’s expressed on the canvas—like on the screen—isn’t reality, but between the brush strokes and flickers those images may affect how we participate in reality, building bridges between our hearts and minds and how we see and approach other people. At a time when imperious calls for walls between borders are still being made, Spielberg—our most popular dramatist of fragile and weathered democracy—paints a portrait of the unpopular ethic of reciprocity, which might illuminate a path to mutual understanding, as history hobbles onward.


    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Spielberg’s colleague Stanley Kubrick used a Shostakovich waltz as Eyes Wide Shut’s theme, a film similarly about masquerades and hidden meanings amidst bourgeois banalities—and also about an unremarkable family man lying to his wife (Donovan repeatedly neglects to tell Mary his formidable decisions) and, stepping outside threatened domesticity, crossing forbidden thresholds before order in the bedroom can be restored.
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