It might be stating the obvious to say that Steven Spielberg is a great filmmaker but his latest stint in the director’s chair, Bridge of Spies, just goes to show that it’s still true no matter how many times you say it.
A Tense Moment in History
This Cold War Era thriller is classic filmmaking at its best. Calling to mind the era of Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart, the movie has a film noir feel to it. When it’s not raining in late 1950’s New York it’s snowing in 1960’s Berlin and the seeping cold of the weather only enhances the coldness of the story unfolding on screen.
James Donovan (Tom Hanks) lives his normal life, supporting his family as an insurance lawyer. A man of impeccable integrity, Donovan doesn’t even need to think about it when he’s asked to defend a suspected Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). He takes the case knowing it will make him the most hated man in America, but he believes that every person deserves a fair trial. He tells his detractors, “Every life is important.” As Donovan gets to know Abel, he respects the spy for his unswerving loyalty to his mission, even if that mission is at odds with the interests of the United States. After Abel’s conviction, Donovan convinces the judge a life sentence is better than the death penalty. He tells the judge that Abel may be useful if there was ever need for a prisoner exchange with the Soviets.
And so it happens.
Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) pilots a U-2 spy plane over Soviet airspace. When the plane gets shot down and Powers captured, the CIA recruits Donovan to broker an unofficial deal to exchange Abel for Powers. Location: Berlin—where the wall has just gone up.
Rooting for the Spy
Cast as the ultimate Everyman, Tom Hanks almost underperforms Donovan. Hanks, indeed, has us rooting for Donovan but he falls short in portraying the fear and uncertainty that must have had his heart pounding as he navigated the streets of East Berlin. Still, Hanks’ ability to portray a character of deep integrity and honor has the audience glued to Donovan’s face as he encounters the dangers of his mission.
The real scene stealer is Rylance, a renowned British stage actor. Rylance’s Abel is restrained, honorable, and touched with humor. He portrays an enemy of the state with such dignity that it’s no wonder he has the audience rooting for Abel, worried that if he’s returned to the Soviet Union, he’ll be executed.
Every Person is Important
Bridge of Spies truly celebrates the dignity of each human person and the respect due each one, whether or not that person is our closest friend, an in-need stranger, or our worst enemy. Donovan showed respect to Abel, as well as the Soviets and East Germans he dealt with during negotiations. He gave Abel the best defense he could, even though he was ostracized for defending an alleged spy. Abel showed his respect for Donovan on the bridge, being willing to wait, even though his freedom hung in the balance.
A Story Featuring a Woman?
As much as I love Spielberg’s films, Bridge of Spies included, I have a little beef with him. He has such a talent for taking the smaller stories of history and splashing them across the big screen. Many of his films bring much needed recognition to events that would otherwise stay in relative obscurity, such as Amistad and Munich. Bridge of Spies falls into this category. Lincoln, Saving Private Ryan, and War Horse depict better known historical times but in such detail that these films are renowned for making the audience feel as if they were there.
One thing all the above-mentioned films have in common is that they all have men at the center of their stories. While women have been present in Spielberg’s films, when will we see a Spielberg film with a woman at the center? Are there no women’s stories worthy of this legendary director’s talents? Here’s to hoping that the next time Spielberg sits in the director’s chair, he’ll be bringing a woman’s story out of obscurity to the consciousness of the world.