Steven Spielberg is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock in many ways. True, he’s not as much of an audacious experimenter, but he most certainly knows the movie making craft. He understands suspense, good storytelling, and strong production values. Because he still is one of the most entertaining filmmakers to date, maintaining a grasp of all the integral details that make a Hollywood film interesting.
Hitchcock famously made two Cold War thrillers of his own in Torn Curtain and Topaz that were unfortunately rather disappointing. In this respect, Spielberg may have just bested the Master with his own espionage thriller Bridge of Spies. The secret is that he too grabs hold of an everyman story, utilizing one of his most magnetic collaborators Tom Hanks, but he also has an immense appreciation for the historical subtext. This is as much a historical drama as it is a human drama or a spy thriller. The fact that it functions on multiple levels gives it a greater degree of depth.
The film starts with a rather ordinary fellow (Mark Rylance) who we don’t know anything about, except he is rather old and likes to paint. Soon the FBI is on his tail and we quickly remember that this is 1958 — the Red Scare is real — the Cold War is freezing over. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are fresh on everyone’s mind as Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is imprisoned on multiple accounts of conspiracy.
This is a big deal and the whole country is watching, nay, the whole world is watching including the Soviets. The job of defending Abel appears a thankless one and so the buck gets passed to an insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks). Whereas everyone else sees this as a sorry position to be in, Donovan understands it’s a stellar opportunity to reflect the ideals that the American justice system are founded on. Not everyone is so keen with his ideals, especially when it involves a Communist. It is in these early scenes where we understand the fear of a nuclear threat is real. Yes, the Red Scare is real. You begin to understand how it could take root in the American public. After his face is seen in the papers, Donovan receives the ire of the public and it affects his family.
Meanwhile, no one knows it but the FBI is proceeding with a highly sensitive mission in Soviet airspace. Any slight screw-up and nuclear war seems inevitable. But of course, the long-remembered Gary Powers is shot down in a U2 plane taking recon footage and all of the sudden things have gotten a lot hotter.
The second leg of the narrative follows Donovan as he tries to broker a deal between the two superpowers for a prisoner swap. Both countries are intent on keeping a lid on their national secrets. If Donovan’s task was just an exchange between Gary Powers and Abel it would be, shall we say, simple, but there has to be an added wrinkle. There always is. We get at least a taste of what the Berlin Wall truly did in creating a fissure between families and friends in Germany. However, crucial to this story, it also trapped an American student named Frederic Pryor in the GDR. Now Donovan has two men to try and retrieve, one bargaining chip in Abel, and two powers he must deal with. The Soviet Union are the main priority along with Powers, but his contacts in the GDR are still miffed about not being recognized by the U.S. They are not about to be pushed around.
Really we can break Bridge of Spies down to just a few men, but these seemingly simple actions and interactions are blown up and magnified to the nth degree on a highly political scale. If this is actually, in essence, how this war played out in real time then it is almost a ludicrously crazy ordeal.
Still, as Spielberg always does, he reverts his story back to the human component and Donovan, the man who put his vocational talents to good use in ways that had global impact. Imagine, he was a civilian, a man who was hardly given any authority by his own government, and yet his fortitude was ultimately rewarded. Then, at the end of a hard day’s work, he returned quietly to his wife and kids with the jar of marmalade he had promised to bring home.
Spielberg does well to evoke nostalgia, with the coats and the ties, the hats and ’50s sensibilities. And though we can guess the outcome of this biography before we get there, that doesn’t make the historical climate or how we get there any less gripping. That’s where this story succeeds. Furthermore, Mark Rylance’s performance is thoroughly grounded and his scrupled man of honor truly reflects socialism with a human face, all the while wielding a droll sense of humor.
It’s easy to look at the past events of world history with a more tempered eye. We can see the rationale of Donovan, the blind paranoia of the American public, and the unyielding tensions on all fronts. The day and age may have changed, but just have a look around. There are still tensions rising to this day. We still need the common man to enact change, now as much as ever. It’s that type of sentiment that really separates Spielberg from Hitchcock. His every man comes with heart.