Spielberg captures Cold War fears in ‘Bridge of Spies’


Special To The Japan Times

Mankind owes much to Steven Spielberg. Without him, many of us would never have known the existence of Oskar Schindler (“Schindler’s List”), become aware of the events behind the Munich Olympics in 1972 (“Munich”), seen the U.S. slave trade depicted in a major Hollywood production (“Amistad”) or learned about the private life of Abraham Lincoln (“Lincoln”), not to mention get a full-on description of the World War II invasion of Normandy (“Saving Private Ryan”). There’s more, but you get the point: Spielberg can spin entertainment out of anything. What could turn into a history lesson in another filmmaker’s hands, becomes a box-office mega-sensation and Academy Award winner in the factory of Steven Spielberg. Granted, it doesn’t happen every time, but when you think about his lengthy and amazing career, an Olympic slogan of old may come to mind: “Impossible is Nothing.”

In Spielberg’s latest, “Bridge of Spies,” that same slogan would apply to stalwart hero James Donovan — a real-life lawyer who fleetingly came into history’s spotlight during the Cold War in the late 1950s. Attempting to explain the period while keeping viewers entertained and on the edge of their seats seems like a daunting task, but leave it to Spielberg. Working from a screenplay co-written by none other than the Coen brothers, “Bridge of Spies” takes on the layered complexities and labyrinthine protocol surrounding the Cold War by zeroing in on Donovan: a God-fearing American lawyer with an unshakable belief in playing fair. He bears the weight of the entire movie on his square shoulders.

Bridge of Spies
Run Time 141 mins
Language English

Donovan is played by Tom Hanks and in “Bridge of Spies” he’s a blend of NASA astronaut Jim Lovell from “Apollo 13” and Dr. Robert Langdon in “The Da Vinci Code.” Who other than Hanks could play a morally upright family man and epitome of democratic decency, but who also harbors the seeds of political cynicism? Perhaps Donovan isn’t far from admitting that his beloved America could be the arbiter of global warfare culminating in a nuclear catastrophe. Certainly the flow of the story suggests just that. Donovan always examines every option before making the righteous choice (or trying to), even under the most difficult of circumstances.

In the film, he has been called upon to defend Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance, in a riveting performance) who has been arrested by the FBI as a Soviet spy. Donovan’s boss (Alan Alda) tells him to go through the motions and be done with it because who cares what happens to a foreign spy? But Donovan defies him. In his mind, everyone has the right to a fair trial regardless of their country of origin. Donovan’s dedication is noted by the higher-ups and later, he’s sent to East Berlin on his own, to negotiate a prisoner swap on behalf of the U.S. government. Abel will be offered in exchange for two Americans: fighter pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), shot down over Russia during a reconnaissance mission, and college student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who found himself on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.

So Donovan gets to work and that’s what “Bridge of Spies” essentially boils down to. It’s about one man doing his job and giving it his all, inside a veritable pressure cooker that could explode at any minute. In the process, this dialogue-heavy legal drama becomes a gripping period saga with John Le Carre undertones. You could almost call it “The Lawyer Who Came in From the Cold.” Fittingly, the color scheme is made up of dark blue and about 90 shades of gray. It’s winter everywhere Donovan goes, from his neighborhood streets to the courtroom where Abel’s trial is underway, to Germany behind the Iron Curtain. And true to Le Carre’s depictions of the Cold War, Donovan realizes how 90 percent of the “conflict” is intelligence gathering and negotiations — a seemingly endless round of discussions and deals. Though there’s little action, the heart races and fists clench. The Spielberg brand lives.