For the last couple of years, and for no particular reason, I have been studying the former Soviet Union: the Bolshevik Revolution, the Stalin era, the Gulags and Terror Campaigns. This has resulted in a growing frustration over Hollywood’s refusal to tell this story. For appropriate reasons, through both education and popular culture, the horrors of Nazi Germany are known to most everyone. The crimes against humanity committed by the Soviet Union are not.
This is appalling for a number of reasons. While the Soviet-era horrors were much different than those committed under Hitler, the death count was much higher, primarily because it lasted for decades. The unfathomable inhumanity that began with the October Revolution in 1917, and would remain until the end of the Cold War in 1991, might not have been as focused and systematic as the Nazi crematoriums, but human slavery, famine-as-a-weapon, mass-graves, and concentration camps were still the result.
Not to sound crass, but purely from a storytelling point of view, Soviet-era Russia is an untapped goldmine. All the documentaries, television miniseries, and feature films about the Nazis that have captivated us over the decades could just as easily be about Russian communism, especially under Stalin. The political reasons behind this storytelling snub are obvious and best explored in a separate piece. What I am here to announce is that with the near-masterpiece “Bridge of Spies,” director Steven Spielberg has made some headway in righting this wrong.
Moreover, and quite surprisingly, Spielberg takes an obvious side in the Cold War, and not against America.
Using precision period detail, the stunning cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, and silence, Spielberg opens his story on a dilapidated Brooklyn apartment haunted by its occupant, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (likely Oscar-nominee Austin Stowell). The year is 1957, Eisenhower is president, Josef Stalin is dead, and his mercurial successor, Nikita Kruschev, has saber-rattled the Cold War into a hot spot. Abel’s part of a KGB network smuggling secrets out of America and into the Motherland.
The F.B.I. is on to Abel, and after he is caught our government is desperate to show the world that in America even a hated Soviet spy benefits from the Bill of Rights. After pretty much everyone else turns down the opportunity to become the most hated person in the country, the government button holes insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks).
Donovan agreeing to defend Abel is met mostly with praise from his colleagues and government, that is until he takes his role seriously enough to successfully save Abel from execution and then appeal his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court.
Although these events were years apart, Spielberg wisely compresses history so that while the court case is unfurling the CIA is readying its U-2 Spy Plane program. From 70,000 feet, we could fly over the Soviet Union and snap the pictures required to understand their missile and troop movements.
These flights infuriated and humiliated the insecure Kruschev, who was desperate to shoot down one of the planes and did so successfully in 1960. The biggest coup was capturing the plane’s pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
In the grey shadows where the Cold War had to play out in order to remain cold, Donovan is again recruited to unofficially swap Abel for Powers. This takes Donovan to East Germany where the Berlin Wall is just going up and the politics between the German Democrat Republic and the Soviet Union are even more murky than those with America.
Despite a couple of slow spots, the overall story is a thoroughly engrossing slow burn. Even if you know the outcome of the Abel/Powers swap, Spielberg and his screenwriters (Joel and Ethan Coen) throw in a ringer to keep the screws tightened. Hanks is marvelous as the decent, capable American Everyman guided only by his own Judeo-Christian conscience and love for the American Constitution. In a very good performance, Hanks hasn’t been this likable for a long time.
Rather than wallow in the anti-science moral relativism that defined so many Cold War movies post-1968, Spielberg is eager to take a side — to paint a thick black line between the tyranny of communism and the imperfect but still superior American justice system and way of life. After a sequence where we watch Powers tortured by his captors using sleep deprivation, Spielberg cuts to a CIA agent gently waking Abel up. The contrast between Donovan arguing Abel’s case before the highest court in the land and the Russian show-trial Powers faced is not even subtle, nor should it be.
Spielberg even idealizes one of Hollywood’s favorite whipping boys: America under Eisenhower in the 1950’s. Furthermore, the left’s anti-science trope about executed traitors’ Julius and Ethel Rosenberg being innocent is subtly shot down by Donovan right before he and his family hold hands around the dinner table and pray to Jesus Christ.
On a human level, quite appropriately, things are not so black and white. The heart of the film is the quiet, unexpected friendship that grows between Donovan and Abel, who is not a traitor like the Rosenbergs but a soldier, a spy — a man fighting for his country. The physical and emotional toll of doing his patriotic duty is all over Abel’s face. Like our protagonist, we disagree with this man’s cause but cannot deny that he for fought for it in a way worthy of respect.
Spielberg also gives these same complicated shades to another of Hollywood’s favorite whipping boys: the CIA. Sure, they are tough and a tad ruthless, but they are not bloodless monsters. There is a rhyme to their merciless reason. In the end, we are glad they are out there.
There are two marvelous themes at work in “Bridge of Spies.” The most prominent is a crucial reminder that regular, everyday American citizens are the only corrective measure against a government that almost always errors on the side of encroaching against our civil rights. The other, and this is spoken out loud in one of the film’s best moments, is that if you know you did the right thing, you shouldn’t worry about what others think of you.
Spielberg has come a long way since his moral monstrosity “Munich,” and his art is all the better for it. “Bridge of Spies” is Spielberg’s best film since 1993’s “Schindler’s List.”
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