Bridge of Spies (2015)


“More Than One Accident”

For a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring that irksomely earnest Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies is a shockingly subtle film. Unlike the anti-intellectual bludgeons that are Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), the new film, perhaps owing to a script re-written by the quirky Coen Brothers, repeatedly undermines its jingoistic surface. The film concerns James B. Donovan, an American insurance lawyer chosen to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a spy for the Soviet Union during the height of the first Cold War. We first meet Donovan trying to help his client weasel out of paying $500,000 to five motorcyclists hit by the insured driver. Donovan makes the absurd argument that only one accident occurred, and thus the company should only have to pay out $100,000 dollars, despite the multiple victims.

We never learn whether Donovan’s specious argument wins, but it sure does return with a vengeance. Bullied by the CIA, Donovan finds himself alone in 1960, in a divided Berlin, trying to negotiate a prisoner swap with the communists. However, while the Soviets have captured downed U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (played quite brilliantly by Austin Stowell as a complete nothing, a dolt), the East German Stasi also have a hapless American economics student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers, now there’s a name for an American actor), stuck in East Berlin because of his love affair with a German girl. Sensing the similarity between Pryor and his law clerk Doug, who also happens to be his daughter’s secret boyfriend, Donovan risks global annihilation by playing the Soviets off against the East Germans, demanding the simultaneous release of both Pryor and Powers for just the one Soviet spy, Abel, thus returning to the well of his numerical collapse legal argument. The film thus positions even its hero as a Machiavellian opportunist.

The film works in this way throughout, wordlessly forging connections and articulating meanings far outside its purported simplistic message of the American judicial system triumphing over Soviet totalitarianism. In the film’s most compelling echo, after winning the freedom of the two Americans, Donovan rides the train in his hometown of New York City. After his fellow passengers begin smiling at him after recognizing him as the hero of Berlin from his photograph in the newspaper (itself an echo of an earlier train ride in which the entire crowd wanted to lynch him for defending Abel), Donovan looks happily out of the window. However, what he sees casts a pall over the end of the film. In the backyards of row houses, Donovan sees some kids jumping over a chain-link fence. The worried look on Hanks’ face at this moment indicates something beyond the surface meaning: he is comparing this sight to what he saw on the S-Bahn in Berlin, where fleeing East Germans were gunned down at the wall. Beyond this positive comparison—the kids in the United States are not being shot in the back—lurks something more sinister. Donovan continues to live in a world where kids do get shot in the back, and all of them are not in East Germany. The decade of the 1960s would see many an African-American kid in the South murdered just as brutally.

For its part, the Soviet Union also does not escape the film’s wordless criticism. In my favorite scene, early in the proceedings, Donovan brings a transistor radio into Abel’s cell so that they can listen to a concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich. The Russian composer of course was the most anti-Stalinist artist in the Soviet Union not yet sent to a gulag. By the early 1960s, Shostakovich was allegorizing the horrors of Stalinism in his grandiose late symphonies, as well as writing the score for a 1964 film version of Hamlet directed by Grigori Kozintsev, in which the Ghost appears as a 30-foot tall Josef Stalin. When Abel admits to Donovan that he is a great admirer of Shostakovich, he may as well be sealing his death warrant upon his return to the Eastern bloc, something that the film confirms at its end, when all of the Americans hug each other, but Abel is shoved into a Soviet car, presumably to be interrogated and then shipped off to Siberia, or shot, or both.

But we would expect an American film to point to the inanity of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. So it is for the subtlety of the critique of the United States that I most cherish this film. While walking around in the snow in Berlin, while being essentially abandoned by the American government, Donovan passes a movie marquee. Two of the films playing are Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, released in 1960 and 1961, respectively. Both of these films represent Hollywood cinema at its most scathing: the leftist Spartacus broke the Hollywood blacklist, while One, Two, Three is the starkest expression of Wilder’s cynicism; the film concerns a nutty Coca-Cola executive played by Jimmy Cagney, of all people. Many critics have praised the old-fashioned storytelling craft of Bridge of Spies. The film instead points to a very different tradition, just as critical of the United States as of the bogeyman communists. Both One, Two, Three and Bridge of Spies use Berlin to not just forward Americanism, but question its basic foundations. The fact that I can use the greatness of Billy Wilder to read Bridge of Spies points to the fact that this is by far Spielberg’s best film in decades.