For all its media hype, there’s something missing from Steven Spielberg’s latest movie. In reviews in The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The Independent, Bridge of Spies has been lapped up by the critics as the film that will bring heat to the cold war. Spielberg’s spy thriller depicts in detail the role of New York lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), in the eventual negotiation of a prisoner exchange between the USA, the USSR, and the East Germans in 1962. Reminding the US government to act according to its constitution during the trial of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), Hanks’ character is set up as a triumphant figure in a narrative promoting American individualism and freedom. Yet, as in many Spielberg films, the audience misses out on one thing critical to most readings of the Cold War- subtlety.
There’s something very Saving Private Ryan about Spielberg’s latest production. Even with script writing assisted by the Coen brothers, Bridge of Spies offers a one dimensional narrative of the good man, Donovan, espousing values of constitutional freedom against the pressures of the cold war. From as soon as he accepts Abel’s case, the film unflinchingly depicts Hanks’ character as the unquestionable voice of what is right. Standing up to the CIA, the East German government, and the USSR, Donovan is depicted as the voice of individualism in the corporate world of the cold war.
Spielberg’s film is riddled with similarly clumsy symbolism that alludes to the present. Represented by the student Frederic Pryor, Donovan’s quest to save America’s future is played off against his need to work in the interests of the state. Under pressure from his CIA handlers, Donovan refuses to make the US’s deal for the release of American U2 spy-plane pilot, Gary Powers, until he has ensured safety of the student. In Spielberg’s narrative, Donovan fits a motif of the free American strongly standing up to the compromising powers of the state that is just as relevant today as ever before. In our surveillance world of Guantanamo Bay and the NSA, the moral of Spielberg’s film is argued to be just as important as in its sixties setting.
Despite all its impressive cinematography, however, there is something wrong with Bridge of Spies’ depiction of the realities of the cold war. The grey colour scheme creates an atmosphere of tension and suspicion in the movie, but somehow the plot doesn’t live up to it. Instead of a depiction of the grubby realities of compromise, suspicion, and self-doubt that are so masterfully depicted in cold war spy novels by John le Carré, Spielberg allows his audience to relax. Through parallel scenes depicting American courts compared to Russian show-trials, or Russian torture compared to American justice, we are left in no doubt about who is right and who is wrong.
The film is harmful for our historical record of the cold war because it plays up to the binaries of the conflict. The only ‘enemy’ character that Spielberg develops in any positive detail is that of the captured KGB spy, Abel. Even this character, however, is used to hint at the Russian’s perceived inhumanity through what the narrative suggests they will do to him when they get him back.
Individual performances in the film are no doubt strong, and I will be surprised if Mark Rylance’s Hollywood career is not boosted by his sympathetic performance as the spy Abel. Yet, the real problem with Spielberg’s film is that, on the whole, it fails to explain the subtleties of cold war subterfuge. Rather than grand narratives of good versus evil, the individual versus the state, or the constitution versus public opinion, Spielberg should have focussed on the human experiences of the conflict. Tom Hanks’ Donovan is flawed precisely because Spielberg lets him be too perfect.
In the end, I left the cinema underwhelmed because the narrative seemed too good to be true. In a film trumpeted for its criticism of the cold war American state, strangely there remains an unchallenged theme of the glories of Americana. Spielberg establishes Hanks’ character as a symbol of everything that is truly great about American individualism, freedom, and suspicion of the state- anyone looking for a more sophisticated reading of this event in history is left disappointed.