The new Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies tells the based-on-a-true-story 1957 arrest of Russian spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) and James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer who is given the thankless task of defending him in court. Abel refuses to cooperate with American authorities, and though his guilt is widely assumed (and the evidence against him apparently overwhelming) the American legal system guarantees due process even for spies and Donovan agrees to do it out of principle.
Instead of the token defense expected of him, however, Donovan takes his obligation seriously and mounts a strong advocacy of his client. To no one’s surprise Abel is convicted, but when the pilot of a U2 spy plane is shot down and captured by the Russians, Donovan is asked to covertly negotiate a prisoner swap with the Russians (and later, East Germans as well) in Germany as the Berlin Wall is constructed and Cold War tensions mount.
Bridge of Spies is not Spielberg’s first foray into period pieces dramatizing historical legal and political conflicts–Amistad and Lincoln are good examples–and it’s a subject he handles well. The situation has real-world echoes to this day, such as the faux outrage when American intelligence agencies were revealed in leaked documents to have spied on European allies (most notably German leader Angela Merkel’s private telephone). It was an embarrassing situation for the U.S. but as several people noted, hardly newsworthy in Washington.
The fact is that friendly nations spy on each other all the time for economic, military and other advantages. The United States could almost certainly have arrested and publicly paraded any number of known or suspected German spies collecting intelligence on American activities, but decided not to escalate the matter: It was in everyone’s interest for America to apologize, take the lumps, and move on. In fact in May of this year Germany’s foreign intelligence agency was accused of spying on that country’s allies, with the Austrian government filing a complaint over German spying. It’s all part of a big political game of brinksmanship.
These dynamics are played out on the human scale in Bridge of Spies. As he did in Schindler’s List, Spielberg puts a face on the people and forces involved. The film is also interesting in its historical context to the situation–East Germany wanting formal official recognition from America, for example. The sense of fear and paranoia is palpable–I’m of a generation that experienced the tail end of the Cold War in the 1980s. I remember conversations and concerns over the salient prospects of a nuclear war with Russia. It was not of the same caliber of fear evident in the 1950s with their adorable instructions to schoolkids to hide under their desks during a nuclear attack, but there were some similarities. While many audiences over thirty will be familiar with the social anxiety of the Cold War, younger ones may not, and this film will help put it in perspective.
The film is full of Spielbergian moments, which is both good and bad. It’s well directed but he can be ham-handed at times and is not above beating the audience over the head when he feels a theme isn’t clear enough. The film is at its most intriguing when it delves into the nuances of the situation, for example the notion that Abel is–despite widespread public opinion to the contrary–not a traitor at all since he is not an American citizen. Donovan believes that Abel is instead a patriot and a good soldier, albeit for the enemy.
The parallel to the American U2 spying that Spielberg offers is not as neat as he would have us believe–one is photographing things visible from the air, and the other is–well, we don’t know. By not revealing anything about the subject of Abel’s spying he safely stakes his ground on a slippery slope. Abel is not a mass murderer or serial rapist, but he’s clearly gathering information on something, and it’s probably not the rising cost of street vendor hot dogs along Park Avenue. It might be innocuous, or it might be secret codes for disabling American defense systems against incoming Russian missiles. Would Donovan be as admirable defending an accused child molester or serial killer? In theory, yes.
Abel’s guilt is never in doubt, since the audience knows from the first scene that he’s involved in something covert and almost certainly contrary to American interests. Spielberg rightly admires Donovan’s stubborn demand for due process for his hated client, but this message will likely be lost on many Americans who routinely take to social media to express outrage for real and perceived injustices. Hardly a week goes by without an outrage du jour. Police shootings, for example, though controversial take time to investigate and adjudicate. Many are justified, while others are not and that determination can rarely be made in the hours and days following the event. It may take weeks or months to properly and thoroughly establish the facts and determine the circumstances–and thus the justifiability–of a shooting.
Yet protests often start up immediately, followed by demands that those responsible be held accountable based on limited information, misinformation, or even rumor. While Americans pay lip service to the importance of due process, in practice they often demand that firings, arrests, and other official actions be taken long before that process has occurred. Social media makes this worse, as Jon Ronson recently described in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In this environment of smears and social shaming, even the innocent can be irreparably damaged when outrage gets ahead of facts.
I’d like to think that audiences would identify with and emulate Donovan’s integrity and regard for fairness, but the gap between what we say we stand for as a country of laws and what we do is wide indeed. It’s easy to cast due process as a dispensable formality when we know–or worse, when we think we know–what the truth is. But due process, like free speech, only has meaning when it protects those we dislike or whose actions we disagree with. Bridge of Spies is an engaging political thriller with a real American hero-whether audiences recognize it or not.