America Against the Rest of the World: A Review of “Bridge of Spies”

The Collective’s foray into the 2016 Oscars continues with Bridge of Spies, nominated for six Academy Awards. Based on the true events surrounding the U-2 Incident in 1960, the film stars Tom Hanks as American lawyer James Donovan and Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy.

When Abel is captured due to espionage-linked evidence, Donovan is asked by his firm to represent him. While the case against Abel is substantial, it is important that the American justice system be seen as fair by the rest of the world; though he knows that he will lose the case and likely be reviled by many for representing a communist, Donovan takes the job as part of his patriotic duty. He tells his wife that the bar chose him because “they want to show that even a spy gets a capable advocate.”

Before the film has even truly began, we are already wondering what it means to represent one’s country, and the implications of being a betrayer.

“You can’t accuse Abel of being a traitor; he’s not an American.”

When Donovan first meets his client, Abel accepts him as his legal counsel but does not seem alarmed at the prospect of facing the electric chair. Instead, he merely asks for some materials with which to draw, and a few cigarettes. Donovan dismisses the request, but Abel insists, pointing out that there are American boys doing the same job he is in Russia, and if they were so unlucky as to be caught, wouldn’t Donovan want them to be treated well?

DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 Pictures
DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 Pictures

Although many people laud Donovan for taking on the “thankless task” of defending a KGB agent, no one expects him to attempt to mount a solid defense. But Donovan is taking the job seriously, as he would any other criminal case. When he finds that there was no search warrant issued when Abel’s apartment was raided, he asks the judge not to accept the evidence as it is tainted. The judge refuses, saying that as the spy isn’t an American citizen, it doesn’t matter if he has basic rights or not. When the case goes to trial and Abel is found guilty by the jury, Donovan goes to bat for him again, asking the judge to consider options aside from the electric chair. For example, if an American spy were to be captured behind the Iron Curtain, the American government would have no leverage for an exchange if they killed Abel. Though the judge doesn’t seem convinced at first, he later sentences Abel to 30 years in prison instead of death.

Everyone is outraged that the spy isn’t to be killed. Despite opposition, Donovan wants an appeal on the verdict, based on the US Constitution no less. It doesn’t take long for things to take a turn for the worse. Shots are fired at his house, and he and his family begin receiving hate mail. Undeterred, Donovan goes before the Supreme Court, insisting that Abel deserves a right to human dignity and civil liberties. Unsurprisingly, in the face of blind fear and hatred toward the Soviets, the vote is against him.

Will we stand by our cause less resolutely than he stands by his?

Meanwhile, Francis Gary Powers is flying on a secret intelligence gathering mission over Soviet territory when he is shot down, captured, and tortured. Similarly, Frederick Pryor is arrested by border guards at the Berlin Wall for trying to bring his girlfriend into West Germany, and labeled an American spy. Donovan receives word from the USSR proposing an exchange of Abel for Powers; the lawyer travels to Berlin, determined to free both Americans with Abel as leverage. Does he succeed? Watch and find out! Or go check Wikipedia, whichever you prefer.

DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 Pictures

When it comes down to the wire, it’s a Spielberg film through and through. The script, cinematography, pacing, acting, music…you name it, it’s good. While the film may seem slow at times to those unfamiliar with the era, it culminates in a gripping old-Hollywood thriller. Does it deserve to win for Best Picture? That, of course, isn’t up to us, the viewers. But despite that, movies like this are important, and the way we react to them is even more so.

There is something about this time period that speaks to current events—post WWII America was not so different from post 9/11 America. In the late 50s and early 60s, McCarthyism and the Cold War were on the forefront of everyone’s minds; people acted out of fear, loathing anything that smelled remotely of Russia, Communism, or nuclear weapons. Substitute Russians for Muslims and/or refugees, and we’re pretty much still in the same boat. Fear brings out the worst in many of us; it makes us small minded and defensive, refusing to see the other side of the coin. Speaking from a historical standpoint, this film is more of a reflection of today’s society than it is a retelling of true events.

To put it plainly, we need films like this. We need the harsh reminder that history has a nasty habit of repeating itself, and that humankind never seems to learn from its own mistakes. What does it mean to be afraid of things you don’t agree with? What does it mean to serve your country, whichever country that might be? What does it mean when we find ourselves digging the same hole our ancestors dug, and barely managed to drag themselves out of? We see ourselves in both Donovan and Abel, and that is the true powerhouse behind Bridge of Spies.

Until next week,

The Collected Mutineer

Have any Oscar predictions? Let me know on Twitter @ImpalaMutineers