Germany in the Cold War seems to be an area which is scarcely addressed in film and television. In the grand scheme of things, it seems to be a very small and irrelevant blip on the radar of the nuclear arms race, especially as the USSR proposes much more glamorous material than modern-day Russia seems to in contemporary cinema. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a study into the minutiae of Cold War negotiations, and through the addition of Spielberg’s magic touch, historical characters and events somehow fall together to create a story ‘Inspired by true events’.
Set in 1957 with the period prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall, Bridge of Spies is a lawyer’s dream. Spielberg is fiercely patriotic, and that American patriotism provides the fundamental foundations of the film. Though many have lost faith in the American Constitution and the legal system, the Bridge of Spies is an optimistic pledge to both: where people fail, the law will always prevail. It is through this optimism Tom Hanks’ Jim Donovan truly comes to life in the negotiation of CIA pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), and unfortunate Ivy League economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) for Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).
Despite the name, Bridge of Spies is the antithesis of an exciting Hollywood film: it is the Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy to The Americans. If you were expecting action and grit as the trailers portrayed, you are going to leave the cinema disappointed, but if you are looking at a carefully curated look into the practice of negotiations and mediation, Spielberg makes mediators around the world proud of their job. After all, he makes mediation sound much more hopeful in the invocation of the true American spirit rather than the presentation of technicalities of the law before the Supreme Court.
The Hanks-Spielberg Team has produced monumental productions; from Band of Brothers to Catch Me If You Can to The Pacific, these two have dominated cinema for a whole generation, and Bridge of Spies gives the evidence necessary evidence that they will continue to for ages to come. My admiration of Tom Hanks stretches back to the Forrest Gump days, and knowing his immense capability, I can’t help but to feel that Hanks underperformed as James B. Donovan. Donovan was an astute man with the utmost faith in the law. As it was addressed in the film, he was of Nuremberg Trials fame, and went on to successfully negotiate the return of prisoners from the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. Hanks’ Donovan suffers the honest loss of face of a true American patriot standing by the justice system with integrity; as people turn their backs, the home front suffers, and the conflict drives more than merely professionally. Much of this would not have been achieved without Amy Ryan’s stellar performance as Mary Donovan, and much of Hanks’ portrayal relies upon the perfectly matched on-screen chemistry with Ryan to present an emotionally-charged family crisis. But despite Hanks’ technical prowess, and excellent portrayal as a hard-working lawyer, Hanks’ Donovan appeared to be somewhat two-dimensional with only three emotions – unimpressed, very unimpressed and extremely unimpressed – which can be identified by the increase of wrinkles on his brow.
But where you may not be so impressed with Hanks’ performance, you will continue to honour and respect the attention Spielberg places into the presentation of the drama. Bridge of Spies is beautiful to look at, there is no other way to say it. His curation of East and West Berlin in 1957 will take you on a pensive journey. Berlin is bloody and bruised. The desaturation of colour in the portrayal of the frozen German winter forces you to empathise with the world of the German people; suffering defeat in World War II only to be forcefully subjected to a violent ideological divide.
Bridge of Spies skilfully addresses the plight of those who attempted to cross the border in the last days before it was closed off. With the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, we do not often think about the moments that it was constructed, and the desperation of people to flee with nothing but their most prized possessions but in the film we see it being built by Germans, for Germans, supported by tanks and stoic, war-wearied soldiers. Together with the crude depictions of the flight of those from the East to West through the Death Strip, the honest portrayal of life in Cold War Germany juxtaposed with the safe sanctuary of the classic American neighbourhood is reminiscent of the stark contrasts of a life at war and the home front the Hanks-Spielberg team presented in Episode 10 of The Pacific, and truly forces you to contemplate the world in which we live.
The only real casualty of Bridge of Spies is its soundtrack. The use of an almost Gregorian-chant to represent the USSR and the over-usage of American horns to illustrate the greatness of the West is a large disappointment as it employs an archaic stereotype to a refreshing dimension in the portrayal of a different theatre in the Cold War crisis. Thomas Newman of Skyfall and WALL-E fame betrays the subtle finesse that Spielberg works so hard to master.
Spielberg’s dramatised portrayal of this event is not merely to honour the legacy left by James B. Donovan upon the world of diplomatic relations. It is a commentary on the USA and its dealing with contemporary terrorism with the imposition of this thought: where is the spirit of the American justice system after 9/11? With a crisis like the Cold War, or the post-9/11 world, should nations abscond their legal obligations? It is this powerful commentary which reminds us all of our need to ensure that the fundamental rights of all are to be maintained even in the times of crisis and that all people are entitled to justice before the law.
Bridge of Spies is a refreshing look at knife-edge politics without the need for the excitement of the typical Hollywood drama, and is a film carefully curated to redefine the way in which espionage in Cold War can be portrayed.
Bridge of Spies
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance, Sebastian Koch