“Bridge of Spies” examines mid-20th century moral and political struggles with enough distance to establish perspective and enough resonance to illuminate contemporary conflicts.
“Bridge of Spies,” directed by Steven Spielberg, gives us a stirring tribute to the Constitution, to American ideals of justice and to a real-life hero who is all the more heroic for not being celebrated.
The film takes place a few years after the Allies have defeated the fascist Axis powers headed by Germany and Japan. And then almost immediately, in the Cold War era, the United States finds itself sparring with the communists and trying to prevent another full-blown war.
In an era when writers like Dalton Trumbo were being blacklisted and college professors were asked to sign loyalty oaths, insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is remarkable because he insisted on advocating for his client, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.
When a representative of the CIA asks him to violate the attorney-client privilege, Donovan explains that what makes us Americans is our dedication to the Constitution and its core principles of fairness and justice — even for our enemies, if they are being tried in our courts. He understood that compromising those ideals would damage our country far more than the theft of any secrets by a communist spy because the betrayal would come from our own citizens.
Hanks, Hollywood’s best portrayer of essential decency, shows us how Donovan thinks through his strategy but never waivers in his understanding of what is right. Perhaps it takes a non-American, British playwright Matt Charman (working with the Coen brothers), to remind us of the Constitution’s value.
Other best picture nominees may be more superficially dazzling. But “Bridge of Spies” rewards careful watching and re-watching for its depth of detail and nuanced storyline.
Donovan’s negotiation to exchange Abel for an American spy shot down over the Soviet Union takes him to Germany, where he sees East Germans being shot as they desperately try to escape by climbing over the brand new Berlin Wall. Later, safely at home in the suburbs, Donovan watches children in a playground happily scrambling over a jungle gym.
The movie does not have to tell us what that signifies. Thanks to the skill of Spielberg and Hanks, we know.
“Movie Mom” Nell Minow writes movie reviews for parents for The Star in the Friday FYI Movies section and at BeliefNet.com.