Tom Hanks, over the last couple of decades, has played many roles, and many have suggested he, like Jimmy Stewart before him, has been playing ‘everyman’ in all these roles. There is considerable truth in this assessment, and when he teams up with Mr. Spielberg, then we are really off to the races when it comes to ‘everyman’ movies. Those going to Bridge of Spies, expecting another Saving Private Ryan, will be disappointed, in the sense that this is not a war movie, it is a cold war movie. Hardly a shot is fired in this movie, except by thugs who don’t approve of James Donovan (aka Hanks) defending a caught Russian spy in America’s courts. The story is indeed ‘inspired by true events’, events that transpire from about 1957-61, involving the shooting down of Gary Powers in his U2 spy plane, and an exchange of prisoners.
Quite apropos for a cold war movie, scene after scene is shot in winter, in shades of gray, and black, and white, right down to what people are wearing and the cars they are driving. The two super powers are feeling each other out, circling and circling like two tigers. After Hiroshima, everyone knew that nuclear war would be a disaster, and everyone lived in the shadow of the big bomb. The sense of national and international tension, complete with the building of the Berlin Wall and the Powers incident ratchets up the drama along with the melodramatic music. Spielberg knows how to build and release tension in a movie— and there are plenty of tense scenes in this one. Interestingly the script was written in part by the Coen brothers.
For two hours and 22 minutes we are busy biting our fingernails waiting to see if Donovan can do seven impossible things before breakfast– all without being an official government operative! Rather he was only an insurance lawyer. The real James Donovan discovered through these escapades that he had a knack for prisoner negotiations and President Kennedy was later to enlist his aid in getting over one thousand prisoners freed from Cuba, by negotiating with Fidel Castro! I suppose Kennedy reckoned if he could deal with the Russians and East Germans and get an outcome, he could wheel and deal with anyone. The movie comes to a climax on a bridge, and like the bridge of sighs in Venice, it involves prisoners who may thinking they are marching to their doom.
Like Jimmy Stewart, Tom Hanks plays the virtuous American with a heart of gold, and plenty of courage. But lest you think this movie is chiefly an exercise in nationalistic chest-thumping, in fact it is meant to appeal to larger and better causes. As we learn early in the film, what separates human beings from chaos and from all other creatures is, to some extent, the rule of law. And the law should be applied to all equally, impartially, hence the statues of justice blindfolded. Even if one is thought to be a Russian spy, one still deserves a fair trial in America not a kangaroo court or a lynch mob. Donovan quickly discovers that some of his fellow Americans, caught up in the fears of the cold war, are perfectly ready to jettison our Constitution and the rule of law, and to play dirty to gain an advantage over our foes. As Donovan stalwartly makes clear— he will not play that game, because when you go down that road, there can be no difference between tyranny and so-called democracy when it comes to ‘justice’.
This may not be Hanks’ finest hour, but it is certainly one of his finest performances, and the movie focuses almost entirely on him throughout. He is excellent from start to finish, and some of his speeches are memorable, worth quoting. Yes, there are other fine actors in the film, such as brief appearances by Alan Alda, but this is Hanks’ star turn from beginning to end.
I would urge all Americans to see this film, especially now that we are once again embroiled in tensions with Russia. I say this for three reasons: 1) a country that forgets the mistakes of its past is doomed to repeat them, and by the same token a country that remembers its finest hours, may rise to the challenge again. Of late, we have not had any such finest hours on the world stage.; 2) this story not only humanizes our enemies, it reveals our own foibles and shortcomings as well. It is an honest tale well told.; 3) this is a movie about first principles and what really matters in this world, and it makes you think, again and again. Mr. Donovan is an ordinary man who becomes a ‘standing man’ and in the process of standing for his beliefs, he becomes an ‘outstanding man’. If you don’t stand for something, you may well fall for anything, as the cliche goes. Take some time to both see and ponder this film. It peels back the veneer of hagiography, and shows us the good, the bad and the ugly of who we, as fallen persons, and as Americans are.