By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
I suspect Steven Spielberg, realizing that few folks were as lucky as I to have Mr. Green as their high school social studies teacher, felt the necessity to impart the grand civics lesson contained in his highly exciting “Bridge of Spies.” Chastising the baloney and opportunism that too often attend the application of patriotism, he cannily mines its most honest essence in this important chronicle of the May, 1960 U-2 incident and the Cold War drama that followed. Our spy, Captain Francis Gary Powers, is caught, and the Russians plan to make the most of it.
This calls for good old American ingenuity…the more homespun the better. Granted, it’s a cliché, but a great one all the same, and as symbolic of our character as the America Bald Eagle. Because no one since Henry Fonda has better exemplified the persona, it only follows that Tom Hanks is called upon to dust off his common man extraordinaire and attempt to save the day. He is the instantly likeable James B. Donovan, a Brooklyn insurance attorney who imbues the turn of events with idealistic realism and a touch of whimsical fate.
But let’s first step back a few years. Prior to a series of scenes detailing Captain Powers’s recruitment and subsequent capture by the Soviets, we’re introduced to the workaday scenario where Mr. Hanks’s lawyer plies his trade with noted aplomb. On this particular afternoon, he’s called into his boss’ office where he’s greeted by hush, hush guv’ment folk. You see, it’s just a few years before Powers’s capture, when we caught a spy, too, and it behooved us to make it look as if said operative were given an, ahem, fair trial.
They figured Donovan’s reputation would give that impression, and that he wouldn’t make waves. Well, they were kind of wrong about that last part. It isn’t long before the attorney recognizes the pawn he’s expected to play, and that the powers that be have no intention of acting honorably. The reactionary judge assigned to the case obviously has his marching orders. However, interviewing Rudolph Abel, the foreign agent in question, Jim grows sympathetic. He seems like a nice chap, just doing his job, like our guys doing the same thing for their country.
While the court of public opinion is calling for lynching of this mole from Mother Russia, our good counselor feels Abel is, at a minimum, entitled to an even break. He sure tries, but forget that. We’re abashed at the callousness of it all…the horrible injustice that is the evil product of mass fear. But, drawing on his field of specialty, prior to sentencing Mr. Donovan puts a bee in the judge’s bonnet, shrewdly arguing not the goodness of mercy, but rather, the pragmatism.
Thus the stage is set for what will prove one of the most intriguing and fascinating tutorials in diplomatic relations to grace the silver screen. It’s plenty complicated, with all sorts of labyrinthine details, uncertain identities and ambiguous conversations in chillingly hostile anterooms. Yet, despite the doubletalk and scene switching that might otherwise boggle the mind, Spielberg makes it all so accessible, entertainingly reminding us that it’s not for nothing that he’s considered one of cinema’s best directors.
Whether you’re of an age or not, one is sure to appreciate the re-creation of an era…the late 1950s and early ‘60’s, at once recognizable, but sociologically distant, as if it all occurred in some other, parallel world. Spielberg editorializes with punctuating inserts, good old Red Scare stuff like schoolchildren dashing under their desks during air raid drills. We get the gist. A la what George Orwell warned us about, the Soviets were the new hate/fear of the month.
It’s within this atmosphere that Donovan, an Atticus Finch applying his altruistic interpretation of the Constitution on an international stage, must combat the selfish forces looking to make hay from humankind’s errors and misfortunes. Of course, whole bunches of folks hate him for it. Still, after our man Powers is shot down and it appears that the seed Donovan planted when he defended Abel might be ready for harvest, the government calls on him to negotiate a trade. So it’s off to East Berlin …Verboten Land, behind the wall, where nothing is what it seems.
A stellar cast supports Mr. Hanks, led by the Olivier Award-winning Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. They’re a thespic one-two punch, astutely personalizing the winds of global events. It turns out, contrary to what Rick told Ilsa in “Casablanca” (1942), that the problems of three people do amount to more than a hill of beans in this crazy world. Hence, after you’ve suffered a day of rude clerks and highway daredevils risking your life to get one space ahead, it’s a tad consoling to know that across “The Bridge of Spies” there are anonymous heroes who really care about us.
“Bridge of Spies,” rated PG-13, is a Touchstone Pictures release directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance and Alan Alda. Running time: 141 minutes