Unquestioned liberalism

There’s a kind of nostalgia for the Cold War, almost in the same way that British culture incorporates a nostalgia for WWII. Some people miss the simplicities of that time—the black and white morality that was sold to them by their governments, which while no more substantial than the bizarre claims of today’s post-truth politics, looked considerably more credible than anything that might be purveyed now as a moral verity. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a story of good, honourable men from both sides of the Iron Curtain, trying to keep their footing on shifting, politicised moral terrain.

As such it’s the kind of fairy-tale that liberal America tells to itself with increasing urgency, in a world where its interests are questioned by the left on one hand, and its values traduced by the right on the other. It is a fable of decency and fair play in the face of realpolitik, of the humane values that somehow survived and prevailed through the dark days of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. This is not to suggest for a moment that it’s a pack of lies, just that it is an important piece of myth-making produced at a time when the liberal consensus is under threat from a resurgent nationalism in many developed countries. This is a part of America saying to itself, ‘we’re the good guys—we choose to do the right things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard’. It is a consolation, promising that these values will also survive their present travails—although it was released in 2015, the year before the USA set fire to itself and turned its back on the world. Whether this made it seem thin gruel, or all the more comforting, I can’t guess—you’d have to ask a liberal American.

Tom Hanks portrays an insurance lawyer who is appointed defence counsel to a captured Soviet spy in the late 1950s, and who makes the mistake of adhering to his professional ethics. He comes in for verbal and physical abuse, his marriage comes under strain, yadda yadda. Some time later he is tapped by the State Department to represent the US in a prisoner swap involving his former client. He conducts himself with integrity throughout, as does his client, portrayed by Mark Rylance with characteristic poise—his Best Supporting Actor award was the film’s sole Oscar out of six nominations.

It’s these two central performances that make the film compelling. Of course Spielberg’s direction is deft, and every aspect of the production is an essay in the state of the cinematic craft, but without actors who can embody the principled and the humane in the way that this picture’s two central players can, it would have fallen pretty flat. Both men have made a career out of projecting integrity, and both are much-loved for their capacity to quietly command the screen or stage with undemonstrative charisma. The film is closely based on James B. Donovan’s book Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers, in which Donovan relates his experiences defending the Soviet spy William Fisher, known by his alias Rudolf Abel—these are the names given to the characters played by Hanks and Rylance respectively.

The screenplay was written by Matt Charman and revised by the Coen Brothers, who according to Charman were responsible for enlivening the negotiation scenes towards the end of the movie. The Coens were not responsible for the overall shape of the narrative—if they had been it seems unlikely the plot would have been resolved with such tidy, hermetic closure, which for me is its principal fault. All goals are achieved (which does accord with the historical record, to be fair), and in the denouement both of the principals are given the opportunity to neatly demonstrate their humane, liberal values on the titular bridge, with no sense that their lives continue meaningfully or interestingly beyond that boundary event.

The bridge in question is the Glienicke Bridge, which connects Berlin with Potsdam across the River Havel—the border between West Berlin and East Germany during the Cold War. The bridge was the site of several prisoner exchanges, and was unique among the East-West border crossings in that it was controlled by the Soviet Union rather than the German Democratic Republic. The obvious allegorical message is that a bridge is built between Donovan and Fisher, a respect founded on their mutual recognition as honourable men selflessly dedicated to the service of their countries. I don’t want to impose too much on the picture that hasn’t been deliberately written into it, but by focusing so much on the similarities between both the protagonists and the intelligence apparatus of the countries they work for, I felt that importance differences were elided—and that the good, honourable men that the film depicts are defined predominantly in terms of the unquestioned liberal American values espoused by its authors.

However, many of those values are values that I share, and the movie’s lack of introspection didn’t preclude my sympathising and even identifying with its characters. As a historical figure, Fisher in particular is fascinating, a man who was born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the son of Russian immigrants, before emigrating in turn to the U.S.S.R. and pursuing a career in intelligence which eventually took him to Brooklyn Heights at the centre of the notorious ‘Hollow Nickel’ spy ring. The story is told calmly, without histrionics or melodrama, and the tone throughout is beautifully nuanced. Spielberg, for all the mainstream flash and sentimentality for which he is best-known, is a master film-maker, and Bridge of Spies is one of his finest.

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