(Rated PG [Canada] and PG-13 [MPAA] for some violence and brief strong language; directed by Steven Spielberg; stars Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Dakin Matthews and Scott Shepherd; Run time: 141 min.)
Meat-and-potatoes spy story
Largely written by the Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel) and based on a true story, “Bridge of Spies” is a different sort of spy film.
This is not the shaken cocktails, fast cars and femme fatales of Ian Fleming’s James Bond or the high-octane adrenaline rush of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series. Rather, “Bridge of Spies” is a measured look at the more mundane side of international espionage.
Set during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, this fact-based drama tells the story of an American lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who becomes legal counsel for a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). As Abel’s public defender, Donovan strives to provide the highest-possible level of due process for his Soviet client because, for Donovan, it would be un-American to do anything less.
As the film unfolds, the Soviets shoot down an American CIA U-2 spy plane discovered in their airspace. Its pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is captured and imprisoned. Because of Donovan’s involvement with the KGB spy, he is approached by the CIA to help orchestrate a prisoner exchange between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The complex negotiations take place in politically volatile and Soviet-controlled East Germany.
Usually, films dealing with historical events and people like to ratchet-up the tension and drama. However, with this film, Spielberg seems deliberately bent on defusing tension and drama. Unlike this summer’s stylish Guy Ritchie spy flick “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Bridge of Spies” does not convey the same suspense and thrills. Why? It’s not that Spielberg is a stranger to thrills and adventure; he directed critically acclaimed blockbusters like “Jaws” (1975), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) and “Jurassic Park” (1993) and even more serious films like his Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) — just to name a few.
Reflecting on “Bridge of Spies,” it seems the film is less about a cat-and-mouse game of spy vs. spy and more about a set of ideas.
The first is identity. At one point Donovan, who is of Irish descent, is talking to CIA agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), who is of German descent. He points out their differing ancestries and asks Hoffman, “What makes us Americans?” He proceeds to explain that it’s the Constitution and the citizens’ collective and personal efforts to play by that document’s set of rules.
Over and over, the film makes the point that sweeping the Constitution and the laws flowing from it under the rug — even for popular and seemingly patriotic reasons — is un-American. Looking the other way on something because it isn’t expedient or well-liked is dangerous to everyone. As a result, Donovan, who is “evangelical” about America, works diligently to impart these principles and values to the Soviet spy, Abel, essentially rising to the occasion of loving his enemy (Matt. 5:44) — by treating the Soviet spy the same way he’d want an American spy treated if one were caught and detained.
Unfortunately for Donovan, he suffers public backlash associated with his efforts to be faithful to the ideals of the American Constitution.
The film’s second idea flows from the first: When a person is pressured to abandon his faithfulness and buckle under the weight of public opinion, he needs to keep getting up when knocked down and take a stand for what he believes to be true. Donovan does this at every turn, which makes him a stalwart character, even if his approach to life rubs judges, lawyers, cops and CIA agents the wrong way.
“Bridge of Spies” doesn’t contain much in the way of obvious Christian content. Yes, Donovan says grace with his children at the dinner table and the CIA U-2 spy-plane pilots are sworn to such a level of secrecy they are told to not even talk to the “Lord above” about their mission.
Still, Christian viewers may want to consider redirecting the question Donovan asks, “What makes us American?” and ask instead, “What makes a Christian a Christian? What makes a Lutheran a Lutheran, or a Presbyterian a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic a Roman Catholic? How far away from the agreed-upon confession of faith, how far away from God’s Word, can someone stray before he is in danger of not being what he claims to be? What is worth standing for when it comes to the Christian faith, even while others are applying pressure to abandon those values? When does a person say, ‘Here I stand; I can do no other’?”
Setting aside suspense and thrills, Spielberg uses nostalgia to hammer home the ideas laid out in the Coen brothers’ script. Every matchbook, TV-dinner tray and grocery-store label is just right, along with the cars, airplanes and trains. For viewers who lived in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the nostalgia itself begs the questions, “Who were we then?” and “Who are we now?”
As compelling as all this may sound, the major challenge when it comes to “Bridge of Spies” is that, for some, the film could easily feel boring and flat when compared with Spielberg’s other films. In fact, it also could appear that Spielberg is playing it safe.
This film is a solid piece of storytelling — even if it comes across like being told to eat all your vegetables before being excused from the table.
The Rev. Ted Giese (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to “Reformation Rush Hour” on KFUO AM Radio, the Canadian Lutheran and Reporter/Reporter Online; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted Oct. 26, 2015 / Updated Oct. 27, 2015