These People Want to Kill Us All

Bridge of Spies  A Film by Steven Spielberg

The first thing you notice is that they got the look right.  Not just the streets and the cars, but the people.  Fifties fathers didn’t work out at the gym or train for triathalons.  They ate pastrami on rye for lunch and pot roast for dinner, the mashed potatoes with gravy and the canned vegetable medley, and they punctuated the day with drinks, not the way Don Draper drank, that’s a bit much, but if you went over to a man’s house in the evening, as James Donavan does when he visits a judge, it was customary to give him a Scotch even if he was only going to be there for a few minutes.  He could always throw it back on his way out the door.  So the men looked blocky, stocky, and solid (and were all apparently half drunk).  They died young of heart attacks, which they called “a coronary.”  But at least they put away plenty of beef in the meantime.

And the women!  Somehow fifties fashions took a basically good looking woman—like Amy Ryan, playing Donavan’s wife—and made her look dowdy, positively weird, like a Stepford wife.  The United States was badly in need of Jackie Kennedy in 1957, as an alternative to Mamie Eisenhower.  We would get her three years later.  Our whole future would have changed if we’d gotten Pat Nixon instead.

I was nine years old in 1957, so I saw the same movies about the atomic bomb that Donavan’s son Roger sees in this film—one little girl has tears pouring down her face as she watches—and went through the same drill about what we should do in case of a nuclear attack (as one parody said: you get away from windows, try to get into a corner, kneel down and put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass good-bye).  After we did that drill in our fourth grade class, Ted Smith, whose parents famously belonged to the John Birch Society and who was the smartest kid in our class, later went on to Harvard, casually remarked to a small group of us, “Well, presumably, if they use missiles, we won’t stand a chance anyway.”  He used the word presumably, at the age of nine.

We all figured that, if there was a nuclear attack, the Russians would certainly hit Pittsburgh, because that’s where all the steel was manufactured.  They’d take out Pittsburgh if they took out anybody.  We were goners for sure.

So Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), the Soviet Spy who was arrested at the beginning of Bridge of Spies, is that fabled person, the man who wants to kill you and your children.  He was the person who tried to discover our nuclear secrets so that the Soviet Union could defeat the United States in a thermonuclear war.  Those were the words that otherwise sane people used in those days.  When James Donavan (Tom Hanks) was selected more or less by lottery to defend him, it was as if he were defending one of Osama Bin Laden’s henchmen after September 11th.

Tom Hanks, as I said to my wife when we walked out of the theater, has become the Jimmy Stewart of his generation.  He’s not a suave action movie actor, like Sean Connery or Daniel Craig.  He’s not the sexy leading man, like Brando or Brad Pitt.  He’s the gee-willikers-by-gum-that-just-isn’t-right type actor who seems confused half the time, seems a little weak and nervous, but is going to stand up and do the right thing, Mr. Smith is going to Washington and will be an honest Congressman if it kills him.  But Hanks has an edge to him in this movie that Stewart didn’t have (except perhaps in The Man from Laramie, the Stewart film that most obsessed me in my youth[1]); he may have no idea why people want him, of all people, to defend this spy, but he’s going to give him the best defense possible, and he’s not taking any shit for it, not from his law partner, not from his wife, not from his little boy, not even from the CIA.  He knows it’s the right thing and he’s going to do it, no matter the cost.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I felt a swell of patriotic pride as I heard Donavan defend his actions, in a way that seems corny but is nevertheless accurate.  It’s true, he admits, that Abel is an enemy of the United States, and might be doing his best to defeat us militarily, but he’s only doing the job his country asked him to do, and the thing that makes us America, the thing that makes us worth defending, is the fact that we give such a man a fair trial, the kind of trial our own spy, Frances Gary Powers, never got on Russia.  So Donavan does his best to defend him, even in the face of a jingoist judge who has made up his mind before the case begins, even taking his appeal—against the advice of everyone around him—to the Supreme Court.  He didn’t win, but he gave it his best shot.

So it is no surprise, once the United States decides to trade Abel for Powers, that they choose Donavan to arrange the deal and make the swap.  The situation as presented in the movie is incredibly complicated.  No less a man than the Director of the CIA, Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie), told Donavan that he wanted him to negotiate the swap, though he couldn’t do it in any official way.  Neither country particularly cared about the spies as people; they were worried about what secrets they might give away.  East Berlin as it’s presented in the movie is like the Wild West; the Berlin Wall has just gone up, and it’s not clear whether the Soviets or the Germans are in charge, never seems clear when you go into East Berlin if you’re going to get out again.  If they want to keep you, they just call you a spy and throw you in prison.  Donavan not only brings about the swap, he makes the Germans throw in an American grad student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers).  Even in that situation, with the CIA bringing all kinds of pressure, Donavan bends but doesn’t break.  He’s a true American hero, but he doesn’t run around shooting people.  What he does is talk to them.

Nevertheless, the most interesting character in the movie is Abel, played by the brilliant Mark Rylance.  He is the ultimate spy, giving away nothing.  When the FBI arrests him, he manages to keep cool and destroy the most important evidence right under their noses.  He’s a Sunday painter of considerable talent, a lover of music, and a man who is impassive in every situation.  At a key moment during the swap, when Donavan is trying to include the grad student, Abel stands with him, even though he might wind up back in prison as a result.  The ironic thing is that he doesn’t know how the Soviets will receive him, as a returning hero or as a traitor who gave away secrets (which he didn’t do).  The speech where he characterizes Donavan as the Standing Man is one of the best and most moving in the film.  The two men form a kind of bond that no one else in the film has.  They are both, in their own way, men of principle.

We ask ourselves why Spielberg would want to go back to this old fifties story, but the reasons are all around us, have been ever since the event happened.  The question of what makes us America, what makes us Americans, is more relevant than ever in an age of international terrorism, when prisoners are held at Guantanamo with no defense at all.  “This is a different time,” people say, and of course it is, but then again it isn’t.  The threat of nuclear annihilation seemed very real in 1957, as real as anything we face today.  We got our hands on one of the men who were trying to bring us down, who in a way stood for all of them.  Most Americans would happily have torn him to pieces.  But there was one true American who stood up to defend him.

[1] I was seven when it came out, and after seeing countless schlocky Westerns early on Saturday mornings saw the chilling scene in this one where Stewart’s antagonist has his men hold Steward while he shoots him through the palm of his hand, and Stewart says to him, “You scum.”  My brother and I acted that scene out in our cowboy games on many occasions.  At around that time Stewart’s father—who lived in Indiana, Pa.—was a patient of my father’s, and got us an autographed photo from his famous son.  Stewart was our favorite actor from then on.  One of my sister’s boyfriends Foster Stewart (no kin, as we say in the South) used to act out the “You scum” scene for us while he was waiting for my sister to come down.  We thought he was great at it.