Bridge of Spies is a movie about looking at yourself in the mirror and deciding what kind of man you are going to be. Sometimes quite literally. Mirrors proliferate throughout this excellent film from Steven Spielberg. Every man in Bridge of Spies is given a choice to be good or to be not good (“bad” would be too strong word; one can be “not good” without becoming “bad”). Some of them rise that that challenge and remain morally upright no matter how complicated their situation becomes and regardless of what happens to them. Others wilt in the intensity of the moment or compromise to achieve some selfish end and settle for flimsier, less honorable qualities of character. The men who stand firm are truly inspirational.
As the saying goes, a person can be smart, but people are stupid. The mob, the crowd, the public always opts for the less honorable path in this film. The masses let Cold War fears and prejudices rule their decisions. They want to deny a prisoner of that war due process. They denigrate those they see as cowards and care little about people not essential to the cause of beating the Soviet Union in whatever way the Soviet Union could have been beaten during the Cold War. (I’ve always wondered what people thought victory over the USSR was going to look like. In a battle of ideologies, there’s no way to dominate. You simply outlast, which is precisely how the Cold War “ended,” if indeed it has ended. Rather than one side prevailing over the other, Communism and Capitalism seem to have reached a kind of begrudging peace. The new key agents of each ideology—China and the USA—know each other well enough to know how to guard against the other’s basest tendencies. China protects their culture from being overrun by America’s, a despicable penchant of Capitalist societies. America tries to get China to take care of their most vulnerable people, something Communist societies have shown themselves incapable of doing.) Bridge of Spies is buoying, because it shows us what kind of people we are capable of being, but it is also a chilly wind, because it is honest about how unloving we can be when we let fear control our decisions.
Bridge of Spies is a film with a conscience. Like Spielberg’s Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and Lincoln before it, Bridge of Spies is a sermon about civic character. In hands less capable than those of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, and Thomas Newman, the film would be unbearably righteous. Instead it’s first of all a good story, and its moral insinuations are communicated by the more subtle aspects of its storytelling method. Filmmakers hoping to influence the way their audience behaves could learn a lot from Spielberg’s team. (The first thing to glean might be to let the narrative and images preach instead of putting those words in the mouths of the characters.)
I used “man” and “men” in my first paragraph, because this is also a movie absolutely about men. With the exception of three female characters who are included mostly to look worried and to raise the stakes for the men, this movie is packed with more men than there is pork at a sausage fest. The movie is full of talk about who is or isn’t whose “guy.” It’s a humorous thread, but it’s also representative of the film’s focus on men. This focus may simply be a fact of history. In the late 1950s when the events depicted in this film took place, men held most positions of power (as they do now), and the people involved in these events were men. The overabundance of men is also typical of Spielberg though. His films almost always involve men trying to figure out how to be true to their families, their communities, and their sense of vocation. I mention this only because it is an essential part of understanding this film. There’s nothing wrong with a film being explicitly about men, though it did make me want to follow it up by watching something directed by Nicole Holofcener or Max Ophüls.
Following in the footsteps of Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg made a name for himself making movies that capitalized on our fears. Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Twilight Zone: The Movie, Temple of Doom, and Jurassic Park – fear is a key part of all of these movies. All of them feature a character either triumphing over what they are afraid of—the “other”—or escaping from it.
Since September 11, 2001 though, Spielberg has made movies that try to help audiences deal with their fears of others and respond more lovingly to them instead. Whether its the threat of fundamentalism in Minority Report, the threat of the immigrant “other” in The Terminal, the threat of terrorists in War of the Worlds or Munich, the threat of selfishness in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the threat of faceless, senseless evil in War Horse, or the threat of internal division in Lincoln, Spielberg has been coaxing us toward a kind of peacefulness that is willing to be afraid and do what’s right anyway. The characters in Spielberg’s later films don’t blow up the shark or get in a spaceship and fly away leaving their problems behind. They see the inadequacy of violence for solving their problems. They remain and trust a deeper reality of justice to prevail. All they have to do is stand and do the loving thing in front of them to do. Bridge of Spies is that kind of movie too, and I hope Spielberg keeps making movies like it until we all learn the lesson he is trying so patiently and artfully to teach us.