Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a fact-based espionage drama set during the simmering cold-war Fifties. The film’s main character, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), is a successful insurance lawyer selected by his firm to represent Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), then chosen by the CIA to negotiate with the Soviet Union and German Democratic Republic an exchange of Abel for captured U.S. spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Donovan is a Greatest Generation relic representing an outmoded ideal. Likewise his journey through mid-century realpolitik is ostensibly mediated by Spielberg’s mawkish cornball schmaltz. Compared to a zippy twenty-first century journalism procedural like Spotlight, it is tempting to classify Bridge of Spies as an enjoyably frivolous bit of throwback prestige—a period piece by a celluloid filmmaker of diminishing importance in an age of digital reproduction.
And yet Bridge of Spies is an estimable accomplishment in Spielberg’s body of work. With its deft storytelling and urgent parallels to the fiery rhetoric of the media in the summer of Trump, Bridge of Spies is magnificently self-reflexive. The film continues the director’s meditations within the arena of the American Argument—the Constitution being, for Donovan, a frame through which an alert citizenry engages with itself as language and whose borders fluctuate. The dynamic of the American “frame” resembles the cinematic one. The title of the film itself suggests seeing as a means of connection across barriers. Spielberg’s admonition is that we close our eyes at our peril.
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