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‘Spies’ Like Us: Steven Spielberg and the Cold War’s Forgotten Battles

The most famous director in Hollywood tackles a lost piece of 20th-century history — and triumphs.

On the off chance you haven’t heard, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies stars a superbly tetchy Tom Hanks as determined real-life attorney James B. Donovan, who took on the thankless job of defending Soviet espionage agent Rudolf Abel (the equally superb Mark Rylance) in a New York courtroom in 1957. Never a man to turn down a challenge, Donovan ended up negotiating the Berlin swap that traded Abel for captured U.S. spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers five years later.

It’s no surprise that Spielberg makes Donovan’s doggedness look heroic, since you’d have to be dumb to think it wasn’t. The movie’s daring is in making Abel fairly admirable, too. The bungling Powers, who wasn’t exactly covered with glory once he got home, maybe not so much — but not being admirable doesn’t make him unsympathetic.

In other words, this may be the most evocative and humane movie ever made about the Cold War. But it’s hardly a knock at Spielberg to point out that he and his very smart scriptwriters — Matt Charman plus heavyweight touch-up artists Joel and Ethan Coen — don’t have a lot of competition. American moviegoers have rarely seen this huge chunk of our 20th-century history depicted as the murky, tense, often bewildering tussle for tactical leverage and propaganda coups that it actually was.

They certainly didn’t while the conflict was under way. The 1950s movies we think of as “Cold War classics” — the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, say, or Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly are delirious extrapolations of the era’s paranoia, not dramatizations of the superpower standoff that provoked it. Otherwise, right up to the Soviet Union’s collapse, the subject was fodder only for spoofs, satires, and distraught left-wing fantasies vying with jingoistic right-wing ones, from The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove, and TV’s Get Smart to The Day After, the Rambo franchise, and Red Dawn.

What was missing from all of them was any sense of the conflict as lived experience. Cinematically, we were a superpower without a Kipling — unless John Ford counted, of course. Whether or not his audience recognized the parallels, his midcentury Westerns about U.S. cavalry outposts in potentially hostile territory had some awfully contemporary real-life equivalents, including how little the rest of the country knew or cared about what their military and civilian myrmidons were up to overseas. Accurately enough, even Bridge’s Donovan is pretty clueless about it right up until he’s eyeing clusters of CIA agents and G.I. snipers at the East/West Berlin border.

Hollywood did end up making a bunch of mostly melancholy epics about Vietnam, true. But screen treatments of the war usually present it as pure psychosis, divorced from the geopolitical duel that tricked America’s best and brightest into launching the whole mess. In a way, treating the war as an inexplicable disaster lets us off the hook: It’s almost never contextualized as the most fateful consequence of our belief that we were self-evidently the good guys in our worldwide confrontation with any and every Lex Luthor unseduced by truth, justice, and the American way.

Interestingly, Tinseltown hasn’t even been too keen on stories about the Cold War episodes — and there were some — in which we unquestionably were the good guys. The Berlin airlift, which kept our former World War II enemies fed for a year in the face of a Russian blockade, got just one: 1950’s The Big Lift, which nobody remembers even though Montgomery Clift starred in it. Even the Cuban Missile Crisis, our one genuine victory over the Soviet Union in a head-to-head showdown, only pops up in Camelot docudramas as JFK’s biggest Oval Office challenge, generally without any explanation of what led up to it — or, for that matter, any reminder of how transfixed the whole country was by how likely a nuclear holocaust seemed.

The offbeat exception is Joe Dante’s 1993 Matinee, which beautifully links the cheesy terrors of ’60s exploitation movies to the missile crisis’s real ones. But it may go without saying that Matinee flopped. By then, our onetime obsession with our Iron Curtain nemesis just seemed kind of peculiar, not to say embarrassing.

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Bridge of SpiesDreamWorks

Instead, once the Soviet Union went under, Americans got hooked on revisiting World War II — most famously, of course, in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg and Hanks’s most high-profile collaboration to date. The Good War’s frosty, nuke-troubled sequel doesn’t have that kind of emotional pull, mainly because nobody can agree on what it was all about or even what “winning” it accomplished.

If liberals can only see the Cold War’s evils, there are plenty of hard-core commie haters who feel cheated that the standoff never escalated into a full-on Armageddon. Both views’ prejudices have operated to cancel out historical objectivity even a quarter-century after the conflict ended. All of this makes Bridge of Spies’s stubbornly even-handed, unhysterical curiosity about the conflict as it was actually waged — clumsily, stressfully, endlessly, with all sorts of random bit players and complacent bystanders waking up to find they’d been converted into chess pieces overnight — awfully impressive and even bold.

Considering how abstruse the subject matter is to today’s moviegoers, Donovan is an inspired choice of protagonist. No professional Cold Warrior, he’s a successful insurance lawyer who doesn’t know much more than what he reads in the papers until the FBI arrests Abel. Donovan gets talked into being Abel’s defense counsel, and since a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion, he’s basically being asked to face popular opprobrium for his country’s good. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose,” is how he drily sums up what’s expected of him once his firm’s senior partner (Alan Alda) pitches him the job.

However, Donovan turns out to be a man of old-fashioned Yankee principles — or neo-Yankee ones, since he’s Irish American. Soon he’s enraging both the judge handling the case (Dakin Matthews) and the CIA agent trying to keep him in line (Scott Shepherd) by refusing to just go through the motions. If the point of putting Abel on trial is to demonstrate that we’re a nation of laws, then Donovan is going to give him the best defense possible, vainly motioning to toss out the tainted evidence the FBI obtained without a warrant and ultimately taking his appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.

The parallels to today’s wrangles over how to try terrorists are obvious, but the movie doesn’t stress them. As in Lincoln, which couldn’t help having a certain age-of-Obama resonance despite the director’s denials, Spielberg is plainly interested in evoking history for its own sake, not — or not only, anyhow — as a peekaboo lecture about our present.

As for Hanks, he’s gotten much less concerned lately with being likable, and that’s the right way to play Donovan. If we come to appreciate everything admirable in this tenacious bulldog of a man, we do so entirely on Donovan’s own terms. Being ingratiating isn’t his thing even when he’s at home with his wife (Amy Ryan) and the rug rats. Rylance — the U.K.’s most celebrated living stage actor, best known on this side of the Atlantic for playing Thomas Cromwell in PBS’s Wolf Hall — makes a perfect foil for Hanks. Their very different (but equally satisfying) acting styles precisely mirror their characters’ divergent backgrounds and amused discovery of mutual respect.

The two men’s droll bond is established in their first jailhouse interview, when a mock-curious Abel asks, “Have you represented many spies?” and Donovan blandly answers, “Nope. It’s a first for the both of us.” Unlike his compatriots, the lawyer has enough independence of mind to recognize that his client, at least by his own lights, is no villain. He’s a Soviet patriot doing his duty, something Donovan can understand: Isn’t he doing the same? Although his client’s conviction is inevitable, he does score one success by talking Matthews’s Judge Byers into sparing Abel the death penalty everyone wants, thereby making possible the trade for Powers down the road.

The contrapuntal sequences showing Powers (Austin Stowell) getting accepted into the U-2 program and briefed for his secret high-altitude surveillance flights over the USSR aren’t as smoothly integrated into the main plot as they could be. Although Stowell is ideally cast as a naive galoot — the robust American opposite Abel’s fatalistic rue — it’s a little confusing why he’s being introduced at all if you don’t already know the story. Once Powers gets shot down, we also aren’t shown what made his capture a big deal: namely that, at a time when few Americans thought their government ever lied about these things, the U.S. initially denied the program’s existence.

Compounding the fiasco, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gleefully seized on the incident to embarrass then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower at a Paris summit meeting that ended almost as soon as it began. Even so, Spielberg may have been right to decide that, for his purposes, including the public fallout didn’t matter. Neither do the specifics of Abel’s intelligence work, on which we never get filled in. Despite its title, the movie really isn’t concerned with espionage, or even with ideological conflict. It’s about the values both endeavors bring to the fore, which stay persnickety and individual even — or especially — when they’re in temporary or permanent harness to serving a higher cause.

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James B. Donovan, who negotiated the U.S.- Soviet prisoner swap, in 1962.

Marty Lederhandler/AP James B. Donovan, who negotiated the U.S.-Soviet prisoner swap in 1962.

Even by Spielberg’s standards, the movie is directed with wonderful precision. Nothing in the material gets oversold or coarsened to generate the crowd-pleasing excitement we all know he can deliver when he’s in the mood. Instead, he takes the same approach he did in 2005’s remarkable Munich, which is very much Bridge of Spies’s thematic forebear in its patient concentration on what everybody’s actions mean as well as how they play out. We’re first introduced to Abel as FBI agents track him through a Brooklyn subway station, and the pursuit is beautifully staged right down to the comedy of how they’re all trying to stay unnoticed as they hustle along. Yet Spielberg doesn’t make a showpiece of it. He can put together expert chase scenes in his sleep, and he’s got other fish to fry.

Other than the re-creation of Powers’s doomed U-2 mission, when he failed to destroy the plane after getting shot out of the sky, the most flagrantly Spielberg-ish sequence is the depiction of the day the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961. Right up there with the Shanghai International Settlement’s fall in Empire of the Sun, it’s stunning to watch: the sudden tangle of East German border guards barring the way as hastily placed cement blocks get topped by barbed wire; the refugees being dropped by hand from the upper-story windows of apartment buildings to get to the West in time. In case you’re wondering why we’re seeing it at all, the climax is the arrest of Yale student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), whose release from an East German prison will end up being part of the Abel-Powers swap.

That comes once CIA director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) decides the negotiation is best undertaken by a private citizen to keep the U.S. government’s role deniable — and who better than Abel’s lawyer? As absorbing as the legal chess games of Bridge of Spies’s first hour are, the largely Berlin-set second half is real virtuoso stuff. Uncompromising, too: Spielberg never cheats on the complexity of Donovan’s chore, made all the more difficult by our refusal to officially recognize East Germany’s existence — something we didn’t do until 1974 — and the East Germans’ own determination to maintain the fiction that they weren’t just a Soviet satellite. (Both Mikhail Gorevoy, as Donovan’s main Soviet Embassy contact, and The Lives of Others alum Sebastian Koch, as a blustery East German lawyer, do a beautiful job of incarnating the difference between the USSR’s self-assured status and East Germany’s craving for it.) On top of that, Donovan is soon at loggerheads with his own government. The CIA only cares about getting Powers back, but the lawyer decides on his own that Pryor’s release has to be part of the package and sticks to his guns despite the agency’s pressure.

Like Joseph Cotten in The Third Man, Donovan is an amateur up against professionals in a netherworld he’s unfamiliar with. But the difference is that he’s persistent instead of feckless and ends up getting his way. It’s possible to argue that Spielberg’s Berlin is bleaker than the real one was by 1962; the rebuilt Western sectors, at least, were a pretty darn glittering showcase for capitalism’s perks, not the gloomy place we’re shown. But we’re seeing the city through Donovan’s eyes, and the point is the contrast between his settled, sunny life back in the USA and the malignant atmosphere of the Cold War’s ultimate European flash point. Spielberg and his scriptwriters don’t include any speeches about the free world’s superiority, but they don’t have to. All Donovan needs to understand the ultimate difference between the two systems is one horrified glimpse of a trio of East Berliners getting shot down as they try to scramble over the Wall.

You might as well know that the titular “bridge of spies” — a.k.a. Glienicke Bridge, site of multiple East-West exchanges back in the day — is a 15-minute drive from the house I lived in as a child when my father was head of the Political Section at the U.S. Mission in Berlin. For whatever it’s worth, Checkpoint Charlie and I were on a first-name basis, you could say, not all that long after the events depicted here. That may make me the only working American movie critic in a position to thank Onkel Steven for capturing what it was really like. At least for my money, he does.