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Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

BridgeofSpiesPosterSteven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks (Larry Crowne, Toy Story 3, Angels and Demons) is another carefully plotted exercise in moral equivalence and equivocation. The fact-based spy story is measurably better than Mr. Spielberg’s modern Arab terrorist apologia, Munich (2005).

The DreamWorks picture begins with meticulous details of espionage absent its intent and purpose. As with most Cold War-themed movies, such as X-Men: First Class, the nature of the conflict between the world’s only nation based on man’s rights and the bloodiest dictatorship to exist on earth is, to a large extent, ignored or evaded. Instead, as usual, America and Soviet Russia are generally depicted as morally similar or equivalent, with one crucial exception later in the movie. The exception is powerful, but it is incidental.

Details are nevertheless engaging, especially if you know American history. In 1957 New York City period setting, costume and music, in lush film awash in dark blue, black and brown, Mr. Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Lincoln) shows a Communist spy fronting as a painter named Rudolf (Mark Rylance, perfect in the role) fussing with a double-edged razor blade, a coin and a book of matches. When detained by the FBI, as prone to incompetence here as they are today, he quickly establishes guilt to the audience.

The weaselly Soviet’s threat to the United States is neither framed that way nor made evident to his Bar Association-designated lawyer, James Donovan (Hanks), who chooses to defend him—every other attorney declines to represent him—on the grounds of giving the accused a proper defense in a republic based on the Constitution. This portrayal of insurance lawyer Donovan, a Democrat later picked by President Kennedy to negotiate with Communist Cuba who ran for and lost a seat in the U.S. Senate, makes him out to be a non-partisan Constitutionalist, which I’ll leave to historians to address. In Bridge of Spies, Donovan is a decent if agnostic American lawyer, partner, husband and father.

Doing what he regards as his duty, at great risk to his family and firm and over objections by his law partner (Alan Alda), Donovan argues to the Supreme Court on behalf of a man accused of aiding an enemy which may seek to wage a nuclear act of war on the U.S.

When asked if he is curious about the accused’s guilt, Donovan replies: “No, not really.”

This is the main flaw in Bridge of Spies; the leading character, whom the audience is to believe capable of real bravery and integrity, is daft, cavalier or knowingly ignorant about the impact of intelligence gathering for acts of war. Contrary to his lack of curiosity about whether the accused aims to aid the enemy in gaining a capacity to destroy New York City, Donovan later shows curiosity about whether the accused is in danger. Donovan’s higher regard for the life of a suspected KGB agent than for potential harm to his own family, firm and country poses a serious character credibility problem.

When a single vote determines the Soviet’s appeal, Bridge of Spies takes a turn. It starts to feel like Mr. Spielberg’s answer to Munich critics. Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit) and Matt Charmin, with strong, even performances by Hanks and Rylance, and Amy Ryan as his wife with Dakin Matthews as a judge, everything dovetails to international intrigue culminating in an attempt to deal with Communists in Berlin, the post-World War 2 city decimated thanks to National Socialists and divided into east and west. It’s a Cold War climax in director Spielberg’s masterful hands. Berlin serves as a staging ground for Donovan’s possible redemption, though Bridge of Spies is murky about this, too.

With a jazzy score, fading, serpentine transitions include one from the sound of a CIA spook’s creaking footsteps to the sound of a federal judge’s zipper. Another goes from schoolchildren taking the Pledge of Allegiance to a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb detonation. Bridge of Spies shifts to Pakistan, where U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers prepares for a mission on a secret airplane with new reconnaissance technology. The destination: Soviet Russia. The film’s title tips its reconciliation theme, which is to be ignited by Donovan. Indeed, it’s Donovan who uniformly adopts a “humane attitude” about the Communist, the downed U.S. Air Force pilot and the young American in love with a girl in East Berlin. One of them, and it’s easy to guess which one, pegs Donovan as a man of principle. A shot of the man who stands alone on the bridge of spies is a signature on this selective Cold War portrait. The question of what principle he stands for is the real enigma in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

Bridge of Spies is gently made, shot, framed, scored and arranged. It is also frosted with Cold War facets that sneak up like a deadly ghost. The expression on Donovan’s face when he witnesses an act of Communism in practice—matched by a contrasting expression of his awakening to an act of liberty in practice—makes Bridge of Spies an interesting and thought-provoking, if mixed, movie about a man’s moral character and dilemma.

But it is important to note that Bridge of Spies trivializes an undeniable low point in U.S. history. The actual events depicted in the film’s climax foreshadowed in history deepening American loss and appeasement to Communism. The U.S. caved to Communists over the Berlin Wall, South Vietnam, the USS Pueblo, USS Mayaguez, a Soviet shootdown of a jumbo passenger jet with innocent passengers and a U.S. congressman on board in 1983 and President Bush, in his first foreign policy test in 2001, yielded to Communist China’s seizure of a U.S. spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet that killed the American pilot. As with Munich, it is impossible to detach from Steven Spielberg’s elegant and romanticized Bridge of Spies the facts of history.

Books: Berlin 1961

Buy the Book

It comes as no surprise that the son of a Nazi appeaser was himself a Communist appeaser when he became president of the United States. Journalist Frederick Kempe offers what amounts to a scathing assessment of the Kennedy administration in his new book, Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth (Putnam, $29.95). On the 50th year marking its construction, Kempe shows that President John F. Kennedy was always a step behind the Soviets as they put up a wall between East and West Berlin. Moreover, he indicts Kennedy, who outrageously told aides that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” Kempe suggests with facts and evidence that Kennedy may have knowingly collaborated with the Soviets in building the Berlin Wall.

Showing rare photographic evidence of Kennedy meeting with a Soviet spy at Hyannis Port, Kempe points to declassified transcripts of JFK’s meeting with Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna, Austria, summit of 1961 for evidence that JFK demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to sacrifice Europe to Communist dictatorship in exchange for some degree of stability. JFK’s delusion would be smashed the following year when the Soviets brought the West to the brink of nuclear war by putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, aiming them at American cities. Records of the meeting with the Soviet spy curiously were not kept, and Kremlin and Soviet intelligence archives remain closed, but Kempe argues that Soviet aims and Kennedy’s appeasement are so close as to be “more than coincidental.” He also observes that JFK knew that Poland and all of eastern Europe would fall under Soviet control if East Germany fell, and that this was acceptable to JFK, who had abandoned Cuban freedom fighters in his botched Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.

Khrushchev, pictured in Berlin 1961 with Josef Stalin, knew from the failed invasion of Cuba and the Vienna summit that Kennedy was weak and indecisive, so he struck what amounts to an unspoken (or unrecorded or expunged) compromise with the Kennedy administration and built the Berlin Wall, enslaving millions of people behind what Winston Churchill called the Iron Curtain. The wall collapsed in 1989. From the Soviet perspective, it had been deemed necessary to imprison East Germans because between 1949 (the year East Germany was established) and 1961, one of every six individuals fled the East German state and that doesn’t include the millions who fled the Soviet-occupied zone between 1945 and 1949. Kempe writes that the exodus “was emptying the country of its most talented and motivated people.”

Peter Fechter, whose corpse is pictured at left, is the name of an 18-year-old man who, while trying to escape with a friend (who made it over the wall), was shot in the back by Communist guards. Kempe writes that, “for most of an hour, his failing voice cried out for help as his life bled out through multiple wounds.” West Berliners, who had witnessed the horror of Communism in practice, gathered to protest. They screamed that the East Germans were murderers and the Americans guarding West Berlin, who had listened to Fechter’s cries and did nothing while the young man died, were cowards. When a U.S. military police lieutenant told one of them, “It’s not my problem,” he was merely voicing the Kennedy administration’s short-sighted foreign policy toward Soviet Russia’s aggression. The threat of Communism was real to those in West Germany, and, contrary to JFK’s distorted reputation as a hero of West Berlin, Fechter’s blood was on President Kennedy‘s hands. As a New York Times reporter wrote at the time, according to Kempe: “More than any single event since the wall was built, Peter Fechter’s lonely and brutal death has made the West Berliners feel a sense of helplessness in the face of the creeping encroachment being worked so subtly by the Communists.” Many sought to escape Communism at the Berlin Wall and many, like the young refugee, were caught, trapped, and murdered.

I don’t claim to know if Berlin 1961 is, as Publishers Weekly says, a definitive history of the Berlin Wall, but Kempe offers new material on a crucial appeasement of the most evil dictatorship of the 20th century. He concludes that Kennedy passively stood by while the Soviets built a prison wall which became “the iconic image of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders fail to resist.” To his credit, John F. Kennedy, whose presidency Communist refugee Ayn Rand rightly denounced as “the fascist new frontier,” sensed that he was a rotten president. Kempe reports that when a Detroit News journalist asked Kennedy about writing a book on JFK’s first term, the President replied: “Why would anyone want to write a book about an administration that has nothing to show for itself but a string of disasters?”

That’s true, especially for Peter Fechter.