Bridge of Spies

In some ways, Bridge of Spies was just what I expected and hoped it would be, based on having seen the trailer in the movie theatre. However, this did not in any way impinge upon the deep resonance and powerful impact of the film. Bridge of Spies is exciting, intense, well-written and well-acted. But more than these, more than anything else, it is powerful. And this power resounds from the movie’s setting of 1957 into our own age.

Put simply, Bridge of Spies (as suggested by the title) is an espionage thriller. And don’t worry if you’re fond of literal meaning: there is, in fact, an actual bridge that plays a crucial role in the movie. More specifically, Bridge of Spies centres around the efforts of Jim Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), who, despite being only an insurance lawyer, is asked to defend a Soviet spy caught on American soil. From there, the proceedings transform into a tense hostage negotiation, concerning a young American pilot shot down in Soviet Russia.

There are so many things that are fascinating about this movie. First of all, the historical period is dramatized with vivid force. Beginning in Brooklyn, New York, the paranoia and fear culminating at the height of the Cold War are palpable, buzzing in the air as nameless people hasten down the street. The opening scene of the movie is, in my mind, brilliant. It begins with a man alone in a room who is painting a picture, and the silence is profound. From there, we find ourselves in an opposite environment: a crowded subway full of people jostling one another as they move towards their destination, and then suddenly several men break through the masses and run across the platform in the midst of some urgent search.

Maybe these preliminary descriptions give you a sense of what might be going on, but there is neither certainty nor clarity in this information, and these unfinished sentences are all the viewer is given as well (at least at first). I love this way of dropping the audience into the middle of the action, without providing explicit content to navigate the world of the movie. Instead we must experience the silence and then, conversely, noise, hearing the sounds of ordinary life and of movement and feeling all the weight of the place before learning of the particulars.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the real conflict is between different nations and different ways of life. At least, this is what it seems to be. Yet for Jim Donovan, there is a greater issue at hand. For Donovan, the issue is life and its value. What gives a life its value? Is there a time when this value must be overlooked in order to achieve some common good or to secure a certain end? Is it possible for this fundamental value to transcend national boundaries?

For Donovan, the answer to the latter question is deeply ingrained in his being and written in an ethical code he believes to be at the heart of the American way of life more than any other means or end: “Every person matters.” Donovan’s task to represent the Soviet spy is intended only as a parade of justice, to give the appearance of equal treatment along an inevitable track to conviction.

The tension between appearance and reality looms large over the movie as a whole and lends itself to interesting and relevant discussion. Throughout the story, there are many displays of media pressure and popular opinion, of people from all different camps propagating their own agendas. There are people seen by some as heroes and reviled by others. There are people who we, as viewers with knowledge of their private actions, might acknowledge as good and noble, who are without friend or ally. Yet this burning injustice is resolved calmly by Donovan when, at one point in the film, he says: “It doesn’t matter what people think. You know what you did.”

There is another line spoken by a different character which also resonates with me in this regard: “I acted honourably. I think they know that. But sometimes people think wrong. People are people.”

This humble acceptance of human error and prioritization of truth over external approval affirm the value of human life (all human life) amidst the tangled and often inseparable webs of appearance and reality, truth and lies, hatred and love. Humans are imperfect and will always be so, but their value is based neither on how well they can perform nor on how they are perceived by others.

I’d like to close this review by touching on the Russian phrase “stoikiy muzhik,” which is given in the film as the equivalent of “standing man.” In other words, the “stoikiy muzhik” is someone who bears and endures suffering even if it is not justly deserved and continues to stand for truth, based on a conviction that is firmer than the changing tides of public opinion. And here I think of St. Thomas More, who was beheaded for standing firm, in his unwillingness to violate his conscience in order to approve of the divorce of King Henry VIII. More died, in his own words, “the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.” In “A Man for All Seasons,” Robert Bolt’s excellent play on the life and death of More, the character of More explains his steadfastness and the inviolability of conscience:

“I neither could, nor would rule my King. But there’s a little… little, area… where I must rule myself. It’s very little- less to him than a tennis court.”

And then the consequences of abandoning one’s conscience: “When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

There are times in each of our lives when we are called to be the “stoikiy muzhik,” to ask what is sacred in life and what exists which cannot be compromised. Let us have the courage to stand firm for the value of life and for the freedom of conscience, even when others will not.