Thursday, October 29, 2015

Spielberg's Bridge of Spies

What can one say about a movie which makes Soviet spy Rudolf Abel into a dignified and sympathetic protagonist, the US government into an undignified and unsympathetic antagonist, and portrays ordinary Americans as paranoid, hysterical, hostile anti-Communist fanatics who persecute a noble dissenter dedicated to human rights?

That it was directed by Stephen Spielberg? That it stars Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance? That it was based on the U-2 crisis in the Eisenhower administration, and subsequent multiple spy swap in the Kennedy administration? That it was filmed in Brooklyn, Berlin, and Poland? That it is titled Bridge of Spies?

None of the above.

Bridge of Spies may be a Spielberg blockbuster, but it is about as tendentious (and at 144 minutes, almost as long) as  D. W. Griffith's Confederate apology, Birth of a Nation. Like Griffith, Spielberg is a master of cinematic technique as well as a historical propagandist. His reenactment of the Francis Gary Powers shootdown is a memorably expert sequence of dramatic cross-cutting and special effects.

But at a higher level, the film falls far short of genius.

While paying lip service to the repressive Soviet regime (by including the building of the Berlin Wall and shooting of escapees), Spielberg's actual target appears to be what he depicts as mid-Century America's irrational fear of communism, which led to perversions of justice by an oppressive state. To show that American justice is unjust, that American democracy is undemocratic, and that American freedom is unfree, Spielberg and screenwriters Joel and Ethan Cohen twist history to fit into an anti-Cold War "narrative" and turn what could have been a simple spy story into what looks to this viewer like an attempted period adaptation of themes from Ibsen's Enemy of the People.

Some obvious rewrites of history to fit Spielberg's "narrative": Allen Dulles was not head of the CIA during Kennedy's spy swap, it was John McCone. The lawyer played by Tom Hanks, James B. Donovan, was not an innocent insurance attorney tricked into indirectly working for the CIA, but former counsel for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during  World War II.
Mark Rylance's Rudolf Abel was not punished by the USSR,  as Spielberg's cryptic ending suggests, but rather hailed as a hero of the USSR, lauded in a 1968 Soviet film about his exploits entitled Dead Season (one wonders whether Spielberg may have seen this movie) and whose portrait was featured on a Communist postage stamp.

Likewise, fear of nuclear war in 1962 was not a paranoid fantasy, nor a weird grade-school civil defense exercise, but occurred only after Abel's fellow spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg delivered secrets of the atomic bomb to the Russians, which in turn led to the very real Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962 only a few months after JFK traded Abel for Francis Gary Powers and Frederic Pryor. Thirteen months after what would become known as the Thirteen Days, a Communist member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee killed President Kennedy. Even paranoids have enemies...

Note that the real-life second banana in this drama, economist Frederic Pryor, has said that the film was not accurate about him--or his East German lawyer, either. He has noted the filmmakers took "liberties," for example, telling a Swarthmore College publication that Donovan's negotiations did not continue until his release:

"No, that was the biggest error. I had been prepared for my release about two days before it occurred. But because the East Germans weren’t happy about releasing me, they played a little trick. When my lawyer drove me to Checkpoint Charlie, they had us sit there for half an hour. The East Germans deliberately delayed the exchange of Powers and Abel, who were not supposed to be exchanged until after I was released. So I sat there until they finally escorted me to the border. It didn’t happen like it did in the movie at all."

So what? one might ask. Doesn't a creative artist have poetic license to play with facts to tell a better story?

Of course, if the story is better than the truth--but the plot of Bridge of Spies is worse--it is a lie told in service of political agenda designed to undercut faith in the American people, and reinforce a notion of moral equivalence between two sides in the Cold War.

As he did in Lincoln, in which Spielberg transformed Abolitionist Connecticut into a Slave State with the help of screenwriter Tony Kushner--making Henry Fonda's funny, humane, and warm Young Mr. Lincoln into a cold, corrupt, creepy autocrat more Stalinist than Stalin himself--Spielberg turns what could have been a taught thriller into a leisurely, bloated civics lesson about the dangers of intolerance, in Bridge of Spies,

To do this, he contrasts an admirably cool serenity and professionalism of Rudolf Abel to hysteria and extremism of American citizens and government agents. Yes, the East Germans and Russians who shoot refugees are bad--but New Yorkers who shoot bullets through Donovan's window are no better! Look, Abel is an artist! His wife is a musician! He is a cultured, sensitive, reasonable man! Not like the barbarians of New York and Washington!

When Tom Hanks asks Mark Rylance why he doesn't get upset, he only answers, "Would it help?"

How reasonable! How intelligent! How sophisticated!

How much better than the incompetent Francis Gary Powers, who can't even self-destruct his U-2, or use his suicide kit! How much smoother and better informed than student Frederic Pryor, who doesn't seem to comprehend the forces at play!

Yes, Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance are also better actors than anyone else in the film! Just in case you didn't know who to root for...

In conclusion, what is most disturbing about Bridge of Spies is that Spielberg and the Cohen brothers have willfully constructed a narrative designed to pit James B. Donovan and Rudolf Abel against both the Americans and the Russians--in order to portray a Communist spy and his American lawyer as heroes.