In the 14 years since the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001, Steven Spielberg has directed only two films set in the present day, the back-to-back releases The Terminal and War of the Worlds (2004 and 2005, respectively). Everything else has been set in either the future (Minority Report) or the past (Munich, Lincoln, etc.). Yet no American director has been so engaged with the issues and complexities of post-9/11 America; every single one of Spielberg’s post-A.I. movies is as much about its own time as the period being depicted, and the director’s vision of America’s promise and its betrayal has grown increasingly despairing over the years. Even the relatively lightweight Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull contains lines like “I barely recognize this country anymore,” a sentiment at the heart of all of Spielberg’s later work.
Minority Report, which was shot before the Twin Towers fell but released in 2002, remains one of the most astonishingly prescient films of its time, with its vivid evocation of a society in which civil liberties and free will have been made subservient to government surveillance and a world of individually targeted marketing. The films that follow examine America’s evolving (or devolving) views on immigration (The Terminal), terrorism and the appropriate responses to it (War of the Worlds, Munich), and race (Lincoln). Even the most conventionally “entertaining” recent Spielberg pictures are sad and deeply disturbing at the core; the ultimately upbeat The Terminal, for example, presents an unforgiving view of the abandonment of our country’s principles as a nation of immigrants, and depicts post-9/11 Homeland Security bureaucracy with depressing accuracy.
Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies, fits right in with his recent preoccupations and expands upon them in typically provocative ways. Typically for Spielberg, that is; it must be noted that few American directors, and virtually none in the studio system, are tackling the kinds of difficult questions that he routinely addresses head-on. Once again the director tells a story set in the past but about the present: In 1957, American lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is called upon to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) who is on trial for his life. Although taking the case makes him one of the most despised and misunderstood men in the country (not to mention his own home), Donovan throws himself into it with gusto. As he sees it, giving his client a proper defense vindicates and celebrates American values rather than undermining them.
This is clearly Spielberg’s view, and there’s a superficially inspiring quality to the film—we’re invited to take pride in Donovan’s righteous stance and share his belief in the principles upon which the country was built. Yet that very sense of patriotism is undermined by the fact that the country in which Donovan and Spielberg believe is shown to be a place populated by morons who aren’t worth defending or saving. Virtually every single character Donovan comes into contact with in the first half of the film—before the plot takes a new turn and becomes a thriller about the exchange of Donovan’s client for captured American spy Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell)—thinks Abel should just fry in the electric chair. Although on purely procedural grounds the government has a weak case, Donovan’s mission is hopeless from the beginning, because the judge in the case willfully ignores the evidence and the public is unanimously against the idea of trying the spy at all. Even Donovan’s wife (Amy Ryan) has no purpose in the movie aside from telling him that what he’s doing is wrong and resisting his goals every step of the way, making this view of domestic life one of Spielberg’s harshest—and that’s saying something considering the views of spouses and parents in pictures like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A.I.
Thus the film takes on a strange, contradictory tone reminiscent of the best of Frank Capra’s work. It’s a movie intent on defending American values in an America where those values have been so corroded as to be practically nonexistent. Scenes in which characters discuss their opposition to giving Abel any kind of due process are clearly meant to resonate with the age of Gitmo, just as the endless cycle of terrorism in Munich was intended as a commentary on 9/11 and America’s response to it. Where Spielberg has evolved and grown darker in recent years is in his acknowledgment not only that America has failed to live up to its promise, but that it never attempted to in the first place. The pre-9/11 Saving Private Ryan was a brilliantly made but conceptually conventional bit of “Greatest Generation” comfort food, a movie telling us about the good old days when American heroism, though gory, was not in question. Now, Spielberg does nothing but question, and his work is all the better for it.
There are no “good old days” in Bridge of Spies; it’s a film populated by petty, fearful men and women ready to sacrifice the ideals they supposedly believe in at the drop of a hat. Yet those ideals themselves are so powerful, and so powerfully explicated by Spielberg’s camera and the script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, that Bridge of Spies ultimately does work as an affirmative underdog story. It contains the same level of moral ambiguity and sophistication that mark the director’s two greatest films to date, Schindler’s List and A.I., movies which stare unblinkingly into the heart of darkness yet earn moments of genuine uplift. Had Spielberg stopped making movies between Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, he would have gone down in history as a successful entertainer and supremely skilled craftsman, but not necessarily one of the great philosophers or thinkers in American cinema; he was more like a contemporary Cecil B. DeMille. But just as Unforgiven drew a demarcation line between Clint Eastwood’s earlier work and his more ambitious, challenging masterpieces that followed, Schindler’s List initiated a remarkable series of aesthetically innovative films asking morally difficult questions. Bridge of Spies is right up there with his most provocative work, yet it has a straightforward, deceptive simplicity—it doesn’t force its contradictions or complexities down the audience’s throat, and that makes them all the more fascinating.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda
Release Date: Oct. 16, 2015
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. He has written about movies for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.