Reaching Over The Wall

The Rare Heroism of Bridge of Spies

Movies Features

If you are the overweight, mixed-race son of an immigrant, you grow up accepting that there aren’t going to be very many heroes who look like you. What is more bothersome is that you aren’t really going to see your story, either. Aziz Ansari is making some headway on Netflix with the superb Master of None, but he’s carrying the banner of a small regiment. The last film I can think of that directly addressed first-generation identity was The Namesake, which came out nearly a decade ago and which I did not see because I was poor and it wasn’t playing in my college town and my car was broken. More specifically, if you’re part Cuban, the last major film about a Cuban immigrant protagonist you’ve got is Scarface. So.

I went into Bridge of Spies expecting another upstanding but pat role for Tom Hanks, and with the promise of Steven Spielberg’s steady direction and basic belief in the decency of the good ole U.S. of A. None of that assessment was inaccurate. On the way to the film, my friend and I rolled our eyes about whatever stupid thing Donald Trump had just said. Neither of us knew a whole lot about the historical context of the film. That was fortunate, because I wouldn’t have appreciated the spoiler.

It was the last historical note at the end that got me. Hanks has (spoiler alert for a 50-year-old historical incident) succeeded in trading a Soviet spy over to East Germany in exchange for not one but two—count ’em, two—hapless young American boys. Somehow the text itself manages to grin as it notes that James B. Donovan, the film’s protagonist, goes on to successfully broker the release of more than 10,000 Cubans after the Bay of Pigs Invasion. My friend was already getting up when he noticed that I was trying to contain my astonishment.

You see, my mother was one of those Cubans.

I had an inkling I was seeing a more nuanced take on us-vs.-them espionage fairly early on in the film, when Hanks’ character, a lawyer, confronts a CIA spook in a dimly lit bar. By this point, Donovan has been appointed the legal counsel of a Soviet spy. In a comparatively daring move, we are shown in no uncertain terms that he absolutely is a spy, that he is good at it and probably even enjoys it. A lesser film would’ve made him an unwitting pawn or a fall guy, but no. He is without a doubt the enemy. The most we get to try to endear him to us is his wry stoicism.

The scene here is two white guys in sharp mid-century suits and the kind of dolly in shot that makes the dialogue itself steal the scene. The whole thing evokes Rocketeer levels of an old-timey Americana sensibility. Yet during it, Donovan is being offered the chance to essentially turn on his own client in the interest of the CIA’s shadowy motives. He coolly declines, posing a rhetorical question to the agent: What makes a lawyer of Irish descent and a CIA agent of German descent both American?

A: The Constitution. It is the only thing we all have in common.

I saw this scene during the same week Donald Trump came to my town in Illinois, and just days before he seemed to endorse deporting pretty much anyone who so much as feels the occasional craving for chile relleno. It was a couple weeks after I spent about 20 minutes grunting noncommittally in response to a barber who displayed a remarkable fluency in ethnic slurs as he was in the midst of cutting my hair (which is conspicuously thick and black).

Bridge of Spies has the good-fortune-if-you-acknowledge-how-horrible-the-whole-thing-is of coming out at a time when refugees from Syria are fleeing from terror I can only guess at and seeking shelter anywhere they can find it, even as they meet with every -ism in the book. These people are foreign. They bring with them a culture and a religion shared by the groups we now consider our enemies, or so the reductive thinking goes. Bridge of Spies could have glossed over the idea that Donovan’s client is the enemy, but it puts it front and center and then concludes he should still be treated humanely—not just because trading him gets us something we want, but because doing so is moral.

And that historical note: Donovan’s efforts in Cuba came about because he essentially became Castro’s friend and drinking buddy in 1962, purely as a gambit by President John F. Kennedy to use the man’s proven silver tongue to advance U.S. interests. After he’d secured more than 1,000 Bay of Pigs prisoners, he didn’t stop. He kept flying back and forth to Havana—sometimes bringing his own son along as a gesture of trust—in an attempt to get 9,000 more political prisoners out. He did it with zero airstrikes, invasions or assassinations.

American cinema knows quite a bit about how heroes should deal with bad guys in these days of the action tent pole franchise. We spar with them a bit over ideology out of politeness (usually while they are in a glass holding cell). We have city-destroying fistfights with them (and then feel really bad about killing them). We lock them up in Arkham or hermetically reseal them and jettison them into space. Sometimes we just shoot them in the face. It all makes for some very exciting conflict resolution, but it sometimes feels as if we hardly see how the world is any better of a place for having disposed of these jerks so stylishly. Earth (or just Gotham) is saved, sure, but it’s usually secondary to the hero or his ideas winning the day. I love these films, but far more rarely do we get ones about the long-lasting good that comes of not shooting somebody in the face.

American cinema also seems to have a firm grasp on the second half of the human displacement equation—that is, the half when our good-hearted immigrants arrive in the great Land of Opportunity, played either by Al Pacino or a character who will raise Al Pacino, ready to murder their obese mafia forebears. But I can’t really think of an example of the first half of the equation: the fleeing-from-terror part. The only one that comes to mind is the first few minutes of An American Tail, when Fievel Mousekewitz and his family (who are anthropomorphic mice) flee from a pogrom.

I grew up hearing about the terror part, and its absence in movies has only recently occurred to me. My mom was about five, but remembers the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. My grandfather was held as a political prisoner, in conditions and for a length of time I assure you I’m currently unable to verify with the Cuban government—I’ll get back to you if they respond. Reading up on the history later, it’s apparent to me how totally people like my family were at the mercy of the belligerent maniacs in the White House and the Kremlin. Some years after their escape to the United States, the family would head over to JFK’s eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery, where my grandparents did their best to thank him personally. In their minds, he had saved them, even if he hadn’t known it at the time.

All of these things were revealed to me in a slow drip as I grew up in a comfortable middle-class upbringing. If we reckon that Cubans (and the Americans with whom they have intermarried) likely have as many children as anybody else, there must be upwards of 100,000 children and grandchildren of the refugees for whom Donovan did a solid. It’s taken half a century, but it’s a striking accomplishment and it’s still happening. That’s not bad for a guy who can’t fly or use The Force.

There’s a scene in Bridge of Spies where some kids try to scale the Berlin Wall and escape into West Germany. A guard tower spots them and guns them down as Donovan watches from his seat on a train, speeding by before he or we can process it. Later, in the denouement before those historical notes blindsided me, he’s on a train in the United States. He has a moment of uneasy silence as he witnesses a group of schoolchildren playfully leaping over fences in backyards, filmed at the same angle and distance. The callback is one last little jab from Spielberg (the grandson of immigrants): Here we are, safe behind our particular wall, while somewhere else there are others who would give anything to get out from behind their own.

I would love to see more movies about the people who, in their comfort, decide to reach over that wall and decline to allow history to erase the people on the other side of it. It’d be a great script.

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