With Bridge of Spies, director Steven Spielberg, star Tom Hanks, and writers Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman are standing up, doffing their caps, placing their hands on their hearts, and declaring their love for America. Not the Murica of the outraged masses who still can’t believe we put a socialist Kenyan in the White House and then destroyed traditional marriage. Nor the American Empire of the drone-happy data collectors and bomb-droppers who may do seemingly anything in the name of national security. Rather, the America of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: high-minded but not snobbish, earnest but not quite naive, self-sacrificing when called upon but also eager to withdraw into the happy bosom of the home. The America that Fitzgerald referred to when he wrote that “France was a land, England was a people, but America” — America was an idea. And a citizen who believed in that idea, who marched onto the field of battle — or, in this case, the arena of international intrigue — armed chiefly with a blend of practicality and principle that would have made the founders proud, could do great things. Maybe even prevent a nuclear war.
Spielberg & Co. probably didn’t have to reach back 60 years to find a story that would allow them to portray such a place. But there’s nothing like the passage of time to help us condemn what we might accept in the present. Maybe we’re okay with NSA data collection, but who wouldn’t cheer for Tom Hanks as he chews out a CIA spook who’s after legally protected information? Maybe we’re fine with labeling accused terrorists as enemy combatants so we don’t have to grant them due process. But who isn’t moved as Tom Hanks lectures the Supreme Court on the honor, loyalty, and, yes, patriotism of the accused (and mislabeled) Soviet spy he represents? And what member of an angry mob wouldn’t slink away from Tom Hanks, brow lumpily furrowed in distress, standing on the porch of his just-shot-up home and silently declaring himself a righteous majority of one?
Well, maybe a few. But yahoos and schemers are just the price we pay for living in the Land of the Free.
So, yes, the story. It’s the late ’50s, the height of the Cold War. American kids are watching cartoons in school about how to survive a nuclear attack by the Russians. And the feds have just caught themselves a Russian spy. They need to have a trial, just to show the world that America plays fair, but they accidentally hire James Donovan (Hanks), who actually believes it. Meanwhile, the Russians manage to snag an American spy: pilot Gary Francis Powers. Tensions rise, and Donovan is picked to conduct the unofficial negotiations — in the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall — for a prisoner exchange. (It’s so hush-hush and fraught that he has to tell his wife he’s going fishing in the U.K.)
Spielberg is in full gee-whiz mode here, as eager to tickle your ribs as he is to tense your gut or swell your heart. (His Russian spy repeatedly deadpans in the face of danger.) Hanks makes an old-fashioned virtue of his soft approach toward 60; every wrinkle and fold is put to work. And just in case you aren’t sure how to feel, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is there to up the saturation even as he turns down the brightness, yielding a world of somber richness and gauzy light. (Or maybe not. Maybe they just added the nostalgia in post.) The result is sweet, smooth corn pudding that just might be enough to make the aforementioned Mr. Smith stand up and cheer.