Mr. Spielberg Goes to Washington

On Sunday, my mother and I went to go see “Bridge of Spies.” Most of the reviews are positive. The few negative reviews seem to be from people who were expecting an action picture, so I’ll get that out of the way before I review the movie on its own terms. It is a true story about a lawyer who defends a Soviet citizen living in the United States and accused by the United States of spying. It’s about justice and principles in a realistic way. If you’re in the mood for a tense spy thriller with a little bit of action, this is not the movie for you.

“Bridge of Spies” felt to me to be a direct descendent of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Frank Capra’s 1939 film about a naive man who becomes a U.S. senator and confronts corruption in Washington. The plots and the characters have little in common. The lawyer, James B. Donovan is a wealthy and worldly man from New York City, a partner in a prestigious law firm, a graduate of Harvard Law and a former naval officer who was an assistant during the Nuremberg trials. A few of the summaries say that the character, played by Tom Hanks, is a just and insurance lawyer, but I think the film establishes pretty well that he is not “just” an insurance lawyer. When he enters his office, we clearly see the name “Donovan” on the door. The office itself looks well-appointed and the army of secretaries are highly deferential. There is a reference to his role in Nuremberg. Like the viewers who think all spy movies have explosions and chase scenes, perhaps some people missed these cues because they are used to seeing everyone in movies living and working in expensive environments that we all know are not realistic. The indications that Donovan was a respected and accomplished lawyer who had settled into a slightly boring routine were there to me.

What James B. Donovan, Esq. and the humble Mr. Smith have in common is a firm belief in the principles undergirding liberal democracy. This, not espionage, is the subject of the movie. Like Mr. Smith, Donovan engages in some speechifying to that effect, and like Mr. Smith his adversaries are other Americans. In this case, they are other Americans who believe they are acting in the interests of he United States but who do not have his faith in liberal principles. The main antagonists in the movie are not the Soviet diplomat or East German official, played by Sebastian Koch, but the FBI agents and other lawyers who wish to advance American interests and do so with significantly fewer scruples.

Unlike Mr. Smith, Donovan does not achieve his ends through such speeches. He seemingly convinces no one. A sophisticated man, not a naive dreamer, he succeeds through subtle and persistent interpersonal interactions, not through force of his argument.

It’s a movie with a political argument at its heart. I’m afraid the movie may be poorly served by the title and poster. It has zero sex that I can recall and almost no violence. Even the interrogation scenes were done an a manner that an older child could watch. If the children are old enough to be interested in the subject, by all means bring them.

It is a timely film. At a moment when liberal democracies once again find themselves opposed by international forces that do not share our values, it is a good reminder about the necessity of sticking to those values, and that one can succeed while doing so. Abiding by those values does not mean you’re weak; it means you’re strong.

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