“Bridge of Spies,” the popular and critically well-received movie that’s been playing locally, is an entertaining true story, comforting in a way we have come to expect of Spielberg.
Tom Hanks is always enough to restore your faith in the species. Decency, honor, stubbornness in the service of virtue seem built into his very physiognomy. He reminds us, in case we’ve forgotten, what a decent human being and a real, stand-up American looks like.
Hanks’ character, attorney Donovan, appointed in the McCarthy era to defend a probable Russian spy, pursues his virtuous path of being true to the law and the constitution, despite hateful looks from fellow Americans and even bullets through the windows of his home. In this movie, personal integrity outweighs any other virtue; Donovan’s integrity is depicted as the very soul of America, even if he’s the only American who is true to what we want to think is the American Way, which is, Donovan insists, based on the constitution. But it’s not so simple.
Hanks provides solid comfort for the viewer, but he’s not an answer to the uncomfortable issues the movie itself raises but fails to explore. Donovan wants to pursue his defense of the Russian as resourcefully as he would defend anyone else, upholding both letter and spirit of the constitution. But, as the older judge says, Sure, giving this Soviet spy a semblance of a defense is good PR for the American Way. But if doing your job rigorously gets this spy off there’s a problem: he wants to destroy the U.S. and its constitution. By upholding the constitution you will be helping to destroy it.
Donovan has nothing but contempt for the pragmatic cynicism of the CIA agent sent to manage him. The agency had only been around for a few years at the time. In the Cold War, its purpose was to do things covertly that above-board government couldn’t legally, by its own laws (or ostensible American values), do. It was a way we could have our cake and eat it, too.
Donovan insists that the nation doesn’t exist without the “rule book”: the law, the constitution. But the CIA’s very existence raises the contradiction: what if (as we all seem implicitly now to accept) you can only defend the rule book by breaking the rules?
In the world of this comforting movie the heroes are divided equally between us and our deadly enemy of the time, the USSR. Donovan the principled lawyer and Abel the principled spy are the only heroes, a mutual admiration society of two, united in their shared personal integrity. The CIA, along with almost everyone else, including Donovan’s long suffering wife, is well down on the list.