‘Bridge of Spies’ screening demonstrates resilience

Isolation and patriotism shined through in the film, shown by Visions & Voices.

Visions & Voices sponsored a screening of “Bridge of Spies” Monday in the Norris Theater as the latest installment of their Stephen Spielberg filmography series entitled “War, Justice and Democracy.” (Craig Duffy / Flickr)

Several minutes past 7 p.m. Monday, the lights inside Norris Theater slowly dimmed, pulling the audience 66 years into the past while simultaneously telling a story with modern relevance.

The story was “Bridge of Spies” (2015), the latest installment in the School of Cinematic Arts and Visions & Voices’ War, Justice and Democracy in the Films of Steven Spielberg series. The screening was followed by a panel featuring screenwriter Matt Charman in conversation with professors Luis Moreno Ocampo and Ted Braun.

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Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and based on a true story, “Bridge of Spies” follows American lawyer James Donovan as he defends Russian spy Rudolf Abel at his American trial, later negotiating the trade of Abel for captured American citizens Francis Gary Powers and Frederic Pryor. 

What sets the film apart from other spy stories is how grounded it is in normalcy. Donovan, an insurance lawyer by practice, remains deeply committed to the United States Constitution in his defense of Abel, despite Abel’s status as a Russian spy on American soil. Despite Cold War paranoia in the U.S. and the immediate threat this court case presents to his family, Donovan’s resilience and commitment to the idea of a fair trial and due process are an unwavering truth to his character throughout the story.

The pathos of his character is found in scenes with his family, where they express concern over his publicity from the Abel case, and the tension builds to the point of Donovan’s house being shot at by advocates for Abel’s death. The familial tensions in the Donovan household are all based on true experiences, which served as the crux of the emotion in the script’s early drafts.

“I had met [Donovan’s] son,” Charman said. “He was so emotional about his father’s story, and the kind of quiet patriotism of his dad … and all of the memories came back … the house being shot up, him being bullied at school, just the price that came with what his father did.”

Quiet and isolated patriotism is the key to understanding the main point of “Bridge of Spies,” Charman said. In the film, Donovan stands alone against a justice system that is determined to put Abel on the electric chair; in the final scene, he also stands alone on the bridge when he stops the prisoner trade until both American citizens are physically guaranteed to be returned home.

Madelyn Sequeira, a junior majoring in international relations, attended the screening and said the film allowed audience members to empathize with the story onscreen. It also commented on the prejudice against foreign officials, she said.

“[“Bridge of Spies”] played a huge role in humanizing things,” Sequeira said. “Having the individuals seen as people made me shift my mindset.”

In his determination to both provide Abel with a fair trial and retrieve both American citizens from Berlin, Donovan upheld the value of each individual’s life with stubborn determination. Charman depicted him as an isolated individual propelled purely by his belief in American ideals and justice, ultimately prevailing.

Apart from the thematic meditation on pure commitment to American ideals, the film does an excellent job of balancing the serious nature of its subject with breaths of comedic relief and lightness, said attendee Blane Solis, a freshman majoring in film and television production.

“This huge war is happening, and [still] there’s room for fun,” Solis said. “There’s room for inside jokes. These are human people.”

In a powerful monologue, Rudolf Abel tells Donovan about the standing man — a man who Abel saw beaten, yet he refused to stay on the ground after each lashing. It is because of this, Abel believed, that the beating finally stopped, and the man was set free.

Above all else, the single monologue may be the center point of “Bridge of Spies.” Beyond the ideological barriers between nations or the imposed beliefs of superiority between states, it is man and man who stand confronting each other in the end.

“[Steven Spielberg’s] commitment to showing how hard it is to … have a belief in a set of rules in a constitution and follow it through,” Charman said, “was a brilliant license.”

It is the purity of Donovan’s belief in a universal justice which articulates the theme of the film: Only when a human being can recognize the humanity of the opponent that change can be enacted, but seeing through the gauze of ideology often means standing alone for some time and advocating for that belief.

It is for that reason that the standing man is the one who enacts change.

In his final line of dialogue, Abel calls Donovan a standing man, for at the price of his own reputation, he took the first lashings to change public opinion, and in his strength, he and two American citizens walked free.

“[The standing man speech] was something that needed to be said for the thematics of the movie,” Charman said.

By the end of the panel, the audience understood the “standing man,” leaving with a palpable sense of responsibility to protect the integrity of freedom and resilience, beyond the scope of American citizens.

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