What makes us Americans; or, the Standing Man
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Steven Spielberg’s draw as a director is undeniable, although I was still surprised to watch Bridge of Spies in a full theater almost ten days after its initial release in Lisbon. I was reluctant to go see the film (the first Spielberg I watched in a theater since the last Indiana Jones), as I am not among the director’s greatest admirers. I admit that my hesitation was in great part due to the film’s trailer, promoting it as the story of the one man preventing a full blown Cold War escalation, the recurrent (American) mythology of the individual responsible for the course of history. But Spielberg’s film is misrepresented, and largely betrayed, by its promotion, as it has nothing to do with what the trailer suggests. I also admit that I haven’t been following his career assiduously since Schindler’s List (I movie that I thoroughly despise for its mawkishness), thus I have yet to watch Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Artificial Intelligence, Catch Me if You Can, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. And yet, I would go as far as to suggest that Bridge of Spies is Spielberg’s best film (after the ‘entertainment’ trilogy that redefined story telling and movie making in Hollywood, that is, Jaws, E.T., and Indiana Jones).
Its quality is securely based on the talents of everyone involved, from Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography and the astounding recreation of 1957 New York and East Berlin to the cast performances (with Mark Rylance quietly dominating each frame he’s in) and a director in full control of his expressive means (with Thomas Newman’s score a minor flaw, as it was unnecessarily sentimental). Its superiority though lies in the development the film’s themes receive from the script (by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers), and their masterful visual deployment by Spielberg. Spielberg, just to cite one example, cuts from a judge saying “all rise” to a group of schoolchildren rising in classroom to pledge their faith to the American flag, thus showing what is truly at stake in the courtroom, and also binding together education and justice.
To be able to make, at this day and age, a film about the quintessential values of the United States of America and the American way of life (as supported by the Constitution) without the slightest trace of irony, is already an achievement. Without being preachy or shallow (or coy about its intentions), the film is sincere patriotic propaganda, and this is not an oxymoron. Propaganda in its most neutral definition, as the attempt to literally propagate a set of ideas, and patriotic as opposed to nationalistic. Despite being easily overlooked nowadays, there is a long tradition of associating patriotism with progressive and republican ideals (again, republican in the eighteenth-century, British incarnation of the term and not in its current meaning in American politics). Thus, during the French Revolutionary Wars in Europe, patriots were those who “collaborated” with the French (a fairly anachronistic term when used to discuss the reactions of peoples to the revolutionary armies and ideals). On the other hand, patriotism was also being appropriated by conservative ideologies and frequently placed in the service of monarchy and the empire, as historian Linda Colley has argued. Others, like Maurizio Viroli, have made a case for the need to disassociate patriotism from nationalism and reclaim its value as a discourse focusing on political unity, civic duty and not cultural or ethnic homogeneity.
In a key scene from the film, Tom Hanks confronts a CIA agent who seeks information about his confidential interactions with Rudolf Abel, the accused spy Hanks’s character, James Donovan, is defending. Having undertaken this thankless task, Donovan embarks on an almost quixotic quest to uphold those same values that the spy (and the Soviet Union by extension) is seen as threatening, but that are actively being undermined by the representatives of the State (the CIA agent, the judge and so on) who are claiming to defend them. “What makes us Americans?”, the Irish Donovan asks the agent, who is “of German extraction”. What is the difference between us and them?, the film asks. The reply is: the rule book, the Constitution, which is almost treated as sacred text (a position not without its problems), and not any common ground that can be traced to culture, ethnicity or race. That is supposedly the greatness of the United States in its original inception – a concept also celebrated by the smashing hit Hamilton now on Broadway, a musical that expresses “the thoughts and drives of the diverse immigrants in the American colonies who came together to forge their own contentious, contradictory nation” (from Ben Brantley’s review of the show). Bridge of Spies says something of the utmost importance for our current moment: that it is our ideas (and values) that make us who we are and not our origin.
The film is brave in its politics, especially when Donovan goes on defending Abel (even praising him for his steadfastness), something that earns him the “standing man” nickname from Abel (a story told by Rylance’s character in a feat of nuanced narration). Donovan continues alone in this quest that puts him, as well as his family, in harm’s way, while he tries to prove that “every man counts”. Not escaping the heroic altogether, Donovan is not the traditional hero. He is Everyman in his most complete incarnation, Hanks playing Jimmy Stewart to Spielberg’s Capra (in a sense, this is Spielberg’s Mr. Smith goes to Washington). Donovan is the regular man who has to resist what he knows is wrong, because in the end that is what shields us against barbarity. The film’s universalism is prejudiced by the juxtaposition of how the two captives were treated by the respective powers that held them, while otherwise remaining remarkably neutral towards the Soviet Union. The nuclear paranoia of the Cold War is dismissed by Donovan (two civilized adversaries would never engage in mutual destruction of this scale), although its impact is demonstrated in a scene where a period clip preparing civilians for the possibility of an atomic bomb attack is shown to overwhelmed children. Irrational fear takes root from an early age, the film seems to suggest, affecting our possibility to arrive at calm and measured decisions.
The film’s parallels with today’s history are ample and obvious. The concessions to the security of the state and the cost that civic liberties have had to pay since 2001 are painfully clear. In a period where more concessions are asked of citizens (the prohibitions of protesting the climate summit in Paris after the recent terrorist attacks is the most recent example, and certainly won’t be the last), the movie invites audiences to ponder whether winning at every cost is ultimately worth it. Spielberg’s idealism and almost utopian vision of American politics does not rob the film of its value. The United States may never have been the beacon of civilization its defenders have imagined it to be, but during the ongoing global refugee crisis and a new confrontation cycle with the “East”, it is imperative to ask not just “what makes us Americans”, but what determines our stance towards the rest of the world, what is our place in it and, ultimately, our responsibility.
In the unforgettable finale, Tom Hanks watches wistfully from a train window as children play in a backyard, jumping over a fence. The scene purposefully mirrors a previous one where, also as a passerby, Hanks had watched people being shot while trying to climb over the Berlin wall. It is a melancholic scene – it may have been intended as a reminder of the liberty people enjoyed on the other side of the Atlantic, but it comes across as something irretrievably lost.