The critics missed it – read the first ten or twenty reviews on Rotten Tomatoes for proof of that – but Bridge of Spies is best understood as Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ sequel to Saving Private Ryan. It was made and set 17 years later, but that’s only the beginning of what separates it from Hanks’ and Spielberg’s other two actor-director collaborations, Catch Me If You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004). We can usefully see Bridge as a what-if movie – what if Captain Miller had lived and become attorney Jim Donovan?
While Saving Private Ryan technically lost the Best Picture Oscar to Shakespeare in Love (in a shocker that Oscar fans still discuss), Ryan has clearly won the longer war for cinematic immortality. It plays on TV more often than The Wizard of Oz; it “spun off” Band of Brothers and then The Pacific; it comes up whenever “the Greatest Generation” and Hollywood are mentioned in the same sentence. The Normandy beach sequence has become part of everyone’s cinematic grammar. Now, you wouldn’t think that Spielberg and Hanks could do a sequel – Hanks’ character died. In the movie industry, however, that’s less of a deal-breaker and more of a deal-innovator.
I like to think that for Hanks and Spielberg, the decision to do the project came shortly after January 2014, when the ads blaring Bill Simmons’ quote “The most extraordinary war movie since Saving Private Ryan” pushed Lone Survivor to an unlikely $125m domestic gross. Next thing you know, everyone in the age group of Hanks’ and Spielberg’s kids were talking about the best [blank] and worst [blank] since Saving Private Ryan.
Yea, so it came time for Tom and Steven to take back the term. Or perhaps Spielberg looked around and said, “Well, I’ve done the Civil War, World War I, World War II three times, post-Munich Israel – what’s left? Ah, the height of the Cold War!” Hard to think of another story, particularly a true story, that would have summarized the Cold War quite so neatly, with the difficult trade-offs, the Berlin Wall construction, and especially the U-2 downing, an incident that has, at least since U2’s first album, needed a cinematic treatment. I would also argue that Spielberg has given us some kind of production-design-perfect rendering of every other decade of his life – Catch Me if You Can absolutely was the 1960s, Munich was the 1970s, E.T. was the 1980s, Jurassic Park was the 1990s, War of the Worlds was the 00s…and so he may have wanted a do-over for his only extended representation of the 1950s. More on that in a few paragraphs.
How does Bridge of Spies hail Saving Private Ryan? First, in each film’s pivotal scene of crossing the threshold into enemy, German-held territory, we see these steel X-beam things. Did those exist on the real Glienicke Bridge in 1962? Maybe they did, or maybe Spielberg is just riffing on a theme. Second, there’s the presence of the very unnecessarily attractive teenage daughter – not generally a Spielberg motif outside the cemetery scenes of Ryan. Third, there’s the room in Bridge where Donovan finds the tainted evidence – looking exactly like the room where two secretaries literally put two and two together to learn that three Ryan boys had been killed, leaving one to save.
Fourth, there’s casting Jesse Plemons (you may know him from Breaking Bad, or as Kirsten Dunst’s clue-impaired husband on Fargo) – surely the most Matt Damony actor in the industry who is not named Matt Damon.
It’s true that Plemons plays the best friend/pilot colleague of the man who Hanks/Donovan must save, not Francis Gary Powers himself, but casting Plemons as Powers would have been a little too obvious. We get the reference by inference and transference. If anything, the actor playing Powers, Austin Stowell, looks a little like Ed Burns when he played Private Reiben in Ryan, an interesting way to revisit the unsettled arguments of Ryan, where Reiben spearheaded the mutiny against Hanks/Miller’s mission to risk eight lives on behalf of one.
Fifth, and I swear this is true, in the film’s first minute when Hanks’ character arrives in 1961 – in other words, when we’re officially 17 years from the events of Ryan, just as Bridge of Spies was made 17 years after Ryan – someone presents a photo of Powers to Donovan, Donovan says “he’s the same age as Doug,” and for just a moment, Thomas Newman’s score pulls directly from John Williams’ score for Ryan. It happened. Watch it again.
Hanks/Donovan’s moment with Powers’ photo is a rare moment of pathos for the otherwise businesslike Bridge of Spies – it’s like the movie is saying, okay, here we go again, Hanks is sticking out his neck for a 25-year-old soldier who may or may not deserve it. But through the magic of cinematic displacement and psychological projection, no one will have to “earn this”; this time, Hanks can save private Powers and live to save hundreds more, as we learn in a closing title card.
Spielberg is pretty much saying, hey guys, I’m the director of Saving Private Ryan, not the director of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). A word or two about that. Crystal Skull, like Bridge of Spies, spends at least a cinematic hour in 1957, and by following the former with the latter, Spielberg suggests his 1950s should be remembered less for Shia LaBeouf pretending to be the Fonz and more for beautifully rendered period details of New York subways and streetlights. And this is personal: Spielberg was 10 throughout 1957, the same age as Donovan’s skeptical, paranoid son, and this kid’s plaintive wails suggest that when we think of 1950s’ nuclear anxiety, Spielberg would prefer we recall scary instructional films and duck-and-cover drills and not recall Crystal Skull’s most criticized, notorious moment. Stay with me for a moment.
Geeks know that the original script for the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future featured a scene where Doc Brown avoided radioactive fallout by jumping into a 1950s refrigerator. Geeks also know that after Spielberg brought the scene to cinematic life for a rather clumsy, implausible moment in Crystal Skull, the internet freaked out with plutonium opprobrium: the phrase “nuke the fridge” became the cinematic equivalent of TV’s “jump the shark,” the moment that a franchise becomes terrible. (Okay, I may have too much faith in Spielberg noticing what his kids notice online.) As I watched Amy Ryan, wife of the Tom Hanks character in Bridge of Spies, open a very familiar-looking fridge I thought: would the movie have worked without this scene? And its fridge? The answer to both is clearly yes, so I watched (this) Ryan with bated breath as she sighed, opened the fridge, peered inside, and said “It’s over.” I caught a Spielberg wink at us: Enough of the “nuke the fridge” meme, guys. It’s over.
If Saving Private Ryan is sometimes considered a little over-Manichean – its good guys too good, its bad guys too faceless or execrable – Bridge of Spies has been winning critics’ praise for presenting a murkier, thornier, trickier world that demands we choose from the lesser of two evils. Yet I’m not sure why: Hanks wears the white hat throughout, while the film is rigged against the Iron Curtain countries. We see Russians torture Powers; we see nothing like that happen to his Soviet counterpart held by the U.S., Rudolf Abel. Hanks/Donovan watches from an elevated metro train while refugees are shot trying to scale a fence from East to West Berlin, and in a scathing contrast, he later watches from an elevated metro train in New York as kids scale a fence without undue incident. It’s actually possible that the Coen brothers, who wrote the script, meant for the scene of refugee slaughter – which was relatively unusual in the real history of the Berlin Wall; one would-be escapee was killed about every two months – to serve as catalyst for the untypical German-Soviet capitulation in the film’s denouement. Perhaps the Germans realized that a guard had been too loose on the trigger, they had a public relations problem, and they needed to do something magnanimous. But Spielberg’s direction doesn’t encourage that interpretation (and I haven’t read a critic who saw it that way); instead, we’re meant to think that Hanks/Donovan’s charm, tenacity and negotiating skills have secured the return of two of our boys for one of theirs, a clever compensatory symmetry of Ryan, where Hanks loses two of our boys for one of ours (well, not counting Ryan’s Act III, where Ryan, now rescued, participates as our side loses a lot more).
Bridge of Spies is finally more of a Bridge to Hanks’ and Spielberg’s eventual retirement. As the 21st century becomes increasingly unfamiliar, the producers of Band of Brothers are shoring up their legacy as the quiet, dignified protectors of the American legacy and American values that inspired the world in the century we’ve left. Not for nothing does Hanks/Donovan stand and lecture the Supreme Court in a manner that’s obviously keyed to how we treat our prisoners, today, in black sites and at Guantanamo. The film dramatizes a descent into murk, but also suggests that even as that happens, there will be people somewhere in the fog, standing up for who we really should be. The film reassures us that Hanks and Spielberg should be remembered, should be considered, as we’ve known them since Ryan: in Bridge’s parlance, standing men.