This Cold War drama contains much to commend it. The film does not shy away from dealing with the character of communist rule and occasionally contrasting it with the character of American self-government. Among the most notable examples of this treatment are:
Agent Hoffman’s discussion of the Soviet intention in building the Berlin Wall: “The Soviet side has been setting up check points for the past few months to try to stop people hemorrhaging to the Western sector and it hasn’t worked. We have intelligence to suggest that they may go one step further and wall off the entire Eastern sector.” Viewers are led to understand correctly that the wall was to keep East Germans in, not West Germans out. Bridge of Spies also shows how attempted violations of the travel restrictions placed on East Germans were punishable by death when it shows Donovan witnessing a group of attempting wall jumpers gunned down by soldiers in a guard tower.
The depiction of the human cost of the Berlin wall: it shows the heartbreaking separation of families. The film contains two brief shots at the wall. In one, a husband is on the Western side reaching out to his wife and child in the East, and in the other, three female relatives reach out to their sister who is being detained by East German officers. These are background events in the film. Such human costs could have been dealt with more explicitly without detracting from the plot and would have more fully characterized the the socialist state’s inhumane disregard for family.
Wolfgang Vogel’s invitation to Donovan to ponder the differences between East and West Berlin: “Look around you, how does the Eastern sector compare with the West? Hmm? Our Russian friends have decided that we should not rebuild our capital city. We live in this ruin made by our Russian friends.” While America rebuilt western Europe, including West Germany, the communists literally raped and pillaged East Germany and eastern Europe . This could have been explicitly mentioned.
The contrast in the treatment of prisoners: the assumption when it comes to imprisoned spies is that they will be tortured for information. Bridge of Spies does an excellent job of disabusing us of this assumption—at least in the case of America. Abel is taken somewhere warm and talked to (a fact emphasized by Donovan asking if he’d been mistreated): Abel: “They put me in a room.” Donovan: “Were you beaten?” Abel: “No. I was talked to; offers were made.” Donovan: “What do you mean?” Abel: “Offers of employment. To work for your government. I was told if I cooperated no further charges would be made against me and I would be given money.” Powers, however, is tortured by the communists.
Emphasizing the difference in judicial systems: Abel gets a real trial with a attorney who defends him even at personal risk. Bridge of Spies also shows the freedom of the American people to disagree with the government when those in the the court room’s gallery clamor for Abel to be executed and not imprisoned. Powers’ trial, rather, is a choreographed show trial for which the ruling was predetermined.
On what makes an American: In response to a request to violate attorney-client privilege for the sake of national security, the viewer is treated with the following exchange—Hoffman: “Don’t go boy scout on me. We don’t have a rule book here.” Donovan: “You’re Agent Hoffman, yeah?” Hoffman: “Yeah.” Donovan: “German extraction?” Hoffman: “Yeah, so?” Donovan: “My name’s Donovan. Irish. Both sides. Mother and father. I’m Irish; you’re German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing. One, only one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution, and we agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans. It’s all that makes us Americans. So don’t tell me there’s no rule book.” It is inconceivable that such a discussion could take place in the Soviet Union.
Despite these important contrasts, Bridge of Spies ignores some important history that would have enhanced the film’s dramatic narrative. The two most notable are:
No mention that the USSR had just crushed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956: while the film shows that the government of East Germany is controlled by the USSR and will do as it is told, Bridge of Spies does not reveal why that is the case. In fact, it is because Donovan understands the radical dependency of East Germany on the USSR that he is successful in obtaining the two-for-one prisoner exchange. Given the Soviet reaction to the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, how likely is it that East Germany would have acted against Soviet desires?
No mention of the breadth and depth of Soviet disrespect for human life and human dignity: while the film does a sufficient job in the case of East Berlin, no attempt is made to show the scale of communist atrocities and how these atrocities are directly related to the ideology that brought them about. By not revealing the existence and consequences of Soviet crimes, Bridge of Spies fails fully to communicate what was at stake in the Cold War and why the American people found the possibility of losing so profoundly terrifying.
Thus, while Bridge of Spies draws many important and valid contrasts between America and the Soviet Union, the movie fails to recognize explicitly the origin of these differences—communist ideology. Moreover, the film fails to show the scale of Soviet crimes, and thus cannot properly convey the monumental stakes at risk in the Cold War. In the final analysis, Bridge of Spies is an excellent film. Nevertheless, it would have been a better film—and been truer to history—if it had properly emphasized what was really at stake in the battle between communist ideology and American ideals.