33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
27‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Bridge of Spies is a film inspired by true events, which some here today may even remember–the cold war of the 1950s and 60s, the capture, trial and conviction of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, the shooting down of an American U2 spy plane over Soviet airspace, the capture of its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, the negotiation of his release and exchange for Abel along with American student, Frederic Pryor.
Since the major events in the film have been public knowledge for about 50 years, I’m going to assume that means it would be impossible for me to give you any real “spoilers.” In any case, the film’s popularity and acclaim aren’t really due to unexpected plot twists as much as to the great acting (by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance), the tension, suspense, and drama that come with any well-told story. So if you haven’t already seen it, I hope you will when it comes out on video next month. The film may be set in past history, but it has a very timely message for the present.
The film opens in a dingy New York apartment, where we see an older gentleman sitting by the window, carefully painting a portrait of himself. Later, the CIA bursts into his apartment, arrests him, seizes his art equipment and several pieces of espionage equipment, and we learn that he is Colonel Rudolf Abel, accused of spying for the Soviet Union.
The scene cuts to a smoke-filled backroom, where we see two attorneys trying to settle a case. One of them is James Donovan. He is an insurance lawyer, representing an insurance company against a claim by five motorists who were struck by one vehicle. Donovan is slick, but firm, and skilled in his argument.
These two characters–the spy Rudolf Abel and the lawyer James Donovan–are brought together when Donovan is asked by his law firm to represent Abel so that it will “seem” like he’s getting a fair trial. The words “seem” and “appear” are used several times by characters in the film, revealing that the appearance of American justice is more important than the actual thing. Donovan agrees to take the case, to the disappointment of his wife, who is worried about their reputation.
Leading up to the trial, Donovan and Abel come to respect and appreciate each other. However, even the judge in the case seems to have already made up his mind about Abel’s guilt, and so while Donovan actually does his best to defend Abel, he loses the case. The best he can do is to convince the judge not to sentence Abel to death, using the argument that someday he might be useful in an exchange in case an American spy were caught in Russia. In other words, Abel makes a good insurance policy.
Of course, this is exactly what happens when American U2 pilot Gary Powers is shot down in Russian airspace while taking photographs for the CIA. James Donovan is asked to travel to Berlin to negotiate the trade–precisely at the time that the Berlin wall is being constructed. After tense negotiations between Donovan, the Russians, and the East Germans, he is able to secure not only the trade of Abel for Powers, but also the release of American college student Frederic Pryor, who was being held by the East Germans as a suspected (but clearly innocent) spy. At the climax of the film, the exchange between Abel and Powers takes place on the famous Glienicke Bridge, where several similar exchanges were made throughout the cold war, giving it the name “Bridge of Spies” where the film takes it’s title.
Truth and Interpretation
Every spy film wrestles with the question of what’s real and what’s a deception. But this film does it in a very nuanced way. There are no clear-cut lines between “good guys and bad guys.” Both America and Russa are engaged in espionage against each other, while pretending not to be. There is hatred and prejudice on both sides, as well as honor and virtue on the part of both the Russian and American lead characters.
There’s a deeper message here, though. Francis powers, in his U2 spy plane, takes photographs–which (at least in the pre-photoshop era) are associated with truth, fact, and reality. On the other hand, Rudolf Abel is depicted as an artists, a painter. The film opens with him painting a portrait of himself, and ends with his painting a portrait of James Donovan, which he gives to him after his release. While a painting can resemble reality, there is always something of the painter in the painting. A portrait is an interpretation of reality, influenced by the painters decisions, style, and the way he views his subject. Likewise, the characters in this film choose how they see each other, how they interpret each other’s actions–sometimes charitably, and sometimes not.
I think it’s important for us, as Christians, to remember how much influence we have on the picture of Christianity that we paint for the world. Our interpretation of scripture is just that: An interpretation. We believe that the scriptures are true, like a photograph…but the way we present them to the world is more like a painting. And it can be charitable…or not so charitable.
Security and Freedom
True or false: In John chapter eight, Jesus tells his diciples, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you flee.” It’s false, of course. He actually says the truth shall make you “free.” But sometimes I think we confuse the two. There is a tension in our country right now between freedom and security. Between reason and fear. It’s a tension captured well in this film (and in this clip).
The mob, and most of the minor characters in the film, are angry because they are afraid. Children are taught nuclear bomb drills in school (anyone remember those?), and the constant threat of war looms close. And so people are willing to sacrifice justice and freedom in order to feel more secure from terror. Sound familiar? It should. Contrast this with Donovan and Abel in the following clip:
That line–would it help?–is a running joke throughout the film, whenever Donovan is anxious about something, or feels that Abel should be more anxious. It reminds me of Luke chapter 12, where Jesus asks the question, “Which of you, by worrying, can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?”
I’m not saying that there is no place for security. In our country and culture, there is a delicate balance between security and freedom, and we do give up some freedoms in exchange for security. We also give up some security in exchange for freedom. Like I said, it’s a delicate balance–but fear and worry tend to tip the balance away from freedom, where reason and compassion and charity are required to bring things back in balance, and keep them that way.
I find it meaningful (and a bit ironic) that this point is driven home by, of all people, an insurance lawyer. Insurance is essentially the business of selling security to people. And yet, Donovan points out a paradox early in the film: Without limits to liability–or in other words, without limits to that security–insurance (hence security) would not exist, and no one would be truly safe.
Bridges and Walls
Bridge of Spies is a story built around a prisoner exchange. Abel’s life is spared by the court when Donovan points out that Americans have spies, too, and they can be captured, and how would we want “our guys” to be treated by the Russians? In other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
But the movie goes beyond this simple one-for-one exchange: Donovan and Abel–who, in the midst of the cold war should be enemies–show kindness to one another, and so build a relationship that sets the groundwork for everything that happens later. They tear down a wall that separates them, and they build a bridge instead (perhaps the real “bridge of spies”).
Before the “golden rule” in Luke 6, Jesus gives additional instructions: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” In other words, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is just a minimum standard. The real challenge–and the real reward–comes with going above and beyond that, going the extra mile. For what it’s worth, James Donovan is asked to secure the release of one American…and he manages to secure two. In the closing credits, we learn (true story) that later in his life he negotiates with Fidel Castro for the release of 1,113 prisoners from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. He ends up securing the release of 9,703 prisoners in all. As James Donovan’s character says several times throughout the film, “Every person matters.”
And this, I believe, is the critical message of Bridge of Spies: Sometimes, love (and humanity) asks more of us than just an even exchange.
Sometimes we are asked to asked to go beyond a cold, photographic view of the situation, and paint a more charitable portrait of the person (or people) across the table from us.
Sometimes we are asked to risk our personal safety and security just a little bit more, in order that more people can have a little bit more freedom.
Sometimes we spies and lawyers… we capitalists and communists… we Republicans and Democrats… we Christians and Muslims… we citizens and immigrants…
Sometimes we are asked to tear down the walls that divide us, and build bridges instead.