By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster
For those of us of a certain age ‘Bridge of Spies’ is a trip down memory—or nightmare—lane. We remember seeing TV news film of East German border guards shooting and killing people trying to flee to the west.
We both remember the “duck and cover” films and drills in grade school. As you watch this movie you see how absurd they were given the power and force of the nuclear weaponry we were scared would be used by the Russians.
Steven Spielberg has captured in this film what it felt like to live at height of the Cold War. Tom Hanks is a standout in a standout character. We get the sense that insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) is enjoying his life (meatloaf and mashed potatoes) in a New York law firm when he’s tapped to be the defense attorney for suspected spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).
Donovan is vilified by the public for defending Abel. His law partners try to badger him into backing down as he stands up for his client, who is, after all, a spy, to give him a proper defense as guaranteed by the Constitution.
While this story is unfolding so, too, is the selection and training of U.S. pilots to fly a spy plane over the air space of the USSR, specifically the U-2 aircraft that can reach the edge of space. We see Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a loyal American pilot from Kentucky, get shot down over Russia and the stage is set for our complete story. This is a handy juxtaposition as we see Americans all but yelling, “Crucify him” as accused spy Rudolf Abel appears in a U.S. court room. Meanwhile the USA’s own prepare for a spy mission at 70,000 feet over Russia.
Only two overt references to God show up. One is in a shouting crowd scene when Abel gets what some thought was a light sentence. “He’s a spy, for God’s sake,” yells one man hoping for the death penalty. We were at war with the Soviet Union, albeit without guns and troops facing one another, and tension was high on both sides. The other was in a classroom where grade school students recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The words, “under God,” were added by Congress in 1954, a direct result of the Cold War with those “godless” communists.
But it’s Hanks’ character of Donovan who exhibits the qualities of integrity and courage of one’s convictions that speak to the heart of any person of faith. As Jesus says in Luke (12:49-53) sometimes being loyal to your faith will cause division among our closest friends and even our family.
After all, the real heroes of this film are courage and commitment. They command the lives of the primary characters. It is in the courage and commitment incarnate in Donavan, Abel and Powers who, each in their own way, hold to a truth more profound than political dogma, or wars or even life and death. Courageous acts, fueled by unbridled commitment, is the truth we witness in this film. That is where we see the face of God.
(Full disclosure: Francis Gary Powers was a colleague of Dan’s at NBC in Burbank, California. He was a quiet, unassuming, funny and genuinely nice guy. Powers was flying the KNBC Telecopter on August 1, 1977, returning from covering a fire near Santa Barbara when his helicopter ran out of fuel. Also killed was George Spears, the camera operator who sat in the back seat.)
Bonnie Anderson is a very active lay leader in her parish, diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church. She is an experienced community organizer and lives in suburban Detroit. Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest in Baltimore, Maryland and a former broadcast news executive. But don’t expect only east coast urban perspectives here. As it turns out, they both grew up in Southern California. They blog about films and faith at Faith Reels.