Bridge of Spies is a first-rate movie, which goes without saying when Spielberg is directing, but it's especially true with this film. It's John Le Carre lite in some ways, with a climactic scene that's virtually an homage to Smiley's People. This one cuts out the spycraft and focuses on the psychological poker game between East and West. In some ways it's superior to Le Carre, because it affirms principle, character, grit and goodness, without the murky moral equivocations of George Smiley's world. It also celebrates the role of the lone individual defying two enormous military states who are involved in a game of chicken with each other. Hanks defies both his American handlers and the Soviet tricksters he faces, and he emerges as a man whose bravery is equaled only by his ability to bet and bluff.
The story centers on an ordinary insurance attorney, played by Tom Hanks, recruited by the U.S. government--with heavy oversight from the CIA--to serve as public defender for a man who is clearly a Soviet spy. His job is to go through the motions of defending a man nearly everyone wants sent to the electric chair. Instead, he does his patriotic duty, per the Constitution, and seriously defends him, thus saving his life. Everyone hates Hanks for this. As a patriot, Hanks relies on his skills as an insurance settlement negotiator, on display at the start of the film. He plants a seed in the judge's mind about what eventually comes true: the need to save their Soviet spy as a bargaining chip if the Soviets ever capture one of ours.
What plays out after this moment clearly shows what it means to be a man of character: to do the right thing when the whole world loathes you for it. There's a bit of Atticus Finch in the role, but Hanks is more of a shrewd wheeler-dealer. During the climactic negotiations for the release of the pilot the U.S.S.R. is holding, with expert precision, he spins future scenarios into the heads of his opponents. And the way he negotiates for two abducted Americans in exchange for one Soviet spy hearkens back to his merging of multiple liabilities into one settlement at the movie's start. Yet what I found most moving were two moments shared by Hanks and the Soviet spy he saves. After Hanks has become a pariah for doing exactly what the rule of law requires of him--as well as human decency--his defendant honors him, in Russian, with the title "standing man." It's shorthand for a man who keeps standing up again and again after being beaten, until the beating stops out of respect. His defendant says it again, at the movie's climax, on the snowy bridge between East and West Germany. Hanks has risked everything on principle and what happens turns on his stubborn adherence to the good. For Hanks, as a result, the public floggings stop. And wonderful things happen.
All of this reminded me continuously of the trade arranged by Congressman Frances Bolton and Dwight D. Eisenhower, an exchange of Soviet spies for my life and my brother's, when we were held by the Soviet-run state of Romania in 1953. It arose out of a similar stubborn hewing to principle. My father and mother refused to become spies for the Soviets in exchange for the release of their children. Instead they took their story of the Soviets' treacherous offer to the free American press. The truth, reported objectively by a politically unbiased press around the world, put pressure on Romania and the Soviets. But it was a terrible risk. They deliberated deeply on whether or not they should put the safety and welfare of this country in jeopardy in order to save the lives of two innocent children they happened to love desperately. They chose principle. They chose the good. They chose absolute values, not situational ethics. There were no guarantees involved: it was a leap of faith whose only comfort was knowing that to betray their country was evil, no matter what might befall them personally as a result. Hanks makes a similar leap of faith, going all-in at the end, in poker terms, because it is simply the right thing to do.
Doing good, doing the right thing, isn't about calculating what you'll get out of it. It's about doing what's right for its own sake. It's the only choice. And getting to the point where you can see that clearly every day, every minute, is the only challenge that matters.
Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.