In addition to Tom Hanks’ superb acting, Bridge of Spies is a serious, thought-provoking film that challenges human prejudice and raises the bar on democratic practice. It must have strongly impressed Fortune’s in-house film critic, Christian Tesfaye, who awards it a full 10 out of 10 stars.

As an Ethiopian, the concepts of justice and democracy largely consist of primitive terms such as fair elections and media censorship. A few other countries are light years ahead. They have surpassed the early stages of this egalitarian political system to bring about a novel meaning to what it means to be free and just. They no longer think in terms of nationality but human beings, or just life. It sounds strange to me to hear laws prohibiting animal cruelty; or to learn that a foreign spy can get a fair trial like any criminal suspect by the same country he has been spying on. To them, there is a difference between an enemy to humanity and an enemy to just the state. Would Ethiopia offer an Eritrean spy, caught in our own land, with no extenuating circumstances and no intention of cooperating, the same courtesy?

Bridge of Spies is a long slow-paced film about a middle aged man that stands up to a rigid and bureaucratic system at the expense of his personal welfare. But a description such as this will turn off a lot of people. Instead, I should describe it as a Cold War drama starring Tom Hanks as an American lawyer that fights his way through two powerful governments to do what he believes is right.

The lawyer is called James B. Donovan and the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel. The very first segment of the film is dedicated to Abel. We are shown what a strange but efficient spy he actually is. The scene seems designed to show us how different he is from the protagonist, Donovan (Hanks): the mostly unassuming lawyer who is minding his own business when fate comes knocking at his door. The insurance firm he is working for has been assigned a controversial case, to defend the seemingly cruel Russian spy, and since that firm has no one that knows anything about criminal defense, the job goes to Donovan, who has served at the Nuremberg trials. The film, by the way is based on actual events.

Donovan, at first, is reluctant to accept, as the job could put him in a rather awkward social position of a man defending a spy who belongs to the chief enemy of the US at the height of the Cold War era. But after he accepts, like anyone that loves and respects his job, he gets too involved; perhaps more involved than the ones who hired him expect him to be. He tries to defend Abel like a regular defendant without anticipating the fact that everyone, including the case’s presiding judge, has preconceived ideas of who and what Abel is, way before a verdict has been given.

Donovan, obviously enough, loses the case, but triumphs, and this is a huge triumph, in securing Abel a 30 year sentence instead of the expected capital punishment. He does this by rationalizing that, what happened to a Russian spy might also happen to an American spy. And this predication becomes a prophesy when an American pilot is caught in Russia, and the only thing that keeps this poor pilot from guaranteed death in heavily repressed socialist Russia is the existence of the imprisoned, but alive, Abel. There needs to be barter but not an obvious one. The two Great Nations cannot admit the palpable fact that they have been spying on one another. The exchange of the two spies has to happen through backdoor, and alas, Donovan is again called to the rescue.

Donovan is a sweet, patient, lovable, humorous guy that demands to be played by Hanks from the outset. To me, Hanks has got two faces. One face he had as a youth up to the time he made Forrest Gump, and the other, he acquired since Saving Private Ryan, by putting on a little bit of weight. Through this transition though, he has never lost his charm or acting ability. All his best characters are honest, unpretentious human beings that are drawn into circumstances they never asked for. He is always the hero, not even the anti-hero, and not in the bold and conservatively rugged manner John Wayne was, but in the everyday nice man that Jimmy Stewart radiated.

In the 1970’s, four up and coming Hollywood filmmakers made long lasting contributions to cinema. The first to rise to fame went by the very Italian name of Francis Ford Coppola and before 40, made some of the greatest films of all time: The Godfather, its sequel and Apocalypse Now. The second, with the very catholic name of Martin Scorsese, made the psychologically ambitious films Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The third, George Lucas, simply enough, created the motion picture extravaganza, the Star Wars franchise. The last, but definitely not the least, was Steven Spielberg, by far the most popular filmmaker ever since the great Alfred Hitchcock.

Spielberg first major film was Jaws, which served as the first summer box-office. The film, together with Star Wars, went on to change how films would be marketed forever. He followed that with films like The Color Purple, E.T., the Indiana Jones trilogy and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In 1993, the same year he made another huge mega blockbuster, Jurassic Park, he gave us his most serious film, his magnum opus, Schindler’s List. Since that time, he has made other great films including 2012’s Lincoln. Bridge of Spies is another of his films with the discernable Spielberg touch to it: an optimistic ending, opulent cinematography and an affable protagonist. These values embellish his films and endear them to us, for the subjects the great filmmaker takes on are (like Donovan in the film), so commendable, we wish his characters nothing but a happy ending.

And Bridge of Spies should mean a lot to us Ethiopians, to whom nationality and religion, despite what they may seem to us, play too much of a part in the way we engage in politics. It has always been a taboo to say that we do not like our country or that we are not satisfied with our society’s attitudes. This is not an exclusive symptom of Ethiopians but of every nation in the world. It is always understood that one’s country, whichever country that may be, is the greatest of all and any presidential or prime ministerial candidate that wants to be elected promises, not to serve the needs of human kind, but of the nation’s people whose vote he needs. But I believe, as we develop a higher form of consciousness, we will learn to acknowledge that being human is far greater than being Ethiopian, American, Christian or Muslim. Bridge of Spies is a film that will help us acknowledge this truth.

By Christian Tesfaye

Published on Dec 07,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 814]



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