(M) Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan

By Mark Hadley

Don’t be misled by the advertising for Bridge of Spies. Based only on the trailers, the average movie viewer would conclude that Tom Hanks was starring in a 1950s spy thriller. There are spies aplenty in Bridge of Spies but this drama is closer to epic historical lessons such as Thirteen Days and Lincoln. Steven Spielberg has constructed a story that focuses clearly on the beauty of faithfulness when all the world is determined to set inconvenient beliefs aside.

Hanks plays the real-life character James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who was asked to give a Soviet spy the pretence of a fair trial. In 1957, America is in the grip of Cold War fever and Donovan reluctantly accepts the burden of defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). He comes under immense pressure from his firm, family and the CIA to set aside his scruples - as well as his client’s rights - for the sake of the ‘greater good’:

“We need to know what he’s saying. Don’t go all Boy Scout on me. There’s no rulebook here.”

But Donovan believes there is a rulebook, beginning with the American Constitution. From the outset he pushes back against the assumption that Abel’s trial is a mere formality. He reminds the bench of the Supreme Court that a victory over the Russians cannot come at the expense of the very freedoms their nation stands for:

“Who we are – is this not the greatest weapon he have in this Cold War? Will we not stand by our cause as resolutely as he does his?”

But Bridge of Spies has a deeper resonance for Christians. Beyond the challenge to deliver justice for all, even to our enemies, is the powerful witness of a man who holds to his beliefs even in the face of public vilification and personal conflict. Donovan’s son lives in fear of an atomic war and his daughter is terrified by those who hate her father’s stand. Confronted by those closest to him, Donovan’s wife urges him to put his family before his principles.

Bridge of Spies powerfully reminded me of the many Christians I have met who patiently endure the disappointment, criticism and even hostility of family and friends because they choose to put Jesus first. Like their response, Donovan’s is reasonable, reassuring but unflinching. It's actually a good model for believers who are confronting well-meaning persecution.

The drama steps up a notch when the Soviets choose Donovan as an intermediary in the exchange of Abel for the US pilot of a downed spy plane. Now it’s the pressure of a good result that pushes Donovan to abandon his principles.

Once again, the Christian parallels struck me. While Christians are not risking a man being tortured behind the Iron Curtain, we are operating under the pressure of souls that might be lost for eternity. This good cause can tempt us to be more compromising than we should be. Less forthright with the challenges of the Gospel. But the Bible reminds us God sees deeper than our explanations, often to the fear of humans that sits beneath our excuses:

“All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” 1

I won’t give the ending of Bridge of Spies away, but I will say Spielberg has crafted a conclusion that brought this hardened film critic to tears. There is a look a woman gives to her faithful man that is absolutely priceless – worth all of the suffering.

I can only hope Jesus will give us the same when we stand before Him, having kept the faith in His cause.

1 Proverbs 16:2, NIV