I rarely go to movies. Not for any particular reason. The medium simply doesn’t find its way into my life on regular intervals. Besides, I get all the popular entertainment I need just observing this frenetic little political universe I inhabit.
Once in a while, though, I’ll take in a movie, as I did recently in watching “Bridge of Spies.” As something of an aficionado of Cold War history, the premise of the film piqued my interest — the story surrounding the exchange of convicted Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (actually named William Fisher) for Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union, and Frederic Pryor, an American economics student held by the East Germans.
I left the theater thinking it was a wonderful movie, an opinion I still hold. On reflection, the film does have some difficulties. Although not as explicitly as Hollywood is capable, the film flirted with the myth of Soviet-American equivalence. The character of Abel/Fisher was largely portrayed, though brilliantly so, as rather sympathetic — a guy just doing his job for his country, the “good soldier.” One can’t help but wonder if the equivalent character would be treated with the same felicitousness were the movie depicting a captured Nazi spy or Waffen SS officer.
Along the same artery, much of the first half of the film was written as though it could serve double duty as an ACLU commercial, rhapsodizing as it did the efforts of the main character, James Donovan, to vigorously defend the Soviet agent in court. It’s one thing — and an important thing — to apply (and display) the inherent benefits of the American system. But at times it came off as sanctimonious cocaine for those who harbor a fanatical view of the Fourth and Fifth amendments. Again, one wonders if such zeal would be celebrated if the constitutional provisions at play happened to be the Second Amendment or free exercise clause of the First amendment.
About half way through the movie, the tenor started to change. It seemed to begin with the Soviets’ treatment of Powers, which certainly didn’t include any heroic efforts to provide a fair trial. Once the action moved to East Berlin, the juxtaposition between the communist East and free West was difficult to miss. The film depicted the construction of the Berlin Wall and the fate of those who tried to breach it in desperate bids to escape. By the end of the movie, set back in the U.S., the dichotomy was almost palpable, and the moral supremacy of the U.S. over the communist bloc was unmistakable.
It might not have been “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” or an American Cold War version of “Henry V” with John Wayne as the title character. But “Bridge of Spies” ultimately makes the case the Cold War wasn’t merely an international difference in opinion gone berserk, but a fundamental struggle between right and wrong. Impressive for a Hollywood production.
I have always struggled, if that’s the word, with a somewhat tin ear for pop culture. But its influence on politics is undeniable. The effect has been a certain sense of reductionism — the vulgar aesthetic replacing the substantive.
Up north, for instance, Justin Trudeau was just elected prime minister. By any substantive measure, Stephen Harper was one of the best Canadian PMs in recent times. His policies cemented Canada as the strongest economy in the G7, the military was stronger and more effective and Canada’s position internationally was respected. But Canadians threw that all away for a drama teacher whose good looks and pop culture persona won out over solid policy and principle.
In the presidential drama unfolding down here, similar signs are evident. In many ways, Donald Trump almost defines American pop culture. Hillary Clinton relies successfully, it seems, on her cultivated celebrity status to remain Democratic front-runner despite the now-evident pattern of behavior that ought to have long since disqualified her. Her closest challenger, Bernie Sanders, proudly espouses economic views just as delusional as those held by the Soviet Union, yet manages to ride his brand of quirky populism to large turnouts and decent poll numbers.
I left the movie theater feeling pretty good about my adoptive country. “Bridge of Spies” edified the fact that America, her system, traditions, institutions and way of life were, and are, superior, by far and on every level, to that of her enemies.
I can only hope Americans will walk away from the polls in a year secure in the knowledge they just handed the presidency over to someone worthy of leading such a country.