Steven Spielberg’s new film about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 has two themes. The first is in the main plot of the film: journalism as a crucial safeguard against official secrecy and abuse of power. The second, which is barely touched on, is the corruption of journalists who protect powerful people and interests due to friendships or political bias.
Spy novels and movies of the last 50 years have relied upon certain conventions—the foggy, wind-swept streets, trench-coated figures leaning against lamp posts, and knife fights in alleys. During the Cold War, Berlin was certainly uber-noir, its spookiness symbolized by a Berlin Wall decorated with barb-wire and patrolled by gorilla-faced guards.
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies does not neglect any of these old reliables. Everyman Tom Hanks, playing the real-life lawyer and World War II intelligence veteran James Donovan, bears witness to escapees being machine-gunned, walks dark alleys where he is being tracked by the CIA or the Stasi, or both. Here cynicism reigns, and Hanks, channeling Jimmy Stewart as the Caprasque patriotic go-it-alone hero, is regarded as a naïve “boy scout” by a heartlessly pragmatic CIA.