Is Hollywood helping to change attitudes to the Cold War?

A Bridge of Spies is a timely reminder that East-West relations in the Cold War can be viewed now with the perspective of history. This is not always in the West’s favour.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
11 February 2016


, CC BY 2.0

Some children are glimpsed climbing over a wall. Then the train passes on its way from Brooklyn to Manhattan. An everyday morning scene for an insurance lawyer on his way to work. But this lawyer has undertaken a difficult mission abroad for his government at the time the Berlin Wall was built as, more or less literarily, an iron curtain. A banal scene of young people scrambling over a wall had an unmistakable poignancy for the recently returned lawyer [a real life character] played by Tom Hanks in A Bridge of Spies.

Well crafted, the film suffers from the usual Spielberg sentimentality and one or two movie clichés. But there’s substance in this film, not least from some excellent acting. And the recreation of East Berlin in 1960 looks authentic. Some trouble has been taken not only for this to look authentic but to feel so. 

It is a good role for Tom Hanks, the regular guy with whom ordinary people can and do identify. He is not Cary Grant. He’s the man who’d like to be Cary Grant, but knows he isn’t.  In this film he is sent to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. He speaks to a very senior KGB officer pretending to be a diplomat. The situation is dangerous. At one point Hanks is arrested. If things do go badly the American government cannot help him.

It’s a true story, and so it appears. Hanks is no suave, tough James Bond. The KGB officer is not a shaven-headed weirdo stroking a white cat. He seems reasonable, and it turns out that he is. When he explains that the Soviet Union has limited authority in East Germany he is speaking the truth. He will see what he can do. He keeps his word.

The film is largely from the American lawyer’s point of view. Interestingly, Donovan, the lawyer, has  respect for Abel the Soviet spy whom the Americans are prepared to let go in return for one of their own in Soviet hands. Abel wins not only Donovan’s respect but some sympathy. He is not in Donovan’s eyes a traitor; he is a soldier with a cause he is prepared to die for. Abel walks across the bridge to the Soviet sector with dignity. Donovan returns home a trusted public servant whom future presidents will use.

A balanced account of these persons and events is more than we could have expected even at this distance in time. A Bridge of Spies is admirably non-judgemental. Hard to believe this has come from the heart of Hollywood. Or perhaps it is not so remarkable. Before the actual film there was a trailer for Trumbo, another true story. It is the story of Dalton Trumbo, a victim of McCarthyism who fought the blacklist and won. His victory came with Spartacus. In A Bridge of Spies Tom Hanks pauses outside of Berlin cinema showing, by chance, Spartacus. [By chance or design that film is now being re-released.] Memories of the blacklist haunt Hollywood to this day. The list of suspects, some of whom suffered dismissal, disgrace and jail, shows that almost nobody was immune from the threat.

To be radically aware was to be a doctrinaire socialist. To be that was to be a communist.A few years ago Goodnight and Good Luck [directed with conviction by George Clooney] opened the eyes of a new generation to the nature of the closed society America was in the Cold War. To be radically aware was to be a doctrinaire socialist. To be that was to be a communist. To be a communist was to be an agent of the Soviet Union. You were wickedly seeking to undermine and destroy the ‘free world’ [sic]. In Clooney’s film suspicion falls on someone who dedicates his book to "the British scholar Harold Laski". This is proof of subversive intentions. Laski was a much-respected public intellectual, a member of the Labour party’s national executive, and JFK’ s personal tutor at the LSE. Were the FBI watching Senator John Kennedy? Probably. Yes, we may be sure.

For twenty-five years it has been permissible to say anything about the USSR. It need not be fact-checked. It need not be equitable for it to be acceptable. You can ignore all the positives with impunity because history is written by the victors. For every Orlando Figes there are a hundred casual commentators sniggering all the way to undeserved respect for their betrayal of intellect.

But a balanced view may judge that some positive gains were lost along with all the evident and unacceptable negatives. The ‘empire of evil’ is a phrase that now echoes sourly as we see the world being made in the name of freedom and democracy. We may contrast McCarthyism in America with the contemporaneous Soviet Thaw. The contrast may not favour America, and so in place of an unfavourable truth we find frequent and obsessive reference to Stalin as if he had been overthrown in 1991 when the truth is he died in 1953.

It is useful to remember that slavery in the USA was well within living memory when Stalin began his tyrannical purges. Segregation in the USA was a reality when Stalin died. Then there was Hiroshima and Vietnam, not to mention numerous other dubious, not to say criminal, acts of war, intervention or subversion. Do we need reminding of the Depression, continuing inequality, poverty and public squalor? Not to mention the penal system with more Afro-Americans in jail now than once there were slaves.

Yes, time has enabled some faint glimmer of perspective by which Cold War attitudes may be judged. The collapse of the USSR has not brought ‘freedom and prosperity to millions’ (the phrase is Thatcher’s). It has brought chaos, civil war, grotesque social injustice and a punitive state. Much of eastern Europe has gone backwards with the failure of the Soviet experiment. The euphoria that accompanied the dismantling of the Berlin Wall was universal, but it soon evaporated. Any notion of making good the promises of governments that claimed to follow Lenin was ignored. What we have instead are black marketers in charge of the gangster state. Real, existing capitalism.

No sane person would feel nostalgia for Stalin.No sane person would feel nostalgia for Stalin. Many, however, remain perplexed and alarmed by the moral and political failure of the USSR. This is counter-balanced by a permissible admiration for those brave Western idealists of the Cold War. They sought to change the world through a folk-Marxism that arose from dire need to meet a generous hope for humanity. For their idealism they were branded with the iron intolerance of ignorant, self- righteous philistines.

Admiration or even approval of the Soviet bloc was diminished by undeniable realities. But Marxism retained its influence as a lodestone of social and moral thinking. North American reactionaries needed to look southward to view another Marxism, one that could enter into dialogue with sympathetic minds outside the bounds of the materialist dialectic. To view ‘Communism’ as a monolithic orthodoxy, if not a conspiracy, of sinister oppression is to be unaware of a history of ideas and actualities beyond the imagination of one-dimensional man.

The intolerance (which was much larger than Senator McCarthy) succeeded because self-preservation silenced some and encouraged others to betray their friends. I should like to think that would not be the case today. But, given the level of conformity expected of free citizens of Western liberal democracies, a conformity achieved by unspoken assent, who knows? Dare any of us say unequivocally we would risk everything by refusing to answer the questions put to us? Dare any of us be certain we would not betray colleagues, even friends, if we thought they were guilty of dangerous allegiances? ‘Goodnight and hard luck,’ may be the most the herd will say before looking straight ahead when a disgraced victim begs for our help. History is not written by the defeated, so who knows?

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