Status anxiety

Fight terror the Indiana Jones way, not the Bridge of Spies way

I’m no fan of Spielberg’s ‘serious’ films — his schlockier work had the best approach to the bad guys

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

I wonder if Steven Spielberg is having second thoughts about Bridge of Spies in light of the attack on Paris? Spielberg’s latest film —released this week and tipped for Oscar glory — is an espionage thriller set at the height of the Cold War with no immediate relevance to the ‘war’ we find ourselves in today. But it contains a strong liberal message about the importance of observing due process when dealing with enemy combatants and prisoners of war.

The hero of Bridge of Spies is James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a straight-arrow insurance lawyer who is asked by the American government to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Brooklyn-based artist who’s been caught spying for the Soviets. The reason Donovan’s been asked to do this, explains the man from the New York Bar Association, is that the government wants Abel to be seen to get a fair trial. Donovan has drawn the short straw because he worked as a prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials, although there’s also a suggestion it’s because he’s not a criminal lawyer and won’t be able to mount a robust defence.

Donovan turns out to be not just a capable lawyer, but a stickler for what he calls ‘the rule book’. There’s a pivotal scene after he’s accepted the case when a CIA agent asks him to pass on any information Abel divulges about his spying. Donovan refuses, citing attorney-client privilege, and the agent counters by arguing that the normal rules don’t apply in this case because it concerns national security. At this point Donovan raises himself to his full height and tells the agent that, on the contrary, they do apply. America’s observance of due process, even when the defendant is an enemy of the state, is what makes it a great country. If you abandon that principle, America’s claim to moral superiority goes out the window.

Spielberg and his screenwriters, Joel and Ethan Coen, are clearly making a point about Guantanamo and the use of lethal force to take out high-value targets — at least, that’s my reading of it. Spielberg’s been down this road before in Munich, his 2005 film about Israel’s response to the slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. It’s far from being a straightforward revenge thriller. On the contrary, the leader of the Mossad team hunting down the terrorists suffers a crisis of conscience and the film’s final shot, featuring New York’s twin towers, implies that the cycle of violence unleashed by the Olympic massacre led directly to 9/11. Spielberg seemed to say that it would have been better if the leaders of Black September hadn’t been assassinated.

I’m not a fan of Spielberg’s serious films — what his fans think of as ‘thoughtful’ and ‘unsettling’, I’d describe as ‘virtue signalling’ — and prefer his earlier, schlockier work. I like the way Indiana Jones deals with the Nazis — no hand-wringing nonsense there about habeas corpus. The existential threat posed to Western civilisation by the Nazis is a recurring theme in Spielberg’s work, even in his more solemn outings, and at no point does he exhibit the same concern for their rights as he does for those of Communist spies or Palestinian terrorists. In this he suffers from a familiar left-wing double standard. He’s happy to toss judicial niceties out the window when it comes to the Allies’ prosecution of the second world war — he accepts the conventional narrative that it was a straightforward battle between good and evil — but is quick to criticise western governments for employing similar tactics against more recent enemies.

I’m not arguing he was wrong about the Nazis, but that he’s mistaken about the Soviets and Islamists. The depiction of Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies is ludicrously sympathetic. He’s portrayed as an honourable man, a man who holds on to his dignity in extremely testing circumstances, and when he praises his defence lawyer for sticking to his principles we’re supposed to treat that as a valuable endorsement. But, really, why should we care what he thinks, given that he’s spying for a regime responsible for the murder of more than 20 million people?

Spielberg’s sympathy for our Islamist enemies is equally misplaced. The struggle we’re engaged in now is every bit as black and white as the second world war and we should no more fight with one hand tied behind our back today than we did then. If we do, our liberal principles will perish alongside our civilisation.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Harrison Foster

    “The struggle we’re engaged in now is every bit as black and white as the second world war”

    Perhaps, but only because the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas is as wrong now as it was then. The difference is we now question whether killing civilians in some far off place is really the best course of action.

    • Gilbert White

      In a true war there are no such things as civilians?

      • Cobbett

        So ‘we’ can ignore the Geneva Convention then?

      • Harrison Foster

        What would you call the people in the World Trade Centre?

    • Johnnydub

      So on the offchance we might kill some civilians, we do nothing.

      Yeah that will protect us from further terrorism and subjugation.

      The choice is our dead civilians or theirs? Your clear choice is ours. Thanks. I’m sure our kids will be overjoyed.

  • ohforheavensake

    Ah, Toby. Bless.

    Not one of the deep thinkers.

  • evad666

    No one ever mentions his Lubbock Lights film.

  • Ivan Ewan

    I would give the Devil his due, but our Compassion Gestapo would have him treated as an Angel of Heaven.

  • JohnJ

    Fascinating. The Hollywood and TV crowd know there is enormous dramatic ( read fame and fortune) potential in the Islamic threat.
    It has it all: covert/overt, young good looking Jihadis with black beards and long hair flying in the desert wind, women cowering in lines to be sold as slaves, rape of the innocent, beheadings, families torn apart, good looking girls giving themselves up for the Jihad, perplexed coppers not knowing how to pronounce Arabic names, little boys holdling up the heads of infidels, Gays being tossed of roofs and stoned by the people, politicians selling their souls, FBI/CIA/SAS/UN/EU, fabulous super high tech jets/aircraft carriers versus Che Guevara lookalikes on their white Toyotas with their AK47s staring at the sky, thousand year old architectural wonders blown up with people strapped to the columns, shady characters, gun runners, heroes throwing themselves at the Jihadi to save the innocent train passengers, more innocent people and little dark eyed children looking at the cameras and crying, multi medallioned Generals and Admirals crying, refugees, refugees and more refugees swimming, crawling ashore, walking through mud, welcomed by glowing Germans with signs, Presidents telling us it is all about climate change ( well maybe not the last bit)….. .
    But what can they do?
    It requires real research, understanding the subtleties and bravery to put out a film that includes Islam or Muslims actually doing what they do in real life. Damnation. Left versus money and threats, threats and money versus lefty causes. Have another Chardonnay and hope that an easier bad guy comes along.

  • Marcus

    “We should arrest habeas corpus and our liberal principles when fighting Islamic terrorism and not fight with one hand tied behind our back.”

    You do realise that the US and UK have engaged in the bombing and killing of 4 million Muslims in the last 15 years?

    We arrested our decency and principles long, long ago.