The character of Atticus Finch, from the movie To Kill A Mockingbird based on the American literary classic of the same title, was elected in 2003 “the greatest hero of all American cinema” by the American Film Institute – ahead of Indiana Jones and James Bond in the ranking. In the story, Finch is appointed by a judge to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, and stands up against his aggressively racist neighbors in Depression-era Alabama to carry out his task as best as he can and with unshakable integrity. Played by screen legend Gregory Peck in the 1962 film version and inspired by author Harper Lee‘s father, Finch is said to have had an actual impact on the U.S. legal system.
Fast-forward to 2015, and we encounter another screen great playing a Finch-type character, also inspired by a real-life lawyer, this time in Cold War-era America: Tom Hanks stars in Bridge of Spies as James B. Donovan, an attorney called upon by the U.S. government to defend a man accused of being a Soviet spy on U.S. soil. Like Finch, Donovan stands up for someone deeply marginalized in society, navigating a minefield of hostility, hatred and hysteria that could have cost his life and even that of his family. He puts his professional integrity above all.
The issue here is that the suspect, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), is only supposed to be given the appearance of due process as a show for the Soviets; the government, the judge, the jury and the public all expect Abel to be sentenced to death at his “trial.” But Donovan is of the opinion that Abel as a foreign national deserves the same defense as an American criminal would, that enough evidence should be brought against him to warrant his conviction, and that he should not die. This is relevant in today’s society, in a time when Guantanamo is still open and when hostility, hatred and hysteria grow over terrorism suspects. SPOILER ALERT if you’re not familiar with the late Donovan’s work: Interestingly, the real-life Donovan was at one point connected to Cuba and the release of prisoners after the foiled Bay of Pigs Invasion, his performance in Abel’s case leading him further afield in Cold War mediations.
The suspected spy in the movie is presented to us, and perceived by Donovan, as a human being rather than a dehumanized enemy: We find out that Abel is a talented painter and a stoic, courageous man also unable to be cracked.
He and Donovan can relate to each other; their mutual respect, admiration and even affection become evident as they gradually grow. My favorite scenes in the movie involve the development of the relationship between attorney and client – besides the scenes set in grim Berlin around the construction of the Wall. I see the other characters in the movie, the supporting cast, as having been a bit underdeveloped.
I also had trouble seeing Tom Hanks not as Tom Hanks but as Donovan in the first few scenes of the movie; however, as I got more into the plot, I felt that the star melted more into the character he was playing. I don’t think Donovan has the potential to become the most memorable character in Tom Hanks’s career (it would be tough to top Forrest Gump anyway), but the role suited him well (the good-hearted protagonist being his trademark, at different degrees of complexity). It remains to be seen whether Donovan will become an acclaimed American movie hero some years from now, like Finch before him.