Worth Fighting For: Suffragette and Bridge of Spies

Nov 5, 2015 by Nickelodeon on The Nickelodeon Blog

When James Donovan (Tom Hanks, under Steven Spielberg’s direction for the first time since The Terminal) asserts to a skeptical room that, “Every person matters,” we realize that this has never been the political case. However obvious it may seem, however much we might fight for it, that it bears repeating only shows how far off equality and justice remain. “Every person matters” is a tantalizing ideal, even a fantasy—one always more real, more acute, more powerfully realized in the average citizen than in the highly-seated officials who could make it reality.

Two new films take it as an axiom of human life, and then show the degree of friction this central principle of society encounters when otherwise unremarkable people find themselves forced to become crusaders. The protagonists of Suffragette and Bridge of Spies lead diligent but unambitious lives: Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) tends to her factory work and her family, James Donovan to insurance law. But around them, the twentieth century ebbs and flows with turbulent wars outside of their control—and sometimes their understanding.

In 1912 London, the movement for women’s suffrage leaves the world of letters and pamphlets and enters the streets. Protests become aggressive and uncompromising. Occasionally they are fatal. Maud Watts had kept her head down, working in the paid industrial and unpaid domestic spheres. Despite her hesitation, she finds herself increasingly drawn to the new public face of feminism: fully human, tangible, a face with muscles. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) slowly radicalizes her, attuning Watts to her disenfranchisement that, though perfectly visible, was visible in the way a ladder without rungs is visible. Director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan frame Watts as a spectator, audience to a fight waged by women with as much to lose as she physically, economically, familially, and psychologically. Political personhood, metonymized by the right to vote, takes on the existential capaciousness of liberated womanhood. The burning education of the real slowly sheds Watts’s hopelessness. In this way, Suffragette decenters the Great Person myth of history. It is not the story of an idol against which one measures one’s own participation in emancipatory movements. Watts exemplifies the process of awakening to the political realities already embedded in society, realities of dissent, objection, desire, and demanding. With a tight focus on the day-to-day of asserting equality to a stubborn government, hostile public, retaliatory police force, and reluctant family, Suffragette is a people’s narrative of the British suffragette movement.

Across the pond and 45 years later (though it sometimes seems generations beyond; the nuclear world is a new place), the CIA appoints insurance lawyer James Donovan to be a Soviet spy’s legal defense. His assignment mushrooms into negotiating a trade with the USSR for a downed US pilot held in the Eastern Bloc. Donovan understands himself to be a fundamentally decent man and a patriot in an era when American patriotism seemed as intuitive as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. But when he’s confronted with the gritty reality of geopolitical compromise, the foundational ideals of American life fall limp like a flag in no wind. He finds himself ostracized for representing the enemy, but sees the right to justice as an inalienable fact of American citizenship.  Bridge of Spies moves from Brooklyn to Berlin during the trial, heaving Donovan to the border of his country that expands itself through wartime deals with an enemy it refuses to fight outright. The atomic bomb looms, the clock ticks, Donovan notices suspicious men in dark coats following him. This is a courtroom drama that plays like a ’70s political thriller in compact and paranoid anamorphic 35mm—and it’s as elegant and tightly constructed as anything Spielberg has ever made. He deploys all-American iconography—flags, Fords, and fedoras—only to suggest that waving the stars and stripes leaves you no energy to fight for those whom no one else will fight for. As the screws tighten on Donovan, personally and geopolitically, Spielberg puts pressure on Donovan’s statement that, “Every person matters.” What would it look like to really believe that?

Suffragette and Bridge of Spies look at two moments in the twentieth century when a person confronted the grand machinery of the state as it challenged human worth. With no training for the damage that comes with a moral conscience, Maud and James are not and do not become heroes. They become best hopes in a global system stacked against the idea that every life matters. They are images of the person who fights for something for no better reason than that it’s worth fighting for.

—Mike Opal