There’s a level of comfort that sets in every time I watch a Steven Spielberg film. Call it bias or whatever you want but it’s a feeling born out of 40 years of trust —from Jaws to Raiders of the Lost Ark to E.T. to Jurassic Park. Though he has come up short on occasion (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and War Horse are recent examples), more often than not, we know that when we watch a Spielberg film that we’re in the arms of a master storyteller who knows exactly what he’s doing.
Bridge of Spies, the legendary filmmaker’s 29th feature film, his first since the Oscar-winning Lincoln in 2012, is Spielberg back in the “serious” mode that served him well on pictures like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich. Like Lincoln, this is a deliberately understated drama in which the action is confined to conversations between middle aged men in dark and chilly rooms. Words, not bullets are what keeps the drama brewing. Again, like Lincoln, this is a film about standing firm and doing the right thing, even if it’s unpopular and stands to make you a pariah. If this makes it sound staunchly old fashioned and patriotic, it’s probably because it is. But don’t mistake this old-fashioned flavor for dull. On the contrary, this is a movie that proves that even a story about the art of diplomacy can be thoroughly engrossing, funny and enjoyable when you have the right filmmaking team behind it.
Working off an eloquent and jaunty screenplay by playwright Mark Charman and the Coen brothers (yes, those Coens), Bridge of Spies is based on true events that took place in 1957, during the height of the paranoia-soaked Cold War. Tom Hanks (in his fourth collaboration with Spielberg) stars as James Donovan, a successful insurance attorney in New York who is given the thankless job of defending Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a man who we meet during the film’s suspenseful, near-wordless opening sequence. Although Abel is an enemy spy, the government decides that he is nevertheless deserving of legal counsel, never mind the fact that it’s all for show—to prove that in our democracy, even enemies receive fair trials.
What they underestimate is the idealism and passion that Donovan brings to the case in his defense. What should have been an open-shut case becomes a major annoyance when Donovan argues that Abel is simply a man doing his civic duty, even taking the case to the Supreme Court to fight his cause. While he knows that there’s no chance he’ll win the case, he hopes that his argument will allow his client to avoid a death sentence. Donovan even wages that Abel may come handy in the future, perhaps as leverage against the Soviets.
And wouldn’t you know it, in one of life’s great coincidences, that’s exactly what happens. While flying over Soviet territory on an espionage mission to photograph Soviet military plants, American Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down, captured and paraded in Moscow on television for the world to see. Nervous about the information in Powers head, the U.S. government once again turns to Donovan, this time to negotiate a top secret prisoner swap in unstable East Berlin—Abel for Powers, as well as American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). It’s during this second half that Spielberg shifts gears from courtroom drama to Cold War spy thriller with Donovan having to deal with the Soviets as well as an East German government desperate to prove their place on the world’s stage.
Central in this drama is Hanks, an actor who has had more misses than hits as of late. Larry Crowne anyone? Donovan is a character he could have played in his sleep, the way he did in those god-awful Da Vinci Code movies, but it’s to our benefit that he doesn’t. He plays Donovan as an idealistic man who understands the risks and repercussions that come with defending Abel. Will it cost him his job; his family; his life? How far is he willing to go in the name of doing the right thing? He gives the film its pulse and moral compass. The other standout is British theater actor Mark Rylance who’s sublime and elegantly understated performance as Abel gives the film its heart. This is a man who is an enigma; someone who trades in duplicity and whose real persona we may never know yet Rylance instills a zen-like warmth and calm in him that’s palpable and contagious. When Donovan asks him, why he never looks worried or scared about his impending death, Abel simply replies, “Would it help?”
At this point in his career, Spielberg has nothing to prove. Though naysayers will continue to chide him for the proliferation of blockbuster cinema in our culture, is it his fault that Jaws, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark paved the way for an industry of copycats and corporate yes-men? If it wasn’t evident with War Horse, Lincoln, and even The Adventures of Tintin, it should be clear now that as the Beard transitions into the autumn of his career, he’s choosing projects that are of personal interest to him. So what if they aren’t ground-breaking and marketable? Come to think of it, who else but Steven Spielberg could make a big studio movie about negotiating a prisoner swap? Still, as much as it is a story about the political wrangling between warring nations, Bridge of Spies is also about growing up in an era where paranoia, propaganda and the threat of Communism were lurking around every corner. Every frame of this picture is enveloped in this mood of fear, and Adam Stockhausen’s exquisite art direction and Janusz Kaminski’s icy atmospheric cinematography go a long way towards bringing this era to life.
Bridge of Spies is never going to be mistaken for innovative cinema nor will it be ranked among the upper echelons of Spielberg’s oeuvre when all is said and done. This is the director in his comfort zone, directing his buddy Tom Hanks in one of his “Tom Hanksiest” performances. Yet this is the type of casual brilliance that we take for granted too often. Spielberg’s exemplarity track record means that every time he directs a film, expectations are so stratospheric that if the movie is nothing short of a masterpiece, it gets brushed off as a disappointment, or worse, saddled with condescending labels like “minor” or “mid-tier” Spielberg. Even if it is “minor,” there’s no getting around the fact that this flawlessly acted and beautifully-told drama stands as a bastion for smart and mature entertainment, especially in an era where these types of movies are far and few between. Who knew that the man who pioneered the family blockbuster would one day grow up to make old fashioned adult-oriented dramas?
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Mark Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell
Producer: Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Marc Platt
Running time: 141 minutes
Companies: Dreamworks SKG, Touchstone Pictures
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and brief strong language)