At this point, you could probably fill a History of War book with DVDs of Steven Spielberg films. He tacked the brutality and atrocity of the second world war in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, while parading a War Horse through the first. However, the inspiration for Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s latest fable of human conflict carries over from his previous film, Lincoln, more than anything else. It’s a movie concerned more with the people pulling the strings of the conflict than the combat itself. In other words, Spielberg has made quite a few films like Bridge of Spies at this point. While that experience certainly accounts for how ably this story is told, it might also have something to do with why it ultimately comes across more as an obscure history question that goes forgotten once the test is over.
The story opens in America during the thick of the conflict with immigrant Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) being detained. He’s suspected of being a Russian spy sent to disclose information about the American nuclear weapons. Although practically the entire government and justice system is ready to convict him right off the bat, they begrudgingly appoint insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to represent him. Fortunately, Donovan is a caring soul who wants to adhere to the law more than anything else, fighting hard to ensure that Abel does not receive the death penalty on suspicious evidence. The results of this trial ultimately coincide to something of a parlay being required when American pilot/spy Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured in Berlin. Desperate to get their own man back, the government sends Donovan to Berlin to ensure that a potential trade goes smoothly.
When it comes the sheer craftsmanship that makes up its backbone, Bridge of Spies is rock solid. Spielberg’s direction is always extremely skillful, even in a more subdued story like this. So many filmmakers would be tempted to drown this kind of story into an endless exposition dump where the audience is only taken into the world by what a bunch of talking heads are saying. Spielberg on the other hand is as aggressively visual as possible, and while the film does have a great deal of chatter, the scenes that don’t use dialogue at all are often the most effective. This is particularly evident in the opening sequence, where Abel realizes his captors are following him through his daily routine with hardly a word being said. It’s beautifully shot, slightly disorienting, and sets the tone of paranoia that sets in through the rest of the story.
Even with it’s often stronger visual storytelling, the film certainly isn’t a slouch in the more theatrical department. The screenplay by Matt Charman along with Joel and Ethan Coen often really pops with sharp dialogue that keeps a film that is essentially a series of negotiations from getting stale. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have Hanks in the lead, who exerts his natural likability in full force as the persistent and optimistic Donovan. Mark Rylance is also fantastic as the captured Russian operative, who no matter what horrific situation he finds himself in, never seems to let himself get worried. There are some characters that don’t work however. Most notably wonky is Amy Ryan as Hanks’ wife, a character so stiffly and idiotically written one might wonder what Hanks’ wildly intelligent character is doing with her at all. Also, while the script goes out of it’s way to make the ancillary characters in it’s initial courtroom set half colorful, it gets a little lazy once Hanks gets to Berlin, the people he runs into seeming more like robotic villains with one simple goal in mind.
In fact, robotic can unfortunately describe quite a bit of this film. While it’s certainly never anywhere near a bad film, it seems like Spielberg essentially has IKEA directions on how to make a film like this, and is just following them to a tee. Very little here is particularly innovative, even when masterfully assembled. As such, it can often feel like a bit of a slog that is just trying to recount the events without really drawing the audience in emotionally. This is most notable in the transition from the first half of the film to the second. The story essentially glosses over Abel’s court case to get Hanks to Berlin. While this at first seems like judicious pacing on Spielberg’s part, the film then essentially becomes over an hour of very one sided tug of war conversations that could have easily been cut a little bit. It seems much too stretched out to justify it’s two hour and twenty minute run-time, needing to either be much tighter all around or expanded in all areas.
Bridge of Spies is by any standard recipe, a very good film. However, it’s hyper-traditional storytelling make it feel like just that, a recipe. While well acted, directed, and written, it doesn’t have the emotional charge that make so many of Spielberg’s classics so impactful. If anything, it’s a sign that the seasoned director needs to get away from this kind of story for a little while, and go back to his more playful roots with his upcoming projects The BFG and Ready Player One. For now though, this movie will certainly serve as above average background noise for many family nights over medium rare steak dinners when it inevitably lands on TV, but don’t expect Spielberg to be crossing the bridge to the Oscar stage anytime soon.