1. Bridge of Spies is effective, efficient, compelling, smart and absorbing throughout, and I still couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. I think we’re starting to lose the Spielberg who was a risk-taker. The guy did exist, you know. After he won his last Oscar for directing Saving Private Ryan in 1998—a movie that, other than the unnecessary prologue and coda, takes a fair share of risks itself—Spielberg’s career took a turn for the weird, and fascinating. He tried to morph his style with Stanley Kubrick’s (a man who was his total opposite as a filmmaker) with A.I.; an ambitious tackling of Philip K. Dick in Minority Report; two quick-and-dirty crowd pleasers (Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal); an exploration of violence and vengeance and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Munich; and a 9/11 allegory in War of the Worlds that is almost overwhelmingly powerful and, I’d argue, one of his absolute best films until it falls apart in the last 15 minutes. Spielberg was making movies fast and furious back then, with a smaller crew and more flexibility to help the old dog try some new tricks. Not all of those movies are great, but there’s a life to them, an energy, sort of Spielberg the artist finally merging with Spielberg the unofficial caretaker of childhood, a way for one of the great American filmmakers to be young again, forever. And then he coughed out Indiana Jones 4 as a favor to George Lucas, and it all fell apart.
2. That’s not to say that Spielberg hasn’t done anything good since then—I’ll maintain that Lincoln is a solid and uncompromising a biopic as you’ll see—but he’s no longer trying to pretend he’s a young man. Spielberg is as preternaturally talented a filmmaker as he’s ever been, but that little spark, that wonder about the world, that impish grin, it’s gone. Spielberg has accepted his place, at the age of 68, as elder statesman, and it sort of like learning that E.T., when he made it home, became an insurance salesman with a Dodge Stratus. Even Spielberg’s terrible movies (there have been a few) have moments of awe and effortless watchability, but he’s becoming crankier, even a little conservative, in his advanced age. Bridge of Spies is a crackling little thriller, but it’s also a safe, conventional one. It’s the first time Spielberg feels like an old fogey. It feels like an acceptance that he’s not a filmmaker for kids, anymore, but rather for their grandparents.
3. Bridge of Spies takes place during the Cold War, a time of extreme suspicion between the United States and the Soviet Union, a time of McCarthyism and the Red Scare and the sense that anyone, your neighbor or your teacher, could be a secret spy whose nefarious espionage will end up in nuclear war if you don’t stop him. Into this maelstrom comes Brooklyn insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a partner at a big firm who is approached by the government to provide an “honest” defense of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an accused Soviet spy. The government expects Donovan to just roll over, but a sense of professional pride and a deep belief in the Constitution forces Donovan to give Abel the best defense possible, much to the detriment of his professional reputation and his family’s safety. The case doesn’t go well, but he does earn not just the trust of Abel, but also of the government, which deputizes him to head to Berlin and negotiate the release of an American pilot shot down over enemy lines, using Abel as bait. The second half of the movie is a tense standoff between Donovan, and the U.S. government, and the East Germans, and the Soviets, and the whole time Donovan has a cold and laments repeatedly about how he just wants to go home and get to bed.
4. This is all affecting and well-done and you’ll never be bored; Spielberg could make a web design meeting interesting. But none of it’s particularly surprising either. Donovan is a prince of a guy from the second we meet him; characters take turns describing his heroism from different perspectives, including one perhaps who just flat out says, “You will always get back up when knocked down.” He also has a habit of espousing altruistic American ideals when challenged, which, while inspirational, often makes him feel like he’s giving a speech rather than having a casual drink with a colleague. This is doubled-down by casting Hanks, who’s as great as he usually is (and does everything he can to downplay Donovan’s heroism, which of course makes him look even more heroic) but is a singularly uninspired choice for such a part. The fun of a movie like this can often be found in a morally compromised but good-hearted sort being pushed to his (or her, rarely) limit for injustice and responding by discovering their courageous beacon within. But the minute we see Hanks, we know he’s going to be the moral center of the movie, because he’s Tom Hanks. The movie then takes every path we expect it to. I wonder if a more slippery actor, maybe a Christian Bale, or a Robert Downey Jr., might have been a better choice. After all, even Oskar Schindler seems like a jerk at first.
5. The strongest relationship in the movie is between Donovan and Abel, who earns Donovan’s respect for his modesty and his unwavering loyalty to his home country, even when he knows he likely won’t be welcomed back, if he’s ever to actually return. The movie wisely never pretends Abel isn’t completely guilty of the crimes he’s accused of him but also doesn’t damn him for it; Spielberg’s more interested in pointing out the human perils of a culture of secrets than taking any particular side, a viewpoint that is admirable and also maybe a little too on the nose than you’d like. This is aided greatly by Rylance’s warm, comfortable performance, the firmest human connection in a movie that’s colder and a little more withholding than your average Spielberg movie. This is a movie you admire for its craftsmanship—particularly a wordless 10-minute opening sequence that sets up everything you need to know—and applaud its earnestness, but are never truly electrified by. It’s a movie whose undeniable professionalism essentially invites you to say, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” And they don’t. But I’m not sure that’s quite as much of a compliment as Spielberg wants it to be.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.