Steven Spielberg’s filmography is frequently divided into two camps – popcorn movies and more serious films. He’s shown mastery of both halves with titles like Jaws, Minority Report, Schindler’s List, and Munich, but on occasion he’s also shown that his work doesn’t always subscribe to that binary system. Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, and A.I. balanced both halves with varying success, and his latest aims for that same target. By the time the end credits roll Bridge of Spies is smelling more like warm buttered popcorn than prestige, but it sure does go down easy.
It’s 1957, the Cold War is at its chilliest, and the Americans have captured a Soviet spy in New York City. In the interest of presenting the appearance of fair trial, the government “asks” insurance attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) against the charges. A speedy trial and a foregone conclusion are the order of the day even as the public takes a dim view of Donovan’s efforts to defend a dirty Commie, but history intervenes when American pilot Gary Powers is shot down in his U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. Once again the kindly, patriotic lawyer is tasked with helping Uncle Sam with little hope of recognition. He has to negotiate a prisoner trade against restrictive odds and threats to his freedom and safety, and to make matters worse he might be getting a cold.
Bridge of Spies is every inch a Spielberg film. To be clear, this is not a criticism.
Meticulous production design brings the world of the late ’50s to glorious life both here and abroad. Exquisite period detail creates a believable minutiae while CG-assisted, smartly-captured wide shots (courtesy of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) complete the illusion of living, breathing societies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Performances are exemplary with everyone following Hanks’ lead as an affable everyman simply doing his job so he can get back home to his own bed and pillow. Grand ideas are massaged into visible themes and edits designed to discourage accusations of too much subtlety.
It’s Spielberg as entertainer with only the thinnest veneer of importance in place to grey out the brightness of the sun, and make no mistake, this is an immensely entertaining film. Warmth and humor settle around every corner and character with a name as even the most serious American agents and Soviet officials are meant to be liked despite their actions. Similarly, the heaviness of the situation seems more like a suggestion than a reality.
“As things are now, everyone is in danger,” says one character in the know, but despite his words no one ever really feels like they’re in danger. It’s a true-ish story so some viewers may go in knowing the outcome, but even those in the dark will remain comfortably in their seats without ever being tempted to move to the edge in fear of what may befall a certain character or two. It’s entirely playful and rarely feels serious even though it clearly should be. Nothing gets Donovan down including freezing temperatures, muggings, and the threat of disillusionment, and Hanks’ unstoppable charm fills the man and the screen with an endlessly appealing mix of humor, persistence, and ideals. We care – we’re not concerned, but we can’t help but care.
The script (by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen) does create some obstacles immune to Spielberg’s and Hanks’ talents though, and they rear their head whenever Donovan and Abel are off-screen. Like a lesser (much, much lesser) Munich, the film makes an effort to show the futility inherent in the back and forth acts of war and subterfuge between nations. It’s something of a mixed message here though as the script takes every opportunity to contrast East and West with the very clear message that we were (are?) the good guys against the true evils of Communism. Excessive and unnecessary time is also spent with Powers prior to his capture, and the introduction of another American who’s added to the prisoner mix lacks the adrenaline present in scenes featuring Hanks and/or Rylance.
Bridge of Spies is big, character-fueled fun filled with laughs, warmth, and light moments of suspense. We’re told it’s a serious film, but we’re shown an entertaining one. There are far worse crimes against humanity.
The Upside: Beautiful production design; fantastic performances from all involved; warmly humorous; nice touch of no subtitles reaching Donovan’s ears
The Downside: Clearly serious but barely feels it; lacks weighted complexity