Steven Spielberg has slowed down a bit in recent years – Bridge of Spies marks his first film since 2012’s Lincoln – but he’s still capable of showing why he’s still a household name. In his prolific career, Bridge of Spies finds itself in an odd place. It’s a beautifully shot film with a strong script that’s also at times wryly humorous. The subject matter is timely. And yet, it feels like a minor Spielberg film compared to some of the weighty subjects he’s captured before, especially those grounded in real-life events.
Bridge of Spies focuses on the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance attorney who finds himself drafted as a defense attorney for KGB agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), then recruited by the CIA to facilitate a trade with the Soviets where Abel will be exchanged for American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Complicating matters, Donovan also wants to free an economics student who found himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall – the issue complicated by the student’s lack of value to the CIA and his imprisonment being at the hands of the East Germans, not the Soviets.
Joel and Ethan Coen are among the script’s cowriters, and their presence helps explain Bridge of Spies more satirical elements. This ranges from anti-Communist shows of anger directed at Donovan and his family to hysterical worries about nuclear power, as well as the overly secretive nature of the spycraft set up by the Soviets and the East Germans. These elements don’t make Bridge of Spies a comedy, though – it just adds a sense of gallows humor to what could be more dire proceedings.
Ultimately, though, the film is distinctively Spielberg’s. It shares themes with both Lincoln and Amistad, where the idealistic potential of America meets the realities of its laws. It helps here that Hanks is playing Donovan; few, if any, other working actors today can pull off the sense of decency Hanks can without it ringing false. Bridge of Spies is also, as most Spielberg films are, immaculately directed. There’s a finesse to Spielberg’s direction that’s easy to take for granted because he’s been working on a certain level for decades, but he has a great command of the visual language necessary to make a film work.
Bridge of Spies does occasionally threaten to fall victim to some of Spielberg’s more heavy-handed tendencies. Two sequences in particular, though, illustrate why he is so revered. Both are wordless. In the first, lengthy opening sequence, Abel is pursued by the FBI through and below the streets of 1950s New York City; the second shows Powers’ spy plane crashing during a mission over the Soviet Union.
And yet, for all of the quality work put into the film, Bridge of Spies still feels like a lesser Spielberg film. Where the problem lies, I believe, is in fleshing out Donovan. He’s a solid character, and Hanks brings a believability to this character, but the character at the center of this film does seem in need of some extra shading. He defends Abel beyond what’s requested of him because he feels it’s right; that’s noble, but there’s no suggestion that he’s at all concerned about defending someone who’s a spy. He feels a bit too pure, and Donovan’s actions become predictable quickly.
That being said, Bridge of Spies is a surprisingly entertaining story that still manages to build some suspense. It’s a solid release from Spielberg, which is still better than what many other directors release.