The newest Spielberg film is out, and while it’s second-level Spielberg, that means it’s only better than 95 percent of what else is out there. Bridge of Spies is based on the true story of an American lawyer’s defense of a Soviet spy (a plot that grows more intriguing in phases). This Cold War tale puts Spielberg squarely back in the “our great American director” category again, and the film can be listed alongside Amistad, Munich, Lincoln, and Saving Private Ryan, though it’s not as good as the last three in that list.
To avoid spoilers, I’ll only mention (for those who can remember that event) that the Gary Powers story is folded in, as well as other all-but-forgotten intrigues of the era, causing the film to unfold in layers—perhaps one of its strongest aspects.
The star is Spielberg favorite Tom Hanks, firmly ensconced in his modern-Jimmy-Stewart role, even more specifically the Stewart of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Like that 1939 film, this film presents its leading man giving a stirring speech before one of the three branches of our government (the Supreme Court instead of the Senate). Hanks is solid if not especially great, which pretty much goes for the rest of the film. Bridge of Spies is solid, in almost every definition of the word. It’s solid in that it’s an accomplished film, with nary a misstep, and it’s deftly acted and directed. The film is also solid where it needed to be a little more fluid, or risky. For a film about spying and risk, it plays safe where it needn’t have.
The other main actor in the film besides Hanks is one of the greatest English-speaking actors of the age, Mark Rylance, who has yet to become a popular film star. (He’s already a stage legend.) The relatively young winner of three Tony Awards, Rylance is perhaps best known for his recent work as Thomas Cromwell in the British television series Wolf Hall, though he will likely break through in recognizability, if not in popularity, with the lead in Spielberg’s next film, The BFG. Here he plays Soviet spy Rudolph Abel in a performance that redefines understatement. As with his Cromwell performance, Rylance turns silence and stillness into something that crackles with subliminal energy. We should be happy that at least some of his work is being recorded.
Amy Ryan is one of our most talented actresses, and she is either wasted or miscast (or both) as Hanks’ character’s wife. Full disclosure: I didn’t pay much to attention to her character at first and thought, “If only Amy Ryan had been cast in this part, she would really have done something with it.” In her next scene, of course, I realized it was Amy Ryan, and was simultaneously embarrassed and disappointed. The part doesn’t give her much to do beyond being “the wife.”
The script is basic and just serviceable. It all unfolds with little surprise but (here I go again) solid craftsmanship. It’s credited to Matt Charman and a couple of guys called Ethan and Joel Coen. Charman is mostly known for his TV work, and I’m still wondering what the Coen brothers brought to the table here.
The cinematography is by the legendary Janusz Kaminski , Spielberg’s go-to, who did the camerawork for Lincoln, War Horse, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Munich, War of the Worlds, The Terminal, Catch Me if You Can, Minority Report, Amistad, and Schindler’s List (to name a few!) It is beautifully done, and is probably the most accomplished part of the film.
The film makes a record of an event that would be have been easy to forget, and we can credit Spielberg with being our great war—including Cold War—filmmaker of record. The stories of the Amistad, what happened with the Israelis athletes at the 1972 Olympics, what Lincoln did to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed–these may well have been relegated to the dustbin of history, as Oscar Schindler’s story may have been, if not having joined Spielberg’s oeuvre. While Bridge of Spies is not the most exciting of his films—the slow and deliberate pace only has some advantages—it is a good if not great film, and one that captures a moment in time with excellence.
For those who think that action and suspense only come with dramatic movements and noise, let it be known that Spielberg can create nail-biting suspense with people waiting on a bridge, slowly walking on said bridge, and awaiting a phone call. Great moments do not a great film make, but this director’s work is always worthy of study, and for those especially interested in American history, it’s worth a view of his latest.