No other American director has made more movies audiences have billed as “just plain good” more often than Steven Spielberg, who, for his decades-long career, has managed to warm our hearts, move our beings, make our eyes misty, thrill us, and tease us, like a storyteller who can transport us to a different dimension with the snap of a finger. Like Hitchcock, simply hearing his name is enough to evoke a certain emotion, which, in most cases, is a feeling of home, of sentimentality, at least when putting such classics as Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park into perspective.
But more recently has he begun to focus on more humanistic issues, covering and bringing to life (sometimes more vividly than we’d like) such issues as the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), war (Saving Private Ryan), and even the Munich massacre (Munich). Clearly, Spielberg is one enamored with the idea of making a movie out of dramatic events of days past — some stories are meant to be told and heard on an international level, but deserve to be helmed in a way that provides them with the justice they so unmistakably warrant. Spielberg, time and time again, does a magnificent job of retelling real life events with theatric suppleness while still making a certain story more than just a story: a miraculous sense of importance is left intact.
So I was surprised by Bridge of Spies, which is well-made, well-acted, well-directed, and well-shot, but is ultimately more textbook interesting than it is cinematically engaging. With a lack of dramatic haul, it has the wow factor of a documentary but not the heart-thumping majesty of Argo. Everything told is so inevitable, so unsurprising, that we are left notably impressed by the bravery of its central figure but never moved by the story. It’s a tale of heroism without any twists and turns. As suggested earlier, Bridge of Spies’s events would, perhaps, be more investing when captured within the walls of a documentary setting, where things are supposed to be predictable (though compelling) from the beginning.
The film, set in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, stars Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan, a relatively small-time lawyer (he mostly specializes in insurance settlements) given the difficult task of defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet accused by the American government of being a KGB spy. Donovan isn’t so convinced that this is necessarily the truth — everyone involved in the case is predisposed from the beginning — and so he fights to at least get the man out from under the umbrella of death row, which he successfully (though controversially) does.
But the plot thickens when Francis Powers (Austin Stowell), a CIA pilot, is shot down by the Soviet Union mid-flight and is soon captured, and when Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student studying in Germany, is arrested for espionage by government officials after causing a tumult during the building of the Berlin Wall. In response, Donovan is proposed with the unthinkable — what if a trade is made, America giving Abel back to his home country, Powers back to the U.S.? It is an interesting proposition only to increase dramatically in its intensity after Pryor becomes part of the deal. Sent to negotiate with East German and USSR officials, Donovan overcomes his humble roots and does the extraordinary.
At a time where most Oscar nominees seem to be relatively feral and imaginative (just look at The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road), Bridge of Spies seems conventional and safe, told with a traditional and old-fashioned flair that leaves it easy to look at and understand but sometimes insipid to watch due to its lack of any real suspense or stylistic risk. It is beautiful to gaze upon, though: the camerawork is glossy, reminiscent of Old Hollywood, and Spielberg conjures the iconic allure of a forgotten era. Hanks is a dependable leading man, trustworthy and strong, and Rylance is very good as the quirky Abel.
But Bridge of Spies never packs any punches — we wait for something jaw-dropping to occur to leave us emotionally stunted, but nothing ever does. We’re affected by its story yet never dazzled by it; it sits there flatly as we wonder if it will ever become larger-than-life. A striking true story it is. I’m just not so sure big-budget, Hollywood treatment was necessarily the right place to go. C+