By: Anthony Miglieri
There are very few filmmakers today whose films are thought of as events: releases that are familiar to most everyone who loves movies. Steven Spielberg, who has been consistently cranking out movies since the early 1970s, is one such director. Spielberg’s 2012 effort, Lincoln, was worthy of the considerable hype and then some, thanks in large part to both Spielberg’s assured direction and Daniel Day-Lewis’s revelatory portrayal of the titular Commander in Chief. Although Spielberg’s new film, Bridge of Spies, hasn’t quite captured the same excitement and acclaim that surrounded Lincoln, it still finds the aging master in fine form.
Similarly to Lincoln, Bridge of Spies is a period piece examining an extraordinary moment in American history. Also like Lincoln, Spielberg’s latest concerns the American public’s ability to collectively shun an individual or group: Lincoln tackled the protracted abolition of slavery, while the thrust of Bridge of Spies is the Cold War-era paranoia of the threat of the communist Soviet Union.
The new film opens with the forceful arrest of suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, portrayed with icy calm by Mark Rylance. Wanting to protect the perceived integrity of the U.S. legal system, the CIA then hire a crafty lawyer who they feel they can trust, James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks with all the everyman conviction and wry humor that have defined Hanks’ career. Everyone, including the CIA and the citizens of America, think it a foregone conclusion that the “Commie” will be executed or at least put behind bars, but Donovan’s professionalism and conscience force him to give Abel a proper defense. As a result, the lawyer and his family become a magnet for the communist-hating scorn of colleagues and onlookers.
This section, during which Donovan valiantly strives to protect Abel’s rights and dignity, is easily the most fascinating in the film, kept roaring with life by the great performances and Spielberg’s deft touch at recreating lush period detail. The rest of the film, which concerns a spy-for-spy trade conducted by the CIA and Donovan in the newly disunited Germany, manages to maintain the tension accumulated in the film’s first half, but to a decidedly lower degree. This section, which consists almost only of scenes of negotiation between Donovan and various Soviet middle men, does an admirable job of simplifying the jargon-ridden interactions into understandable drama, but the frequency of the back and forths does grow slightly monotonous.
Bridge of Spies is a solid outing by Spielberg, a film certainly worthy of his pedigree. Although it admittedly feels like Spielberg could have made this film in his sleep, that is only a testament to how prolific he is and how effortless he manages to make a 2 ½-hour historical drama appear to be. Steven Spielberg is one of the last of his breed, of Hollywood directors that can churn out lengthy, quality epics and be consistently successful. No, Bridge of Spies doesn’t reach the giddy, majestic heights of all-time greats like his Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, nor does it match the graceful historical sweep of Saving Private Ryan or Lincoln. However, in a cinematic age in which superhero flicks and young adult novel adaptations grab most the eyes as well as the wallets, Spielberg’s old-fashioned Bridge of Spies is a comfort food delicacy.