No director has a style like Steven Spielberg. From large blockbusters to intimate dramas, Spielberg has found a way to amass one of the greatest filmographies of all time. As shots fade slowly into the background, transitioning from one well-conceived plot-line to another, it’s obvious that the experience behind the camera is what makes Bridge of Spies so interesting.
It’s that experience that also renders pieces of the film to be a bit stale. The loud uplifting music, this time composed by Thomas Newman instead of John Williams, is a familiar Spielberg trope, and the movie never gets its claws in the audience to appear suspenseful or dangerous. With Hollywood’s most likable Dad character in Tom Hanks at the center, rarely does the film feel any more than a well-made uplifting melodrama, rather than a taut and suspenseful Cold War thriller as advertised.
Our story focuses on the true account of private insurance attorney James Donovan (Hanks) who is given the assignment to represent a recently captured Russian spy by the name of Rudolf Abel (an excellent Mark Rylance). The United States government does not want to be involved in the trial, so the representation is pawned off on a private interest with a private attorney in the district court. As Hanks gets involved, he believes that everyone, no matter who, is entitled to their own defense and 5th Amendment due process rights. He gets more committed to the case, even trying to spare his life, which leads to a horrible public image for him and his family.
When an American pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured in a plane crash, the idea comes up that Donovan could negotiate a swap with the Soviets to get Powers for Abel, but when an American student in East Germany gets captured by the struggling nation-to-be, Donovan tries to get both of them together to get a 2 for 1 exchange during a very cold trip to Berlin.
The most beautiful thing about this movie is the way Spielberg commands the pace and the transitions in between story-lines. Janusz Kaminski is a long-term cinematographer for Spielberg is clearly on the same page as the great director, the shots, the lighting, and the panning shots of a wrecked Berlin are beautifully done. A lot of this story is shown through small close-ups and intimate shots of reactions for its characters. From a technical stand-point, this is made extremely well, but from a personal stand-point, with character development, the film often falls a bit flat.
Tropes that worked for Spielberg in the 90s do not register the same way for him in a more modern, cynical time with a matured viewing audience. Hanks is plenty likable, but he’s just not urgent enough or developed enough to feel for him outside of just who the actor is. Family stress, including one scene where the house is shot at, is overlooked disappointingly, where more urgency and suspense could have been written into the script. Hanks spends a night in jail and watches several people get killed in a shooting and almost gets mugged, to which the best he can come up with is ‘oh, gosh.’ This uplifting drama works and it’s nice to see Spielberg so firmly into his comfort zone, but I would’ve liked more in this script to give this a bit more potency or vigor. As far as how it actually works together as a cohesive film, it works really well.
The setting is really nicely done, and Mark Rylance is wonderful in a supporting performance as well. This is a really good film, but it lacks the something extra that made some of Spielberg’s other films great, so this comes off as middle ground for a great director, but a stand-out if expectations weren’t so high.