Amazingly for a director who used to routinely face a barrage of critical darts for a supposed inability to progress past the childish stuff of frothy fantasy, Steven Spielberg has become one of the most dependable cinematic chroniclers of the planet’s tumultuous history. Across the last decade, with the odd exceptions of a misguided Indiana Jones sequel and a diversion into computer animation, Spielberg has been filming in the past. That’s not an entirely newfound preoccupation, of course. Even before Munich, which I’m using as the dividing line ahead of this era of Spileberg’s filmmaking, Spielberg kept cycling back to historical material to shape his onscreen fictions. The two Best Directing Academy Awards on his shelf — and how bizarre to think his lack of Oscar attention was borderline scandalous at one point — are both for films set during World War II, after all. Increasingly, though, even as he signs on to very different projects, it seems Spielberg is at his most clearly engaged when finding some piece of the American past that can help his contextualize his misgivings about the present.
His latest, Bridge of Spies, begins with the introduction of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a fairly unassuming man in Brooklyn during the chilliest phase of the Cold War. The mundane disposition isn’t a front, but it’s helpful for Rudolf’s main occupation: spying on the United States for the Russians. When he’s captured, the concern to give the appearance of a fair trial leads to the recruitment of defense attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who’s primarily working with tax law but has some relevant, upstanding professional history working at the Nuremberg Trials. James is supposed to put on a good show, but he’s committed to seeing through his task with the full weight of honest practice of the law, despite obvious disinclination of those running to system to honor his fully grounded complaints about abuses of process. This is when the film is at its most pointed, drawing a straight line from the destructive disregards of the liberty and protections that are purported to the be the foundation needing protection and similar infraction happening today in the name of the so-called War on Terror. It helps that the flinty, understated performance of Rylance is the best attribute of Bridge of Spies.
Spielberg has basically clumped two films together, and they don’t actually cohere all that well. After the first portion of the film concerns itself with James’s defense of Rudolf, in the face of overwhelming animosity among the general populace, the second chunk is immersed in the fitful amateur diplomacy of Donovan, at the unofficial behest of the U.S. government, as he negotiates a trade of Rudolf for a pair of U.S. citizens held on the wrong side of the rapidly developing Berlin Wall. This is a film made by and for the Spielberg that evidently reads John le Carré novels on long plane flights, all enamored with the musty, minor details of flawed men playing at geopolitical intrigue. It’s adequate but not all that engaging, with Spielberg’s usual deft touch turning a little clumsy as he drags out sequences with foregone conclusions, achieving added length rather than the intended suspense. He has an especially unfortunate storytelling tic of linking scenes with ham-fisted visual signifiers, such as cutting from a courtroom command of “All rise” to schoolchildren springing to the their feet for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Bridge of Spies offers worthy contributions to the distracted discourse over the pathways currently followed by the nation. Unfortunately, it does so in a manner that is drab and even occasionally clumsy, showing markedly little evidence of Spielberg’s duly vaunted narrative command or his underappreciated creative daring, even as his compunction to add heavy punctuation to key scenes remains firmly in place. Sadly, that last quality is only accentuated by the thickly manipulative score of Thomas Newman, engaged in the perhaps impossible task of stepping in as the first person to try to replace John Williams, Spielberg’s musical collaborator for practically his entire career. It’s just one more heavy chip in the veneer of the piece that contributes to the diminishment of Bridge of Spies from shrewdly rewarding art to merely a decent movie.