When Steven Spielberg is at his best, he is everything. He is master filmmaker. He is master storyteller. He is master tactician. He is master technician. When Spielberg is at the top of his game, he reminds us that he has earned his status as one of Hollywood's elite filmmakers.
As is true for nearly every filmmaker, Spielberg is not always at his best. Sometimes, he is ONLY a master filmmaker. Sometimes, he is ONLY a master storyteller or a master tactician or a master technician. In these moments, he is still easily a vastly superior filmmaker to a good majority of Hollywood's filmmakers but he at least exists somewhere below the directorial demi-gods.
We can argue about which films exist in which realm. There are people, I call them misguided, who consider Schindler's List to be considered not much more than a well intended bore. I, on the other hand, consider it to be one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all-time.
When it was first released, Saving Private Ryan received nearly universal acclaim yet always struck me as a creaky, awkwardly structured film that never quite attained the greatness that was being claimed for it.
There is room to argue, of course, but Bridge of Spies features Spielberg as master storyteller. It is an immensely entertaining, occasionally gripping, slice of American history that bears the mark of a filmmaker who knows the story that needs to be told and he tells it expertly.
In a cinematic world of action-packed thrillers and high-tech hijinks, Bridge of Spies exists as somewhat of an oddity. It's an old-school Hollywood thriller not just because it's set during the Cold War but because Spielberg has crafted it in such a way that it brings to mind Hollywood of yesteryear. It is an expertly crafted film that seems to lack something, but that "something" is the customary distractions we've become accustomed to having thrown at us disguised as quality filmmaking.
Inspired by true events, Bridge of Spies tells the story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a successful insurance lawyer whose principles are put on full display early on and receive their finest test when he is called upon to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a suspected Russian spy who has become the most hated man in America but must receive at least the facade of a fair trial. Donovan is not blind to the downside of choosing to fairly represent a man universally hated in America, though he is a man who truly believes that every person matters and he is seemingly incapable of acting as anything less.
Despite being one of Hollywood's finest actors, Tom Hanks has long had a knack for picking roles, often alongside Spielberg, that allow him to exist almost as a cinematic wallflower. Hanks's Donovan isn't a tour-de-force, this isn't Lincoln we're talking about, but simply an ordinary man called into an extraordinary circumstance who ultimately rose to the challenges set before him. Hanks doesn't play it masterfully here, because being "masterful" would have compromised the integrity of his character. Hanks simply lives into Donovan so completely that we began to see and feel just how an ordinary man grows into an extraordinary one. It's a quietly in-tune and disciplined performance that is among Hanks's finest, yet it's a performance that may very well go unrecognized among the shinier and more histrionic roles destined to arrive in awards season.
Much less likely to be ignored in awards season is Mark Rylance as alleged spy Rudolf Abel, whose calm demeanor never quite does the big reveal yet whose calm demeanor is filled with moments of insight, humor, glimpses of heart, loads of intelligence and much more. This could have been a much showier role, yet Rylance wisely keeps pace with the more even-keeled Hanks's Donovan. The result is a film that keeps a near perfect pace, at least until a late stop-start start feels unnecessary and a tad gratuitous.
Working off a script polished up by Ethan and Joel Coen, Spielberg is unquestionably drawing parallel's between past and present as he skillfully presents the equally horrifying worlds of paranoia that existed in both America and the then U.S.S.R. It was a world so driven by paranoia and fear that the Constitution was in danger of becoming more a guide than an actual framework for living in America, yet it's not a far stretch to realize that such a world still isn't that far away.
It is inevitable that there will be more that occurs in Bridge of Spies. This comes courtesy of the most familiar aspect of the story being presented here when an American spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union and Abel becomes far more than simply the most hated man in America and Donovan is presented with a chance to potentially redeem himself in the eyes of an America that can't quite understand how he could have not just represented a spy but done so competently.
While Bridge of Spies is driven by the performances of Hanks and Rylance, it benefits from impressive appearances by Alan Alda and Amy Ryan, the latter taking the almost throwaway role of Donovan's wife and breathing life into it. While it might seem that the aforementioned American spy might be a key player in the film, the truth is he's a secondary player essentially here to serve as a cornerstone that provides the foundation for everything else that will happen. Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), the spy in question, is never much more than a mystery figure whose motives are never really explored and whose never given much of a spark by Stowell's fairly placid performance.
While Spielberg's last film, Lincoln, wanted us to believe in its greatness so much that you could practically feel every important moment arriving courtesy of John Williams's overwrought score and Janusz Kaminski's Mr. Obvious lensing, Bridge of Spies benefits from Thomas Newman's impactful original score and Kaminski's paranoia-tinged yet quiet and intimate camera work. This is the Spielberg I love best, when he sets aside the need to be "important" in favor of the need to simply tell the story as effectively as possible.
Bridge of Spies is such a good film that it's likely to be an afterthought come awards season. While it may feel like it's a second tier Spielberg effort, that's precisely the approach necessary in order to sell the story of a common man with uncommon goodness whose belief that every person matters became a rulebook for lifting a nation out of a fear and paranoia that very nearly destroyed it.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic