The cold bore
Steven Spielberg continues a mini slump with his second good-looking yet terminally boring historical drama in a row. He follows up the middling Lincoln with the sleepy Bridge of Spies. This is Spielberg’s fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, and their first since 2004’s terrible The Terminal. It doesn’t represent a return to Catch Me if You Can and Saving Private Ryan glory.
This film certainly had a lot going for it. Not only is it Spielberg’s take on spying during the 1960s Cold War, which sounds like it should be exciting, but it’s also a collaboration with the Coen Brothers. Joel and Ethan chipped in on the screenplay, which usually means good things are afoot.
I wish Joel and Ethan had directed it, too. Perhaps then the film would’ve had more edge and been less cutesy, its emotions a little less obvious and drippy. Also, a discernible pulse for the majority of the running time would’ve been nice.
Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a U.S. tax attorney who lands the unenviable task of representing recently captured alleged Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). While Donovan’s law firm and the courts see the whole thing as an open-and-shut case, Donovan makes it known that his intentions are to represent Abel to the full extent of the law. Cue the grouchy judge and perplexed bosses, and you know one of them is going to be played by Alan Alda.
In a parallel story, some pilots join the CIA in a new spying program with U-2 planes. One of those planes getting shot out of the sky at 70,000 feet gives the Russians their own spy prisoner in Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). With the construction of the Berlin Wall, yet another “spy” is captured when Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student who picked a crappy time to study in West Berlin, is apprehended by the East Germans.
Those captured American stories crisscross with Abel’s story as Donovan winds up overseas trying to negotiate prisoner exchanges.
Hanks is characteristically good in the central role, even though it’s in the service of something drab. The film is at its best when Donovan is trudging through the streets of Berlin trying to find the Russian embassy and evading thugs trying to steal his fancy coat. Hanks instills these moments with some good humor. It’s not one of his great performances, but it’s a solid one.
I say the film bores me, but there is a sequence that pops with great intensity and displays Spielberg hitting all of his marks. When Powers’ plane is shot down, the sequence leading up to him finally getting his parachute open is terrific. It feels like it should’ve been in another movie, perhaps one where somebody turns a light on during the interior scenes.
Of all the movies Spielberg has directed, there’s been a few major bombs (1941, The Terminal, Hook), a couple of films that were OK (Amistad, Always) and a boatload of classics. His last two movies don’t fall into any of those categories. Lincoln and now Bridge of Spies are merely mediocre films that could’ve been great.
Spielberg needs to have fun in the fantasy sandbox again. Whether it’s the long rumored fifth Indiana Jones, or some sort of sci-fi adventure, I want his next movie to be less about period haircuts and neckties and more about storylines with energy. He’s getting hung up on films where characters blather on and on in dark courtrooms and back offices. It’s tiresome and beneath him.
I remember many years ago when I would defend Spielberg films to somebody who thought he overdid it on the sentimentality. Many moments in Bridge of Spies that dripped with sap had me remembering those arguments.
If somebody were to tell me Spielberg is overdoing it with the sentimentality stuff lately, I’d raise my glass in agreement, and then quietly shed a tear for one of my favorite directors gone temporarily astray.