Like pizza and Bruce Springsteen albums, any Steven Spielberg movie is better than no Steven Spielberg movie. Seriously, think about that. Aside from the misstep of 1941 the guy simply doesn’t make flat out “bad” movies. That’s not to say there aren’t many “minor” Spielberg films like Always, Hook, Amistad, Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal but even those are interesting, well done and skillful. As I sat down for Spielberg’s latest, Bridge of Spies, it dawned on me that I haven’t really flipped for one of his films since Munich and that was in 2005. His previous efforts after that one were Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse and Lincoln. I genuinely liked all of those films but they certainly didn’t blow me away and I found myself kind of pining for a classic Spielbergian joint to fade onto the screen. While Bridge of Spies is indeed wonderful I feel it’s also going to fall into the category of “minor Spielberg” in that it’s a fine film but not a masterwork by the world’s greatest living filmmaker.
Based on a true story Bridge of Spies is a drama set during the Cold War in which a Russian spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured and sent to trial. Since the case is open and shut a trial is just a necessary evil which is how an insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) gets the literally thankless task of defending him. But Donovan is a man of principal and as he begins looking into the case he notes Abel was not granted many rights and civil liberties which he should have received. As a result Donovan begins to not only fight for his clients rights but also pushes to keep the spy out of the electric chair. This doesn’t sit well with anyone and aside from Abel, Donovan is a close second place to most hated man in America.
Bridge of Spies is clearly an allegory to Guantanamo Bay and also is a brilliant look at what it means to be “an American.” As President Obama said back in 2009 in relation to America, “we do not torture” yet that is exactly what we did in the early days of the war on Iraq. We also held – and continue to hold – suspected terrorists who have been stripped of all rights. It’s downright un-American and Spielberg manages to get his message across in interesting and thoughtful ways rather than making a 2-hour plus rant.
Bridge of Spies is also interesting in that it’s almost two films. After Abel is found guilty (that’s not a spoiler, the guy seriously never has a chance and this is clear from the start) he is committed to prison. However since this is a secretive, unofficial war a U.S. pilot is soon apprehended being sneaky and Donovan is sent to Germany (I’m going to get knocked for this but everything over there was a mess at this time, it could have been Berlin, Eastern Germany….I’m unclear and apologize for my lack of historical knowledge!) to negotiate a way in which we can get our pilot back. Once overseas the film takes on a really great Coen Brothers vibe which makes sense because they wrote the screenplay, and the silly machinations of bureaucracy and ego collide which plays right into the wheelhouse of Donovan’s insurance lawyer background.
Again, I very much enjoyed Bridge of Spies but it’s by no means a “great Spielberg film.” It’s better than many and not as good as some which in the end is pretty great. Jeez, now I’m talking like the characters in this film! Hanks is solid as always and Mark Rylance finally gets a great role he can sink his teeth into. But what I really took away from the film was Spielberg’s level headed dissertation on the difficulty of being an American during wartime. There are difficult and unpopular decisions to be made and the world is watching. Mistakes and hubris live on forever and Bridge of Spies shows what can happen when one stands up for their rights and does the right thing no matter how unpopular it may seem at the time. As always, Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the tough questions and looks at all sides of the issues of what being “American” means and it isn’t always easy.
– Don R. Lewis(@ThatDonLewis)