If there is one American director most likely to lure audiences into theaters based on his or her name alone, it’s Steven Spielberg. For over forty years he has directed some of the most memorable movies ever made. For myself, Spielberg was the first filmmaker who I knew by name and whose catalogue of work defined my childhood. “Jurassic Park,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.,” “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” all helped ignite a love in cinema. There is no doubt Spielberg has built a career as the king of blockbuster filmmakers, but he has also proved himself capable of such grand historical dramas as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List” and “Lincoln.”
“Bridge of Spies,” the director’s latest, falls into this second line work. Starring Tom Hanks as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer tasked with defending a captured Soviet Spy (Mark Rylance) and eventually negotiating the swap between said spy and an American spy during the Cold War. In the grand scheme of things, this is a mid-tier Spielberg movie. The second half, with Hanks in East Berlin negotiating the swap, is vastly superior to the first half, which falls prey to a common Steven Spielberg problem. For all his strengths as a filmmaker, Spielberg often times falls prey to over-sentimentality.
The beginning of the film contains a fantastic sequence with Soviet spy Rudolf Abel being followed by C.I.A agents. It’s an example of just how meticulous and well crafted Spielberg can execute a particular sequence. Everything is expertly coordinated due to Spielberg’s knowledge of space and how various character move within that space. If only the movie could have continued to operate on that kind of cinematic high. For most of it’s first half, “Bridge of Spies” operates as a soapbox movie with Hanks preaching about the legal rights of individuals in our court system.
This is where our Spielberg problem lays. The audience is continuously hit over the head with one long speech after another describing how just because Abel is an enemy of the state, he deserves the same type of criminal trial as anyone else. Here, Hanks plays less of a character than ideal or rather a manifestation of the movie’s moral center. While Hanks does add some wit to his performance, nearly every one of his scenes requires him give an overly long speech about one’s constitutional rights. Spielberg has always been an emotional filmmaker; that is what makes many of his great movies so memorable. However, in some cases, the emotional center of his movies overflows to point of becoming repelling and insincere. The one saving grace of this part of the movie is Rylance who delivers a dead pin, yet fascinating, performance as the soviet spy Abel.
Thankfully, the movie redeems itself once Hanks is asked to negotiate a spy swap in East Berlin. We see Berlin on the verge of being split right down the middle. Families and loved ones panic to make it across the border into West Berlin before the finishing of the wall. They run the risk of being either detained or killed, but somehow being dead is more appealing than remaining on the East Side. These sequences are some of the movie’s most dramatic and impactful; showing striking similarities to scenes of ghettos being cleared in “Schindler’s List.” At one moment Hanks views a group of people being gunned down while trying to cross the wall; a scene both horrific and powerful. The Berlin scenes contain the kind of nail-biting intensity that is missing form the movie’s first half. Here Spielberg is able to craft a thriller similar to the works of author John Le Carré, in which spies wage war not through gunfire and bullets but rather careful mind games.
“Bridge of Spies” may face a future being drowned out by the far superior projects in it’s director’s catalogue, but that does not mean it has without moments of greatness. While they may be scattered, there are scenes in this movie that demonstrate just how skilled Spielberg can be. Just when you think the movie has become dull or uninteresting, we get something that reminds us we are in the hands of a master filmmaker.