Is Lesser Spielberg Better Than Upper Tier Anyone Else? … Bridge of Spies Reviewed


Good not great film from a master director

Steven Spielberg’s Top 10 films might be one of the best murderer’s row of movies in cinematic history. It’s hard to argue against the quality, diversity and depth of Spielberg’s best work. He’s done every genre conceivable, won a couple Oscars and remains a director who’s in play to dominate either the summer box office or the winter awards season. Studios desperately want to find their Spielberg from the indie world, wanting a director whom they can build a relationship with for years to come. Spielberg is perhaps the most influential director of the New Hollywood Era but his output lately has slipped to a significant degree.

He’s still a great director, and still can craft a good to great movie, but what was once a 100mph cinematic tour de fource fastball is now around 85mph or so. He’s still throwing more heat than most but he’s not the feared ace of the staff he used to be. Spielberg’s best films are well past him and he probably doesn’t have another Raiders of the Lost Ark in him. But he’s not pulling an Oliver Stone and becoming irrelevant, either. He’s settled into a pathway of being good and respectable but never masterpiece worthy in his post Munich filmography.

Spielberg the producer is far more prolific than Spielberg the director nowadays but when he makes a film on his own it’s still something to stand up and pay attention to. Bridge of Spies is another of the final act of Spielberg’s career in being a good, not great, film that won’t be among the films mentioned as the high point of Spielberg’s career.

Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance lawyer who prosecuted Nazis during the Nuremberg trials. After working in insurance for some time in New York he’s given the case of a lifetime. He’s to defend a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) in court on charges of espionage. When he saves the man from the electric chair a happening of circumstance will change his life forever. An American spy plane pilot (Austin Stowell) has been captured behind enemy plans in Russia and the Soviets are eager to exchange their captured spy for the one captured by the Americans.

Donovan winds up in Berlin, East Germany, to try and negotiate with the Soviets while preventing an actual war from breaking out.

This is fairly solid for Spielberg as the film is about a man trying to do what he feels is right when everyone is trying to tell him to go along to get along. Jim Donovan wasn’t a liked man for a significant period of time because of his zealous defense of Rudolf Abel; he was defending a Soviet spy in an American court. Nowadays he’d be the subject extraordinary rendition to some hole in the ground that officially doesn’t exist, of course, but those were different times. Hanks gives him his every man likability, bringing a grounded nature to Donovan that only Hanks can. This is a role that Jimmy Stewart would’ve played in his day, of course, and Hanks does a tremendous job in the part.

It’s yeoman’s work for Hanks, of course, but the film crests much higher because of him. This isn’t one of his best performances, not by a long shot, but it’s almost too good for this film. Donovan is a man trying to do what’s right by his client, first and foremost, and Hanks is note perfect in the role. This is the sort of role his career has developed into at this point. Hanks has that gravitas. Having Hanks in the role helps to carry the film much higher than it should be because it doesn’t have the strength of writing a Spielberg film usually does.

This is a film that did get a polish by the Coen brothers, which gives the film some of its off beat comedy moments, but this is easily the worst script Spielberg has worked with in some time. This isn’t a well crafted film as it struggles with tone and pacing throughout because the film’s running time runs a shade over two hours. It feels like it should be a three hour epic, with significant moments removed or trimmed throughout, that has been trimmed to satisfy something else.

Bridge of Spies isn’t the film that’ll be listed among the elite films of Spielberg when he retires or dies, of course, but it’s in that second tier with The Terminal and War of the Worlds.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Matt Charman, Joel & Ethan Coen
Notable Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Sebastian Koch

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