Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Cohen
Whenever a new Steven Spielberg movie comes out, I pay attention. Heck, the world pays attention. He may not be the draw that some art house auteurs are to the mass of critics and film buffs (or snobs if you prefer, I don’t). Spielberg inherits a space that few others have been able to. His films are so iconic in nature, and also so popular. The ability to make great films that appeal to the masses is rare in cinema, as much as I would like to think everyone loves my favorite movies, they don’t. And I don’t like everyone else’s favorite movies. But what Spielberg is able to do is tell compelling, adventurous, emotional, and most importantly, universal stories that manage to permeate at least the American fabric of pop culture, and he does so in such an extremely skilled manner, with some of the best collaborators in the business.
For his latest, Bridge of Spies, Spielberg has added the Coen brothers to his group of collaborators, and their work on the script is apparent. The film follows the exploits of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer from New York who is recruited to provide recently captured Soviet soy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) a defense in America’s due process. But when an American U-2 spy pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is shot down over Soviet soil, Donovan’s focus becomes the negotiation of an exchange of the two spies between two countries in the midst of a Cold War of information. Donovan may be an experienced and successful lawyer, but none of his previous work could have prepared him for the backlash he received from the American people for staunchly defending Abel, or the strain such a case and subsequent secret negotiation may place on his family.
Bridge of Spies is a very American story, and I imagine the flip side of this story, the Soviet interpretation, would be very different. But the patriotism found in the character of Jim Donovan is palpable. I couldn’t help but think back to director Frank Capra, his depictions of American life, and in particular his film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This wouldn’t be the first time Tom Hanks was compared to James Stewart, but the two really do share similarities. Stewart’s Jefferson Smith and Hanks Jim Donovan are American’s through and through, and stand up for what they believe is right in this country, even while facing great opposition to their moral principles from those whose agendas are slightly misguided from the American ideals they hope to defend.
Spielberg has played with American politics and the common American man before in films such as Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln. Bridge of Spies ends up feeling like the perfect mix between the two, developing a red hot political thriller that has elements of war and espionage to build layers of intrigue and excitement on top of the patriotic judicial proceedings of Abel and Powers. The film celebrates the American system and ideals, as it should. I am a proud American, and love the principles upon which this nation was founded. We often wander from these, but men like Donovan help remind us of the great power and responsibility of freedom, and what it means to defend and uphold it. Spielberg ably toes the line of producing a very patriotic and political film while not being outwardly partisan.
The polish and sheen of this film are extremely evident. There are perhaps no standout elements that call attention to how great this performance was compared to that, or how apparent Thomas Newman’s score was, or how beautiful Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography was. Everything just manages to come together in such a fashion that the finished product is so seamlessly produced and directed. Spielberg has been making films for so long that he has all but perfected the art, bringing forth great technical elements to go along with the great storytelling and great emotion he manages to get not just from his actors, but from the story in general. Each of his films works as a how-to for all future filmmakers wishing to make great looking, highly entertaining, and highly affecting films.
***1/2 – Great