It’s Spielberg. It’s Hanks. Of course “Bridge of Spies” is pretty damn good. But not great.
In the thick of the Cold War, insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks, “Toy Story”) is called to an unorthodox patriotic duty: Defend a Soviet spy in order to demonstrate the fairness of the U.S. legal system. But, although the task was set as a formality and a nod to his ability, Donovan defies his bosses, his family and, in many an eye, his country, when his involvement with the case leads him to the Supreme Court and, ultimately, Berlin.
Given the current climate of U.S.-Russian relations, Cold War politics feel especially relevant. War movies with huge directors and stars are about World War II, Vietnam. Spy movies are supposed to thrill, twist and intrigue at every turn. “Bridge of Spies” carries a fast pace, but there’s no mystery to solve and no world to save. The significance is understated, yet understood. This was a world perhaps on the brink of destroying itself, and these were the men taking measured steps to avoid destruction.
Though he begins fighting for the rights of a Soviet, Donovan truly fights for the American ideal. He instills a hard work ethic in his young associate. He advocates extension of basic rights, and embodies basic humanity. He cannot decline a call to duty. He refuses to leave any man behind.
Director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have won two Academy Awards each, working together on “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” The mastery shows. A pair of shots juxtapose children jumping a chain link fence and people fleeing over the Berlin Wall. A cut between the courtroom and the classroom comments on education and governance through allegiance and obedience.
Hanks is one of the best actors of our time, but the performance won’t go down as one of his best. The film is about the big picture; like its main character, “Bridge of Spies” sacrifices personal consequence to serve a greater purpose. Minimization of familial drama was the right decision (especially anything that might have been between Donovan’s daughter and his young associate), though a deeper understanding of Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance, “The Other Boleyn Girl”) might have made a richer emotional arc. Perhaps his anonymity was part of the point, but because his motivations aren’t explored, his exchanges with Donovan don’t impact as strongly as they could.
Based on a true story, the film highlights an era that can be easy for us to overlook, since the war never heated up. The quality of filmmaking, from shot composition to editing to acting, is top notch. But “Bridge of Spies” won’t move you like “Schindler’s List,” won’t scare you like “Jaws,” and won’t amaze you like “Jurassic Park.” It isn’t great.