Steven Spielberg no longer makes movies for the zeitgeist, and I imagine he’s perfectly fine with that. This was demonstrated quite clearly this weekend, as myself and my colleague Sean Lemme went and saw a sparsely-attended showing of Steven Spielberg’s latest, Bridge Of Spies at this small family-owned theater in West Seattle where Spectre was playing in the theater next door. And because apparently the walls in this theater are not sound-proofed particularly well, we could often hear the overblown audio pyrotechnics of Spectre bleeding over and sometimes distracting from the quiet backroom dealings of this old-fashioned spy thriller. It’s an idea that’s kind of carried into Bridge Of Spies theatrical run so far, as its gotten completely drowned out by Spectre this week at the box office, as well as in the former weeks by the idea that people just aren’t going to the movies as much lately.
You could say that Bridge Of Spies feels like it’s of a piece with recent Spielberg efforts like 2012’s Lincoln and 2011’s War Horse, which felt almost defiantly old-fashioned (that said, I really liked Lincoln). But the fact of the matter is, Steven Spielberg has always had a fairly old-fashioned approach, both in his style (which owes a lot to the American masters of Hollywood’s golden era) and in their past-obsessed subject matter. He’s been making corny shit like Always and The Color Purple (I assume, since I haven’t actually seen them) since the late ’80s, when he was finally able to convince producers that he can direct more than just blockbusters. So I can’t help but think that it’s possible that Spielberg sees these quieter period-pieces as the truest expression of him as an artist, rather than the awe-inspiring spectacles that are synonymous with his name. Which might explain why Raiders Of The Lost Ark has always been my favorite Spielberg film, as it combines these two sensibilities so effortlessly.
But back to Bridge Of Spies, which stars Tom Hanks — an actor who’s been in about as many Spielberg movies as you’d imagine (three) — who plays James B. Donovan, an American lawyer assigned to defend a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) at the height of the Cold War. Despite the overwhelming public hatred toward Abel (due to the whole being a commie thing), Donovan wants to give Abel a fair trial, and though he more less does, Abel is still convicted. However, Donovan pleads for Abel not to be executed in the hopes that he could be used as a bargaining pawn in the event that an American is captured in Soviet territory. Sure enough, this type international tug-of-war is quickly set in motion, as an American pilot carrying valuable information is shot down and captured by the Soviets, while Donovan attempts to spearhead a deal to bring the two men back to their respective homes.
On a recent Fall preview episode of the podcast Filmspotting, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips talked about his wariness towards Bridge Of Spies (which hadn’t come out yet), because he feared it might feel a bit stale due to it featuring so many collaborators that Spielberg has worked with numerous times in the past (like Hanks and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski). And thought I wouldn’t say Bridge Of Spies ever succumbs to this theoretical staleness, I do feel like there is a slight workmanlike quality to this film. It hits all the beats you would want an espionage/spy thriller to hit, but while still being fairly interesting in the way it zeros in on a conflict like the separation of East and West Berlin, which is a mid-20th century crisis that I don’t feel has been explored a ton on screen.
But I think what really keeps this movie from ever feeling too clinical (like a lot of serious spy thrillers will), is that it’s not only propelled by a super-intricate and confusing plot, but more by the human elements at play here. Mark Rylance — a renowned stage actor in Britain, who’s been tapped to play the titular character in Spielberg’s The BFG — is quite good here as the tight-lipped Abel. Him and Hanks’s Donovan have a nice relationship that seems indicative of the kind of quiet, dignified men of this particular era who were just trying to do their best for their country. And because of this, the film skirts any sort of Spielberg-ian corniness, by the mere fact that these are two guys who are only capable of opening up so much. Which maybe isn’t the sexiest relationship you could choose to put at the heart of a spy thriller, but its human elements are nonetheless easier to understand and sympathize with than whatever the hell the plot of Spectre was supposed to be.