Writing a review about a Spielberg movie is usually an exercise in futility, since they tend to be amazing on most counts. And when the movie comes in from him that disappoints, it doesn’t feel right to go after it. A man has to make at least one bad movie every now and then, especially a guy like Spielberg that’s been crushing it for 40 years now. So in a way, I’m glad I won’t be going into one of his movies this week. But it makes it pretty much guaranteed that this is gonna be a repetitive praising of the Beard. Especially since it’s Spielberg going back to the historical drama, bringing Tom Hanks along for the ride with him.
This time out, Spielberg has taken a trip back to the 50s, when the Cold War was in full swing and the Berlin wall was about to be erected. When a Soviet Spy (Rylance) is captured in Brooklyn, a media hullabaloo breaks out. And it gets even worse when a lawyer is essentially forced to defend him. That lawyer is Tom Hanks. He’s a conflicted at defending a man who everyone knows is guilty, but his innate belief in the ideals of America and the idea that everyone is equal forces him to give the Spy the best defense he can despite pressure from those around him not to.
When this movie ended, it occurred to me that this is a great companion piece to his last movie Lincoln. Both of those movies are obviously historical epics, but more importantly they are both movies about very principled men fighting for what they believe in despite the protestations of everyone around them and the danger to themselves. I gotta say though that I think that Lincoln is the lesser movie to Bridge of Spies for one main reason. The main reason is that it puts humanity to the issue its fighting for. Here we get to know the spy, and see that he isn’t some cartoonish super villain. He’s a guy just doing his job for his country. And we also see how the Soviets treat people, like barely sentient animals in a cage. In Lincoln, we don’t get human faces to the injustice that is being fought. No slaves being dehumanized or any real stories from a black character about why this is important. The movie is all about privileged white men fighting other privileged white men about inconveniences. It dehumanizes the fight and lacks a connective tissue to it. Spies though doesn’t lack that.
We get to see the way the Soviets treat the people under its reign thanks to a second half shift in plot. The first half is about the trial of the spy, seeing how America is ready to put it’s beliefs to the side to punish it’s enemies. But the second half becomes a fight to save an American spy caught by the Soviets. So we then get to see the negotiations to free this man and keep the ideals of America strong.
Like Lincoln, this is about a man fighting for the soul of America. But this time out it feels more Capra-esque, with Tom Hanks playing the Jimmy Stewart role. This comes out more because Hanks isn’t playing a man with power. He’s the underdog, where Abe was the boss of America. Hanks is what America should be, a good man trying to do the right thing even if he doesn’t agree with it completely. He knows the soviet spy is guilty, but defends him like any other human. And when he goes to negotiate the tradefor the American spy, he makes big gambles in the face of the danger to try to save this man and do right by the Soviet Spy as well.
This movie wouldn’t work without the two main performances. Hanks is obviously great, bringing true humanity to the role. Heart, intelligence and humor. But the MVP of the movie is Rylance. It’s a great performance, but something not completely showy. It’s subtle. Stoic and assured, he’s got wit to boot. And their relationship is great, as they get to know each other and respect their dedications to their beliefs without being animals about it. And that helps to add to the moral quandaries at play, a greyness to the film. We eventually root for a Soviet to get home thanks to the humanizing work done to Rylance’s role. And that’s helped out by a great script.
The script is credited to 3 men. The first is Matt Charman. He’s done a few episodes of TV, but no work to really look at and see how much to credit him. But it’s hard to credit him for stuff when so much of the movie feels like the others 2 guys stuff. Those 2 guys are The Coen Brothers. It doesn’t feel like Spielberg doing a Coen Brothers movie though, with the completely bonkers tone and humor and colorful characters that those guys trade in, but the dialogue sings in it. Not saying that there isn’t humor in it, cause there is and it’s great. And there’s some Coen-esque stuff, like a scene with a family in Germany later that is so subtly bizarre. But you never feel like this is a cheap knockoff of them. It just makes the movie much better and easier to watch, feeling less “written” than Lincoln did. And the actors get to chew on it with gusto. It’s an odd balancing act to not devolve into mere imitation, but that’s thanks to a master filmmaker at playsteering the ship.
Spielberg is a beast. There’s no question to it. A movie like Hook or War Horse is a rarity from him, and only Hook is a movie that is made like shit. He just makes this movie shit look easy and this is no exception. It’s a gorgeous movie, perfectly evoking the 50s with shoving your face in it. His filmmaking is great as per norm, starting off with a real showcase of his talents with a near wordless sequence following the spy. And even though it’s a talky movie, he films it all with gusto and makes it move. And the one effects driven sequence in the movie, a plane getting shot down, is brilliantly crafted and executed. The man just does this stuff with utter ease and it’s unfair.
I thought this movie was gonna be more in line with Munich when it was announced, but we got something more akin to Lincoln. And also, it has the feel of To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s a gorgeous movie with brilliant direction, great writing with some entertainment and hefty thematic work, and a great cast. It’s one of the best of the year and the fact that it’s middle of the road Spielberg is bonkers. Everyone should see this movie. Only real downside to it is that I wish this was much longer, just to see him dig into the time period a little more. But that’s so minor as to only be a personal issue and not a filmmaking one. Highly recommended.