There’s a new Spielberg movie. Strangely, for some, that’s not cause for celebration. We’ve become almost used to him churning out films, not quite with the regularity of some, but with enough profligacy that they almost are taken for granted. We see his fingerprints all over cinema, from summer blockbusters like Jurassic World to the countless homages from younger filmmakers, yet when the man who made Jaws and Raiders brings us something new, well, it’s something to be taken serious.
Bridge of Spies isn’t in the same caliber as the master’s great works, but it’s still a far cry from his more disastrous foibles like Amistad. This is middle of the road for Spielberg, yet that still means for all intents and purposes it’s one of the great films you’re going to see this year.
With a script fine-tuned by the Coen Brothers (look for echoes of Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing), we’ve got a nice narrative hodgepodge, mixing courtroom thriller with period piece, spy story and richly drawn character investigation that has all the ingredients somehow come together in pleasing ways.
Tom Hanks plays the Capra-esque lead, perfectly cast at the Insurance Lawyer tasked with defending an enemy of the state. His client, played with celebrity-making aplomb by Mark Rylance, is an artistic and decidedly charismatic foil, a stark contrast to some of the jingoistic bravado shown on the side of the Americans.
This is a cold war thriller that never could have been made during the period, it’s politics too prickly, its humanization of the enemy too straightforward. This is a film that feels like it should be of that time yet never could be, a characteristic of so many of Spielberg’s greatest works.
With lensing done by Janusz Kaminski the imagery is stunning, with glorious tracking shots and moodily lit scenes evocative of the greatest images from a half century ago. The opening sequence is a bravado one, equalling the best montage that Spielberg and his editor Michael Kahn have crafted over their dozens of projects. The score by Thomas Newman is the film’s most sour note, with syrupy strings and manipulative themes that feel as if the otherwise terrific composer is trying to ape John Williams, giving Spielberg what he thinks is needed. A better calibrated soundtrack would have elevated the film even more.
Yes there are quirks that are both overt and repetitive of many of Spielberg’s earlier works, but these ticks are for the most part welcome. There’s a meaty philosophical underpinning to what superficially is a straightforward cold war romp, and when it’s at its best the film really does feel like the work of a true master. At other times, well, one simply shakes one’s head, thinking “oh, Steven”, bemused as something both overt and manipulative is used in place where some subtlety would have gone a long way.
Some are calling this Spielberg’s best in years, and I think that’s unfair to terrific pieces like Lincoln or Tin Tin, both of which had some pretty spectacular moments. It’s fair to say, however, that this is the closest he’s come to providing the thrills of Munich, and even if it doesn’t quite climb to that level it’s nice to see him working within this kind of action/suspense/character drama idiom again.