After 2005’s massive hit War of the Worlds and the Academy Award-nominated Munich, we lost Steven Spielberg for a while. It would be six long years, until 2011’s War Horse and Tin Tin, before we’d get to watch Spielberg direct again. (Some people would lead you to believe that in 2008 Spielberg directed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I can assure you no such movie was ever made.)
Remember War Horse? It was okay! But, after such a long break, even though it was still “good,” it was kind of a disappointment because this was Spielberg. Then, the next year, Spielberg released the excellent Lincoln and everything seemed normal again. (Have you watched Lincoln recently? It really holds up.)
It’s been three years since Lincoln and now, finally, we have another Spielberg movie. The thing is, leaving Bridge of Spies (which premiered Sunday evening at the New York Film Festival) I felt a lot like I felt after leaving War Horse: This is good, but it’s a little disappointing because it’s Spielberg. And maybe it’s not surprising that this is the first leg of a massive run of productivity for Spielberg coming in the next couple of years, with The BFG, Ready Player One, and the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle, It’s What I Do, soon following.
Do you know how when even very successful musical artists — say, Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band or U2 (the band, not the plane we will be talking about later) — start a new tour, their early shows are “rough”? Still good! — but not as good as the band will be after a few months of touring. Even though it’s not really the same thing, I suspect that’s how we will think about Bridge of Spies — a master at his craft warming back up.
Bridge of Spies feels like two movies, presented as one. Our main character, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), is the star of both movies, but he goes on two very separate adventures. In the first, it’s 1957 and Donovan is enjoying his life as a high-priced insurance attorney. One of the best moments of dialogue in the film is Donovan and a plaintiff’s attorney arguing about fault in a car accident. Spielberg, working from a script written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers (!), somehow made insurance interesting! (Actually, the first 20 minutes of Bridge of Spies is really excellent.) Donovan is approached to represent Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance, who is excellent; he makes us feel true compassion for a Soviet spy), a man accused of being a Soviet spy. Donovan is picked because, even though Abel has no chance of winning, it must at least look like Abel had competent representation. Donovan, against the wishes of pretty much everyone else involved in this movie, takes Abel’s case all the way to the Supreme Court.
It’s at this point that I remember thinking, Boy, I’ve been watching this movie for quite a long period of time and the U2 spy plane that is supposed to be shot down hasn’t even taken off yet. Soon after thinking this, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down 70,000 feet over Russia and a brand new character, an American college student studying in Berlin, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), is detained on the wrong side of the wall. Now, all these chess pieces are set for what’s basically a completely different movie.
Donovan is tapped by the U.S. government to negotiate a deal that will effectively exchange Abel for Powers. Donovan thinks he can get Pryor back as well, and this sets off one of the most interesting aspects of Bridge of Spies: Donovan assuming that East Germany and the Russians are one in the same. East Germany wants respect and to be treated as an equal, which hampers Donovan’s negotiations when he, wrongly, just assumes he can trade Abel for both a man detained by Russia and a man detained by East Germany. I kind of wish the whole movie was just about these negotiations because they are fascinating.
Anyway, the good news about all of this is that Bridge of Spies is a good story. I wanted to know what happened. And there’s enough spy-versus-spy intrigue to sustain the sort-of-long running time of 135 minutes. But, goodness, there are so many scenes that are a little too on the nose. Donovan just happens to be crossing the Berlin Wall right when a group of would-be escapees are gunned down – followed by a hokey callback when Donovan returns to the United States. It’s presented in a way where the viewer might still be on the fence about this whole Wall business, at least until people are murdered and decide, “Well, I just don’t like that at all.” There are probably five or six scenes that play kind of like this. (My favorite involves a geopolitical “psych” non-handshake.) There’s much that’s “good” here, just not that much of what we think of as “Spielberg good.”
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.