Bridge of Spies review: Oscar bait season begins

With summer out of the way, the movie industry has begun its annual migration towards the land of gravitas and Things That Make You Think. In other words, it’s the season of thirsty awards movies, where superheroes are largely swept aside so slower, more thoughtful fare can have a brief taste of the spotlight — and be fresh in the mind of voters when it’s time for nominations next year.

It’s a time that Steven Spielberg has almost exclusively called home over the past decade. Save for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which I try to forget whenever possible), all of his movies since 2005’s Munich have opened at this time of year, with the filmmaker that nearly single-handedly invented the summer blockbuster settling in as a more sober cinematic elder statesman, reliably earning best picture and best director nominations year after year.

In Bridge of Spies, he’s re-teaming with frequent collaborator Tom Hanks to tell the story of the Brooklyn-based attorney that helped negotiate the release of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962. It’s a stylish thriller, highlighted by a unique sense of wit and the kind of effortless filmmaking that is Spielberg’s trademark. As just that — pure entertainment — it’s delightful, but this is an awards consideration movie, and as such it’s got to be About Something. In this case, that something is a parable about xenophobia, blind faith jingoism, and the way they undercut the American value system they’re both invoked to defend.

It puts a clumsy, obvious spin on what is otherwise a deft and enjoyable movie. So of course Bridge of Spies is probably going to win a bunch of Oscars.

Hanks plays James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who in the late 1950s is asked to take on the defense of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Donovan’s the kind of lawyer that’s able to cloak his negotiating hucksterism in a sheen of golly-gee all-American goodness, which makes him all the better suited for the job: the government doesn’t actually want Abel to get a vigorous defense. Instead, it’s just looking for a bit of courtroom theater to make everybody believe that America is playing by its own rules. It’s the kind of role that seems custom-made for Hanks, the actor summoning all his affability as Donovan decides that he’ll not only take the case, but he’ll actually fight the good fight for his client, dammit, because "everyone deserves a defense. Every person matters."

He endures scoffing judges and a bloodthirsty press, but Donovan ends up taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court, all while waxing poetic about the importance of due process and adhering to our core beliefs. The movie calls to mind everything from Guantanamo Bay to NSA wiretapping — it’s a bit of an ideological grab bag, actually, shrewdly appealing both to the America, Fuck Yeah! crowd as well as left-wing ideologues — but it’s all a prelude to what happens when U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down and captured by the Soviet Union. The Russians want Abel back, and are willing to trade him for Powers — so the CIA brings in Donovan to broker the deal.

Bridge of Spies promotional still (DREAMWORKS)

In a very real sense, Bridge of Spies is two different movies. In one, Hanks is the earnest, Jimmy Stewart-esque truth crusader; in the other, he’s in a comedic spy thriller, traversing East and West Berlin while ignoring exasperated, semi-incompetent CIA agents and wacky foreign contacts. There’s a delightful bounce to that second half — Joel and Ethan Coen did a rewrite on the script, and for a long stretch it feels more like a Coen brothers film than a Spielberg movie — but together, Hanks and Spielberg make all the pieces fit together.

More Coen brothers than Spielberg

It’s a testament to the filmmaker that he’s able to shift tones so seamlessly (from a taut, nearly wordless opening sequence, all the way through to the kind of white-knuckle ending you’d expect), while eliciting such strong work from his actors. Mark Rylance as Abel is particularly wonderful, bringing a world-weary humanity to a role that — for all of Hanks’ star power — constitutes the movie’s entire reason for being. (The lone weakness in the entire cast is Austin Stowell as Powers, who comes off as the equivalent of actor negative space.)

Bridge of Spies promotional still (DREAMWORKS)

But for all of the work it does in reaching for resonance, Spies slipped easily from my mind the moment I left the theater. The craft and finish are impeccable, but it all feels strangely disposable; a piece of clever entertainment stuck playing dress up. That mismatch is actually why it’s very likely going to fare well come awards time; it’s a safe choice movie, challenging nothing and no one, while handing out a straightforward message that anybody can get behind.

If Schindler’s List completed Spielberg’s quest to be viewed as a "serious" director, then much of the last decade can be viewed as an attempt to return to that higher ground. He’s had varying degrees of success, but what Bridge of Spies really reveals is that despite the grandiosity of Lincoln or War Horse, Spielberg is still just a filmmaker in love with genre filmmaking. Beneath the heavy-handed allegory is a romp of a spy movie, and it made me yearn for the Spielberg of years past, who aimed simply to move and entertain. I think he may be thinking along similar lines; his next two projects are The BFG, a live-action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, and the big-screen adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. And wouldn’t you know it, that first one is scheduled to come out right in the middle of summer.

Bridge of Spies opens Friday, October 16th.