When people think about the body of work Steven Spielberg has put out over his illustriously long and celebrated career, most gravitate towards the fantastical fantasies imbued with childlike wonderment (ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or the satiating swashbuckling adventures (Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park). Before all that however, Spielberg minted the blockbuster with Jaws and later, with stark, visceral effect, crafted the preeminent cinematic portrait of the Holocaust (Schindler's List), a film which still resonates as an exposed nerve. Recently, the solemn lessons of history, more so than adolescent curiosity or high adventure, have become the inspiration for Spielberg's creative vision.
Spielberg's last history lesson, Lincoln, was a plumbing of a stout character standing tall and resolute in the face of grave opposition and the tenuous society hanging underneath. The director's latest, Bridge of Spies, follows the same blueprint, but unlike Abraham Lincoln, few have ever heard of James Donovan, an insurance attorney from Brooklyn, N.Y. More relevant from the history-book perspective perhaps is Francis Gary Powers, the U2 pilot shot down over Soviet airspace and taken prisoner in 1960.
Donovan (played by the ever affable Tom Hanks) is engaged by the CIA to negotiate the release of Powers. How Donovan got pulled into the global game of cloak and dagger and his odyssey from public pariah to Red Scare hero becomes the backbone of the film. And this being a Spielberg movie, there's a large focus on Donovan's family life, most notably in the form of Oscar-nominated actress Amy Ryan as Donovan's spouse.
The project's penned by the Coen Brothers (Ethan and Joel), reworking a script from Matt Charmin. It's an odd marriage, the arty quirksters with such dark delves as No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple to their credit, and the family-friendly Spielberg. As expected, everything remotely Coen-esque gets drowned out by Spielberg's warm, nostalgic embrace of the late 1950s. Moreover, as perfectly cast as Hanks is, you feel the part begs for Jimmy Stewart in his prime, and that's essentially how Hanks plays it, channeling the screen legend's wholesome goofiness.
Donovan's circuitous path to free Powers comes after he's roped into defending captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (played with great nuance by stage actor Mark Rylance). For such an outwardly unpatriotic thing, even though Donovan is following the law of the land (that ever sticky Constitution), his house gets shot up. He's Atticus Finch fighting the bad fight. But then coded letters allegedly from Abel's spouse in Germany roll in, and the CIA, so far unable to get into a direct communication with the Soviets, enlists Donovan, who tells his family he's on a salmon fishing trip in England, even though he's bunked up in unheated dregs in Germany while his CIA handlers cool their heels at the posh hotel down the street. Donovan's a total fish out of water. He's not heroic or a master gamesman, but like Stewart's everyman he remains ever dutiful even when faced with adversity.
The snag in the whole subterfuge hits when Donovan has a sudden crisis of conscience over an American student detained by the Stasi. He gambles with great stakes, but unfortunately Spielberg and the Coens don't. For something with so much hanging in the balance, the film feels too airy for its foreboding mood. The same could be said of Lincoln, but there, the actors gnawed the bejesus out of the woodwork, and let's face it, Donovan is no Lincoln and never will be.
Working with an equally remote nodule of history in Munich, Spielberg hit it home with heartfelt soul and genuine intrigue. That film effortlessly engaged and gripped, whereas Spies relies too heavily (and slackly) on the grand backdrop of the Cold War and the anxiety of the time. After all, history has since recorded the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. When all was said and done, it was more about stressful chest beating than actual blood shed.