The great pleasure of Bridge of Spies is watching a bunch of really talented people doing their job exceptionally well. The first hour of the movie you’re reminded that, yes, Steven Spielberg knows exactly how to direct a movie. By now he’s gotten so good at it that it’s actually hilarious how effortless he combines camerawork and editing to the point that both are beautifully invisible yet effective. Tom Hanks too shows why he has sustained a career for over thirty years with hardly any dip or sag. The guy is such a joy to observe, so warm and entertaining but never totally predictable. Working together as actor and director for the fourth time now, it’s clear Hanks and Spielberg were meant for each other. Hanks’ Capra-esque everyman shadings are perfect for Spielberg’s own optimism and inherent sentiment. People don’t tend to talk about Hanks and Spielberg the same way they discuss Scorsese and De Niro but they should. They compliment each other perfectly and when paired with the right material, the results are very special indeed.
That being said, Bridge of Spies is without a doubt the least essential of the duo’s collaborations. As I said, the film begins strong with some genuine immediacy but starts to dissolve as the plot finds new focus around the midway point. As great as Hanks is, the film really belongs to Mark Rylance who, to my eyes, might as well be a newcomer. Ofcourse I’m aware now of his legendary status as a stage actor and theatre figure but this is the first film I’ve ever noticed him in. It’s no surprise because he is given the spotlight role as Rudolf Abel. The film begins with him in one of the most engaging cold-opens of Spielberg’s career. It works so well because Rylance plays it with such understated oddness that you’re never sure what the fuck this guy’s deal is. The first half of the film is stronger because Abel is the focus and crux of all the action. As soon as he is sidelined the film feels less fascinating and more of a chore to sit through.
In the same way Lincoln occasionally felt like a tiresome history lesson, Bridge of Spies too ends up being a bombardment of scenes featuring people talking in rooms. But while Lincoln sustained interest by being a striking stylistic departure for Spielberg, this film feels far too familiar in his canon to be really engaging. The court room dashings we’ve seen in Amistad (and Lincoln), the wintery war-time tableau’s are at the centre of Schindler’s List, you just end up with an urge to see Spielberg tackle something new.
Yet these criticisms are only here because of how good the filmmaking is. If this was the work of a lesser filmmaker, it might be a career-best entry into their filmography but as it’s from arguably the greatest American director of populist entertainment it can’t help but feel slight and expected. As much as I struggled to love Lincoln I found it to be a thrilling change of pace in Spielberg’s career and wanted this film to expand on that journey. When you think about how far out of his comfort zone Hanks was willing to go in Captain Philips, his performance here ends up feeling like just another rendition of the Tom Hanks persona. But then again you have Mark Rylance who is nothing short of a revelation and the film’s real talking point.
Bridge of Spies looks beautiful and is impeccably crafted from top to bottom but it just struggles to take all of the ingredients and blend them into something really special.