Steven Spielberg never really had an edge. In his old age, he’s really leaned into that aspect of himself – and in no film is this more clear than in 2015’s Bridge of Spies, an old fashioned morality tale about a Good Guy lawyer who is always Right. One person’s quaint naiveté is another person’s uplifting drama, and I can see why Bridge of Spies might end up being a polarizing film as a result.
My main challenge in watching Bridge of Spies is this: After 40+ years of Spielberg films, I know who he is too well. I know his trends. I know how he works. And as a result of Spielberg’s overly maudlin sensibilities, there was never a moment of true tension in Bridge of Spies because at every turn, the outcome and result was obvious. There’s no surprise for any moment.
It’s a testament to Spielberg’s mastery of filmcraft that, despite its massive predictability, Bridge of Spies still manages to be a successful film. In usual Spielberg fashion, there is never a spare moment, every camera angle in its right place, every beat delivered perfectly. He understands that, for the story he’s telling here, the actors need to dominate, not flashy camerawork or editing, and he lets fantastic actors do their work.
Tom Hanks, in his old age, has also become a bit of a predictable actor, almost always lost in morality. Bridge of Spies stars him as James Donovan, a lawyer who is always in the moral right, who believes in The Process, who wants to Bring the Boys Back Home. It’s predictable – but it’s such a good use of latter-stage Hanks that it’s hard to complain too much.
Starring across from Hanks is, most notably, Mark Rylance as Russian spy Rudolf Abel, who delivers wry observations and witticisms that make him seem almost sage-like. His understated performance is spellbinding, and it’s easy to see why he won an Oscar for his work here. Rylance doesn’t get asked to do much, but what he does do stands out.
Bridge of Spies manages to underuse supporting players like Amy Ryan and Alan Alda – these are sins, to be sure. Alda, as Donovan’s law partner, who wants to do the right thing, but also is concerned about his business, presents an interesting perspective on the events that we don’t see enough of. Ryan, as Donovan’s wife, is here presented as a typical worrying wife and mother, but when you cast an actress like Ryan, there’s so much more you can, and should, ask her to do.
Bridge of Spies is flawed and problematic, but the sheer competence of Spielberg, Hanks, and Rylance manages to elevate an otherwise okay film.