Steven Spielberg’s latest cinematic foray into history, Bridge of Spies, contains all the hallmarks of serious Spielberg: a taut if little-known piece of the past; exquisitely crafted set/art direction and cinematography that bring that past vibrantly alive on screen; an evocative score; confident directorial control; and invigorating lead performances, in this case, from Tom Hanks and English stage actor Mark Rylance.
The story involves the tense negotiation between Cold War superpowers, the Soviet Union and the U.S., for a pair of captured combatants: one a Soviet spy apprehended in America, and the other, Francis Gary Powers, the American U2 pilot famously shot down near the Ural Mountains. A private citizen attorney, Jim Donovan (Hanks), is pressed into service to exchange Powers against the backdrop of the escalating Cold War (we see the building of the Berlin Wall during the film).
Bridge of Spies is incredibly well-crafted and effective, as can be expected from the masterful Spielberg. But sadly, it also suffers from a recurring problem found with some of Spielberg’s more serious films: it conveys the powerful story on the surface without ever really finding a more resonant emotional core within its narrative and characters.
Often, the talented actors and complex characters that Spielberg showcases are able to transcend this detached quality. Certainly, that has been the case in Lincoln, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List (all historical dramas). But in others, such as War Horse, Munich, and Catch Me if You Can, we get a terrific, and often engrossing, surface without much depth. Such is the case with Bridge of Spies, so well-made that you can’t help feeling let down when you don’t come away with a deeper connection.