Cold War-infused drama is right at the core of American blockbusters. It allows creatives who are trusted by studios to paint a picture of American heroism and tie it to some vaguely known story that is now riddled with holes because of a prime-time adaptation. At least these names are seeing the light of day, and those few that are prompted to read more and discover the history behind Bridge of Spies will no doubt be fascinated by the characters portrayed in this Steven Spielberg feature. They are not portrayed poorly, that is impossible when Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance play the key parts, but something is amiss in this Americanised tale, one that rings rather sickly in a time of political blacklisting and self-proclaimed heroism of a war they joined late.
It is not that Spielberg and company haven’t tried to capture the eerie tensions traded over the table of prisoners of war negotiations, as that is captured quite well, it is that the Americanised way of thinking is far from the truth. Bridge of Spies is certainly entertaining, no questions asked there. What is disappointing though is how humdrum it is about the colloquial need to thrust heroes into all the wrong places. Stained walls and ruined apartments, men in trilby hats and spectacles, it has all the iconography down to the letter. Spielberg even shows bits of inspired, unique direction. His camera swoops low along the floor, for no particular reason. Rylance is fantastic, though. His dithering personality paves the way for great moments of tension, the sleight of hand of a former spy, traded off to save an American prisoner of war.
As great and frequent as these moments are, there is a sour taste lingering. It does not affect all that much. Thankfully Hanks, Rylance and Spielberg have played this game long enough to know what to do with a script intent on hailing the heroes of America. Bridge of Spies has to. Joel and Ethan Coen produce a decent script that feels as though it’d be better off in their hands. The same happened with Suburbicon, but there were disastrous results for that piece. At least Spielberg is the firm hand at the tiller, guiding Bridge of Spies into refreshing, welcome waters. These are the tropes, styles and tricks used by the adaptations of John le Carré and Ian Fleming, just condensed into a roundtable discussion of what is right and wrong when negotiating someone’s life.
Intense and satisfying those moments may be, Bridge of Spies never quite has the scope to do much else with its characters. Strong performances in isolated pockets buffer through this Spielberg piece, which is arguably some of the strongest work he’s managed in the 21st century. That is not a high bar. His only competition, really, is The Terminal and The Adventures of Tintin. Even then, Bridge of Spies falls into that category of thoroughly entertaining moviemaking. It has a familiar intensity to it that will provide boundless entertainment, at the cost of a truly intriguing story. It is not as if he has twisted the narrative to the point of obsoletion, but history buffs may feel misguided in those calmer moments, despite the bulk of the story cutting through as clean as a Hollywood biopic allows it.