Steven Spielberg, a man who has without doubt locked down his spot on the list of all-time great American storytellers, has tantalised with a few false dawns over recent years. Having arguably not made a great film since 2002’s Minority Report, Spielberg has promised big things with the likes of Munich, Lincoln and War of the Worlds, and delivered pretty decent, but ultimately second tier movies. I don’t think it would be unfair to say he’s managed to find himself stuck in B+ mode; making films that, while watchable, seem to fall somewhat short of his own very high standards.

Every Spielberg film comes with a ‘return to form’ or ‘his best for years’ tag proudly plastered over its promotional literature and Bridge of Spies has the look of a textbook latter-day offering. Is that a fair assessment? Well Bridge of Spies boasts a Cohen Brothers-penned script, the ever-dependable Tom Hanks and the added presence of Mark Rylance, a man widely regarded as the finest actor currently in work. It also has a slight sense of bagginess, a propensity to dip into caricature and dubious comedy, and a feeling of a job pretty well done rather than being carried off with consummate aplomb. Rylance will rightly reap the plaudits, but I suspect that Bridge of Spies will be remembered as a very solid, rather than spectacular, movie.

Adapted from true events, Bridge of Spies sees Hanks play James Donovan, a New York lawyer given the unenviable task of defending captured soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance). Donovan is expected to make only a token effort, but after meeting Abel gives it his all, reasoning that he is entitled to due legal process and deserves a fair trial. Unsurprisingly, Abel is found guilty but Donovan’s thorough work convinces the judge to sentence him to a lengthy prison term, rather than execution. A decision that comes in handy when a US pilot is shot down over the Soviet Union and Donovan is drafted in to negotiate a prisoner swap between Abel, the pilot and a captured American student.

In many ways Hanks’s performance holds this all together. Rylance has an infinitely smaller, more intriguing role to play and will no doubt attract awards season attention, but Hanks is the glue. His performance is characteristically Hanks: utterly charming, affable and radiating that typical sense of honest-to-goodness American scrupulousness and sense of fair play. Rylance, a master of understatement, plays it with a sense of low-key ease that emphasises one of the movies’ central ideas of normal men in exceptional circumstances, and works well with the few delicate comic lines he’s given.

There’s some sub-textual food for thought as schoolchildren blindly rattle off the pledge of allegiance to the stars and stripes and an interesting look at the creeping effect of McCarthyism in Cold War America as Donovan’s young son begins to panic-fill every waterproof vessel in his house with drinking water. But there’s a muddled sense of mixed messages as the film enters into its second half and Spielberg begins to indulge a little too much in a heavy-handed tendency to paint all Russians as jack-booted thugs. The Soviet soldiers look, at times, like they’ve wandered in off the set of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, undermining Donovan’s earlier, impassioned speech to the courthouse that these are normal people following their own ideology in no different a way than the American public follow their own.

In many ways, this clumsiness may not matter a great deal to an audience drawn by the promise of a couple of great central performances, and great they are. But even an acting masterclass can’t quite disguise the fact that this is still Spielberg in second gear.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan
Runtime: 141 mins
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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