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22 Oct 2015

A Historical Bore: Steven Spielberg Misses the Mark With Tom Hanks and 'Bridge of Spies'

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Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies. Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies.

Steven Spielberg continues a mini-slump with another good-looking yet terminally boring historical drama.

After the middling Lincoln comes the sleepy Bridge of Spies. This is Spielberg’s fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, and their first since 2004’s terrible The Terminal. It doesn’t represent a return to the glory of Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan.

This film certainly had a lot going for it. It’s Spielberg’s take on spying during the Cold War in the 1960s, which sounds like it should be exciting—and it’s a collaboration with the Coen Brothers. Joel and Ethan chipped in on the screenplay, which usually means good things are afoot.

I wish Joel and Ethan had directed it as well; perhaps then the film would’ve had more edge and been less cutesy, with its emotions a little less obvious and drippy. Also, a discernible pulse for the majority of the running time would’ve been nice.

Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a U.S. tax attorney who lands the unenviable task of representing alleged Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). While Donovan’s law firm and the courts see the whole thing as an open-and-shut case, Donovan makes it known that his intentions are to represent Abel to the full extent of the law. Cue the grouchy judge and perplexed bosses—and you know one of them is going to be played by Alan Alda.

In a parallel story, some pilots join the CIA in a new spying program with U-2 planes. One of those planes gets shot out of the sky at 70,000 feet, giving the Russians their own spy prisoner in Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). With the erection of the Berlin Wall, yet another “spy” is captured when Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student who picked a crappy time to study in Berlin, is apprehended by the East Germans.

Those captured American stories crisscross with Abel’s story as Donovan winds up overseas trying to negotiate prisoner exchanges.

Hanks is characteristically good in the central role. The film is at its best when Donovan is trudging through the streets of Berlin, trying to find the Russian embassy and evading thugs who are trying to steal his fancy coat. Hanks instills these moments with some good humor. It’s not one of his greatest performances, but it’s a solid one.

While the film bores me, but there is a sequence that pops with great intensity and displays Spielberg hitting all of his marks: When the Powers’ plane is shot down, the sequence leading up to him finally getting his parachute open is terrific. It feels like it should’ve been in another movie—perhaps one in which somebody turns a light on during the interior scenes.

Spielberg has directed only a few major bombs (1941, The Terminal, Hook), with a couple of films that were OK (Amistad, Always) and a boatload of classics. His last two movies don’t fall into any of those categories: Lincoln and Bridge of Spies are mediocre films that could’ve been great.

Spielberg needs to have fun in the fantasy sandbox again. Whether it’s the long-rumored fifth Indiana Jones, or some sort of sci-fi adventure, I want his next movie to be less about period haircuts and neckties, and more about storylines with energy. He’s getting hung up on films in which characters blather on and on in dark courtrooms and back offices. It’s tiresome and beneath him.

Many years ago, I would defend Spielberg films to people who thought he overdid it on the sentimentality. Many moments in Bridge of Spies had me remembering those arguments, because the moments dripped with sap. If somebody were to tell me today that Spielberg is overdoing it with the sentimentality, I’d raise my glass in agreement, then quietly shed a tear, because one of my favorite directors gone (temporarily, I hope) astray.

Bridge of Spies is playing at theaters across the valley.

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