It’s become achingly apparent to me, that most critics and audiences believe that Steven Spielberg never makes a misstep–and that sentiment would be dead wrong. For past offenses, I’ll point to 1991’s charmless “Hook” and 2004’s execrable “The Terminal”. Both works have their share of fervent supporters. Of course, Tom Hanks was the star of that latter vehicle, and he returns to Spielberg territory to headline the director’s latest, “Bridge of Spies”. But, earnest as he is, I barely believe Mr. Hanks’ James Donovan character here. It’s like his Walt Disney portrayal waltzed over from the awful “Saving Mr. Banks” from 2013. His role is all good-natured falsity. I didn’t believe either of those Hanks portrayals for a minute, as actual human beings. Whereas his 2013 “Captain Phillips” creation is quite possibly my favorite of Hanks’ work. He was painfully realistic in that–so I’m placing the “Bridge of Spies” blame on the anointed head of Mr. Spielberg, and the movie’s team of screenwriters (Joel & Ethan Coen among them!). Plus, Spielberg and the writers squander what was shaping up as the film’s best performance, with the very intuitive acting from Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife, Mary. She deserves a better movie. And veteran Alan Alda appears…then vanishes. Why even bother?
Rudolf Abel (theatre actor, Mark Rylance) is grabbed by the FBI in 1957 Brooklyn, and charged with being a KGB spy. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan is asked to be his defense lawyer, but the expectation is that he will not put a great deal of effort into representing him. But when “boy scout” Donovan actually does his job, and makes a real attempt to clear Abel, his house is shot up and he’s buried in hate mail labeling him a traitor. Still, when Abel is found guilty, Donovan rightly files an appeal–and loses again. Meanwhile, Francis Gary Powers is infamously shot down over Russia in his u-2 spy plane, and captured. Before long, the Berlin Wall is being built to separate the East and West Germans, and another young American is arrested at the border as a spy. Soon, James Donovan is sent to Germany, to attempt to negotiate a tricky prisoner exchange.
There’s a solidly adult, exciting, historical story to be told here, but Mr. Spielberg doesn’t supply it. Instead he gives us a selection of some of his most embarrassing directorial touches in years. At least with 2011’s “War Horse” he was setting out to direct an old-fashioned, sappy, Hollywood melodrama. In “Bridge of Spies”, with bookend scenes involving menacing scowls and approving nods inside a subway car, he’s outdone himself in his capacity for saccharine overkill. And speaking of “The Terminal”, remember that janitor character who kept saying, “Do you have an appointment?”? Spielberg does. Except this time he has Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel character keep repeating “would it help?”? It’s supposed to be a knee-slapper, which I guess it could be, if Abel’s very life wasn’t on the line whenever he said it. Mr. Spielberg thought this a rib-tickler? His instincts are all out-of-whack on “Bridge of Spies”…which, of course, almost guarantees it a Best Picture nomination next month. Mr. Rylance has received a lot of praise for his work here, and he’s often quite good…until the screenplay completely betrays him. There is an exciting plane crash sequence in “Bridge of Spies”, that is marvelously rendered. Also, a silent opening segment is stunningly effective. Steven Spielberg’s mastery of craft is never in question. But he often chickens out and goes for easy platitudes when the going gets tough, and falls back on his typical fall backs like children in peril, and arm-chair philosophizing. He lost me pretty early in, and I’m disappointed that a number of usually reliable critics are giving him a pass. “Bridge of Spies” may be my least favorite of his films. “1941” is superior.