It might be time for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks to start seeing other people.
The pairing of one of America’s top directors and America’s greatest everyman actor has yielded two great films (“Saving Private Ryan” and “Catch Me If You Can”) and a good film that bordered on being more (“The Terminal”).
But the cinematic duo’s luck seemingly has run out with “Bridge of Spies,” a fine tale of a fine man that is just fine — save for turning a tale of Cold War diplomacy and deal-making into a yawn-some two hours for the high-schooler in 2016 who inevitably watches it the day the civics teacher calls in sick.
It’s not that there’s no place in this modern world for the Capra-esque (which “Bridge” certainly is), but there’s just really not much in “Bridge” beyond its lionization of James B. Donovan (Hanks).
“Bridge” spans from Brooklyn lawyer Donovan taking on the case of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) to his enlistment by the government to broker a deal to trade Abel for captured U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell).
The strongest moments of “Bridge” are focused on Abel and his treatment by the U.S. government juxtaposed against the caring treatment Donovan gives him as his public defender. The film humanizes Abel in a way that few American films have treated Soviet players, even though we’re decades beyond the end of the Cold War.
If intended as some kind of statement on the current status of Russo-U.S. geopolitics, it’s the only truly resonant subtext for audiences here in 2015.
On a baser level, Donovan’s exile to East Berlin to work out a deal swap prisoners with the U.S.S.R. and East Germany solidifies the film’s most-prominent theme: Yearning for home and family. What’s surprising about this is that “Bridge” devotes more energy to making this clear in the case of Abel than it does for Powers, the latter simply garnering the audience’s empathy through the torturous sleep deprivation tactics of the Soviets.
The film does have a strong visual style by way of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski working with production designer Adam Stockhausen and visual effects chief Kimberly Aller to seamlessly recreate Cold War Berlin and a stunning sequence in which Powers is shot down over enemy territory.
Viewed through the proper lens, “Bridge of Spies” is a solid tale of Donovan thanklessly sacrificing his reputation in service to his country. But the nuts and bolts of the film aren’t tremendously compelling; even scenes of verbal sparring between Donovan and his Soviet and East German counterparts are bereft of intensity or intrigue.
Hanks is one of the best actors of his generation for timing and comedy, which often makes his work so natural that it feels effortless, that he’s simply tossing on his wardrobe and fiddling with his accent a tad. It’s deceptive in the same way a John le Carré story is. But Hanks is one of the few connections between that kind of riveting storytelling and this film.
“Bridge of Spies” is rated PG-13. Two hours, 15 minutes. Three stars out of five.