That the former whiz kid who helped usher in the age of the modern effects-heavy blockbuster adventure is now settling in peacefully into the role of elderly statesman seems to underlie just how much yesterday's rebels become tomorrow's conservatives. And, indeed, Steven Spielberg has actually gone on to say (in a recent New York Times interview) that he would have enjoyed working within the constraints of the old-fashioned studio system.
None of this is surprising especially if you take into account how much Mr. Spielberg was always the "odd man out" in the New Hollywood generation he was a part of - rising through the ranks of television and B-movies within Universal, enjoying the role of a director capable of churning out mass-media entertainment and prestige pictures in the manner of the old Warners war-horses like Michael Curtiz. For all that, Mr. Spielberg's work has always seemed to me to struggle between the heart and the brain, the energy and the though, and one that usually is better when the director leads off with his emotions and his innate, almost Hitchcockian sense of what will get an audience to tick, rather than in the stodgier serious dramas that tend to weigh him down needlessly.
Bridge of Spies seems, on first sight, to follow in the footsteps of the constrained theatrics of Lincoln - a worthy history lesson bogged down by its own sense of bloated self-importance - rather than in the ravishing storytelling gestures of the flawed but heartfelt War Horse. But it turns out that, despite the odd longueur, the new film proves to be a smart addition to his canon, so to speak "bridging" his desire for fast-paced entertainment and his interest in serious issues.
Set at the 1960 height of the Cold War, as the Berlin wall is being built, Bridge of Spies dramatizes the real-life exchange of NYC-based Russian spy Rudolf Abel for captured spy-pilot plane Gary Powers, as negotiated by a civil-law attorney roped in somewhat against his will. This man, Jim Donovan, is the real hero in Mr. Spielberg's film, and is portrayed as the ideal of the stand-up American guy, the member of the "Greatest Generation" whose patriotism is unimpeachable.
Initially called on to provide the trial defense of Abel, Donovan's sense of morality prevents him from giving his own government a carte blanche in the name of security, refusing to provide a semblance of due process and acquiesce to higher political interests that are ultimately not in the interest of the society he fought for. His steadfast integrity makes him a beacon, a moral, immobile compass at the heart of a system that is beginning to swerve far too much with the storms outside; no wonder Donovan is played by Tom Hanks, the closest contemporary American film has to the "common American" of the 1940s and 1950s like James Stewart and Henry Fonda portrayed, the one actor that could successfully pull off such a "guy next door" today.
And, of course, through this real-life story set in an America awash in the fear-mongering of the Red Scare and atomic war, it's the modern-day America and its contradictory impulses of protectionism and exceptionalism that Mr. Spielberg is slyly mirroring and indicting, mustering through Mr. Hanks the folksy, common-sense smarts of the average Joe that served Frank Capra's activist melodramas of the post-Great Depression so well. He does so at the heart of a cracklingly realised spy yarn that plays like a light-hearted take on something like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold - "the lawyer who flew into the cold", if you will.
It is a parlour game of sorts; the real decisions in the spy game are made at length in distant head offices, the script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers portraying espionage as a calculated chess game of influences where the actual men on the field are disposable pawns at the mercy of the political needs, not unlike the backroom horse-trading going on in Lincoln. But, because there is a suspense element of secrecy and unpredictability involved in the plot development, Mr. Spielberg masters the film's tempo very slyly. His deft use of handheld camera in important moments of surprise and action, interwoven with the more classical, unobtrusive storytelling he is known for, is proof enough of his ability to move on with the times - despite Janusz Kaminski's very eighties stage-light-silhouetting and the script's over-egging of folksiness in the final act.
Yet, while this is not Mr. Spielberg's finest hour - it does feel like an old-fashioned studio movie he could have made in his sleep - neither is it as stodgy as Lincoln or as shameless as War Horse. It's, just, Steven Spielberg doing well what he knows best how to do.
BRIDGE OF SPIES
US, India, UK, Germany, 2015, 141 minutes
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda
Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; cinematography Janusz Kaminski (widescreen); music by Thomas Newman; production designer Adam Stockhausen; costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone; film editor Michael Kahn; produced by Mr. Spielberg, Marc Platt and Kristie Macosko Krieger, for Fox 2000 Pictures, Dreamworks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Afterworks Limited, Studio Babelsberg, Amblin Entertainment and Marc Platt Productions in association with Participant Media and TSG Entertainment
Screened November 18th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon