For the last 30 years or so, Steven Spielberg's filmography has been a tale of two divergent directors. Already a soaring, generation-defining success after crafting such instant classics as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., Spielberg first tried his hand at 'serious filmmaking' with 1985's The Color Purple, a flick that was rewarded with 11 Oscar nominations (and a still-infamous zero wins). While the commercial, popcorn-friendly side of the filmmaker was still at large as recently as 2011 (The Adventures of Tintin), the last three decades have seen a pretty even split between Steven Spielberg-King of the Blockbuster, and Steven Spielberg-Master of the Prestige Picture. The divide has proven strikingly absolute; the auteur's fluffier stuff has possessed little room for real-world allegories or political point-making, while the more straight-faced affairs hardly ever crack a smile. His latest, Bridge of Spies, almost demands that you show reverence while buying a ticket, barring its 'Message Movie' identity almost as blatantly as its desire to win golden statues.
National treasure and awards season heavyweight Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer in mid-50's Brooklyn who, in the film's opening passages, is tasked with a doozy of a case; defending known Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in a court of law. After several meetings between the two, Donovan's initial reluctance turns into empathy and intrigue, prompting the lawyer to focus his considerable energy and intellect on saving the man's life. The American public is appalled by his efforts, but in helping Abel avoid the electric chair, Donovan wisely foresees an opportunity to save a captured American in a civil hostage exchange. His prediction comes to fruition in the form of downed spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell)... as well as mistakenly detained American economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). Negotiations for a two-for-one swap begin immediately, with Donovan suddenly finding himself firmly entrenched in the Cold War conflict.
The trailer for Bridge of Spies covers all of its standard Academy Award aspirant bases; serious, real-life subject matter, a gorgeously-rendered depiction of yesteryear, household names in front of the camera, and a legendary filmmaker behind it. What they fail to convey, however, is just how fun the film is to watch. Bucking the previously described binary that's come to define his recent work, Spielberg is clearly having a blast here, relaying a simple, inspiring story of wit and bravery under extreme circumstances. Compare this to his recent attempts to tell the story of our country's most iconic president (Lincoln), and portray the vast entirety of WW1 as a lyrical John Ford film (War Horse), and this is a decidedly smaller undertaking.
Shedding some of that weight has enlivened every facet of the helmer's work, from the engrossing pace established by editor Michael Kahn, to the immediately believable production design of Adam Stockhausen, to Matt Charman and the Coen brothers' ceaselessly engaging script. Even cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose previous collaborations with Spielberg have born one sedated, over-saturated image after another, sends his camera flying around the room, capturing the proceedings with zest and visual curiosity. This is undoubtably a 'Serious Steven Spielberg Movie,' but they must have finally snuck an espresso machine onto the set; for the first time in years, there's a real sizzle to the industry titan's work.
The humming of the engine isn't regulated to the production department. Rylance is almost assured an Academy Award nomination for his deft, stoic, chuckle-worthy turn here, though his involvement in the film's proceedings lessens in the movie's second half. Hanks' role never wains even slightly, Donovan proving the lone constant in a tale chuck-full of moving parts. Like Matt Damon in The Martian, this is the kind of performance that's exclusively suited for a legitimate Movie Star, immediately and consistently attaining audience sympathy and trust with his warm familiarity. In fact, the comparison to The Martian works all the way down the line; both are feel-good films positing an idealized civility between all humans, starring an iconic thespian, and directed by highly-regarded individuals who haven't seemed this clear-eyed and invested in years. Spielberg might still be two filmmakers rolled into one, but in Bridge of Spies, we finally get to see them work in concert with one another, and the results are vivacious and heartening.