Overview: James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) a New York insurance lawyer, is tasked with defending Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; 2015; Rated PG-13; 141 minutes.
What It Has: Written by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, and Matt Charman, and directed by Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies has everything it needs to work. It has an engaging story, fascinating characters, and the natural tension of the Cold War. And yet it falters, landing somewhere significantly better than a bad film, but far short of greatness.
What It’s Missing: The biggest issues in Spielberg’s latest come from what would appear to be its greatest strengths. Most noticeably, there’s a comedic disconnect between the Coen Brothers and the film’s director. There are plenty of funny moments in Bridge of Spies, but they’re quirky moments of the Coen Brothers’ brand of funny, and under Spielberg’s direction they sometimes miss the mark. But the humorous stumbles are nothing compared to the film’s greater divided perspective. The Coen Brothers are at their best when they work in the gray area of human morality. People are both good and bad, both justified and irrational. Conversely, Spielberg works best with tried and true heroes, men who do the right thing because it’s the right thing, characters who are good people and make the right decisions. Think Oskar Schindler. Think Indiana Jones.
Collaborative Dissonance: With the Coen Brothers playing to the in-between dramatic pauses, and Spielberg playing to the extreme set pieces, such individually talented powers combined simply don’t play well together. Bridge of Spies’ Coen Brothers-penned script alludes to gray areas, like the fact that Donovan is putting his family’s lives in danger by taking on the case, or in the way in which Abel is still a decent and loyal person despite the fact that he’s working for the wrong country. But Spielberg doesn’t linger on these questions. He directs Donovan as a hero who will do the right thing because he must, because it’s his duty. He dances around the gray area of Abel’s character, rather than plunging into it the way that the Coen brothers might. Both Spielberg and the Coen Brothers’ methods are great in their own films, but when they’re forced to collaborate, the film is left feeling uneven, as if something’s been sacrificed in the inclusion of both perspectives.
Overall: Spielberg’s latest film never reaches a satisfying crescendo, falling short of even the most astronomical expectations for the director’s partnership with the Coen Brothers.