Bridge of Spies ★★★★

I have been underwhelmed by most of Steven Spielberg's recent films. I didn't really care for "War Horse" and although "Lincoln" was decent I felt it was overwrought at times. And don't even get me started on "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." The last Spielberg film I thought was really spectacular was "Munich" and that came out in 2005. So I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed "Bridge of Spies."

Based on a true story, "Spies" tells the tale of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a New York city insurance claims attorney who is assigned to defend suspected Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) during the cold war. Although the law states that Abel must receive a credible legal defense, Donovan and his family are ostracized and reviled for Donovan's involvement in the case. Things get even more complicated when the Soviets capture US spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and Donovan is called in by the US intelligence services to orchestrate a clandestine swap of prisoners - Abel for Powers.

This is a solid movie. There are no aliens, robots, shoot-outs, explosions or extensive CGI landscapes. It is just a story of politics and people, a battle between ideologies and values. And although the players involved behind the scenes are massive nation-states, the tale plays out in the lives of everyday people - an insurance attorney from Brooklyn, an economics student in Berlin, etc.

Spielberg plays most of this very straight. There are not a lot of histrionics and he does not, for the most part, use big sound cues or visual tricks to try and make us feel something (as he has done with some of his past films). Instead, working from a crisp script written by Joel and Ethan Coen, he trusts his excellent cast to convey the emotional content of this story. As an audience we connect with the everyman character Hanks plays not in spite of the lack of a grand gesture, but probably because of its absence. Donovan is a man who simply puts one foot in front of the other in an attempt to do what his conscience tells him is right. Sometimes his vision of the right is at odds with others, including his boss (Alan Alda), wife (Amy Ryan) and his CIA handler (Scott Shepherd). But the results of his quiet resolve are remarkable, as the denouement proves.

(It goes without saying that this movie, a tale of xenophobia and political suspicion set almost 60 years ago, has many parallels to our modern times.)

"Bridge of Spies" has a warm look to it when the film is in New York. When the action shifts to the walled, politically divided and snowy streets of Berlin, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski opts for a more muted and cold palette, reminiscent of "Minority Report" or even "Lincoln." As with any Spielberg film, the production design is excellent. There are a few quintessentially Spielbergian shots - places where the camera moves or frames the actions in surprising ways to give the audience inside information or a big reveal. These occur most noticeably in the first scenes of the film where Abel is caught in an act of espionage. But in this situation, the clever shots only add suspense rather than detract from the narrative. And once the story moves to courtrooms and dining rooms, Spielberg plays it cool.

I like this muted version of Spielberg. When he is not trying to force the action or our feelings about it, he is an excellent storyteller. And when he has a great story to work with, as he does here, the results are superb.