While watching Bridge of Spies I couldn’t help but think I was in some kind of time loop that had taken me back to 1963. It felt like I was at the Ritz Theater in Winter Haven, Fla., on a Sunday outing with my parents. All it needed was to be followed by being taken to Morrison’s Cafeteria for dinner and then to Rexall Drugs to buy a magazine. Yes, Spielberg’s latest — an F-bomb to one side — really is that old-fashioned. Some will see that as a plus, and while I understand this, I can’t really view it that way. While I can appreciate the basic idea of what could be called a “classical” approach — at least in theory — the results remind me of all the things I disliked about so much of late 1950s and early 1960s filmmaking. It’s too long, too inclined to speechify, too filled with straw-man adversaries, too sold on its own importance — and inclined to be dull. And, since this is Spielberg in full ersatz Frank Capra mode, Bridge brims with corny touches and faux naïveté.
I am not saying that Bridge of Spies is a bad movie. It’s very well-made as concerns production values. There are even some nice stylistic flourishes — usually at scene changes — but I’m not convinced they’re a lot more than window dressing. I don’t even mind that the film plays fast and loose with the James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) character, though I question the need to remake Donovan in James Stewart’s image of the naif American — even if Hanks is the Stewart of our time, but in liberal terms. This is, after all, a movie and not a history lesson, though I’d feel better about that if it didn’t feel like a lesson — and one with a very poorly defined timeline. So much is mashed together that it comes across as taking place in a relatively short time, rather than the five years it spans.
The fact-based story starts with Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, who is the best thing about the movie) being arrested as a spy (there’s no mystery concerning his culpability) and insurance lawyer Donovan being tapped by the government to defend him — or, as the film has it, to put up a show of defending him for PR purposes. This last is probably fiction, but it sets the stage for the Spielbergian David-and-Goliath aspects of it all, since it allows Donovan to be the little guy who sticks to his beliefs and does the right thing against all odds and everyone else’s opinions. In other words, this is feel-good history — you know, the kind that baits Oscar.
The way it all plays out is too complicated to detail here, especially since Francis Gary Powers’ (Austin Stowell) U2 spying incident — along with another plot aspect — has to be factored in. Suffice it to safely say (the trailer does) that it all ends up with a spy swap between the U.S. and the USSR (and the German Democratic Republic) on the bridge of the title. And then we get a series of uplifting post-ending scenes that are startling in their literal-mindedness and high school-level symbolism — not to mention suffering from Return of the King-itis.
There’s no denying that Bridge of Spies carefully crafts a persuasive picture of its era. It hits all the right notes by sketching in anti-communist fever, fear of nuclear war, meat loaf, hair-rollers, ugly TV sets with 77 Sunset Strip playing on them, offering at least a veneer of the period. (That it might be a little free with coiled phone cords in 1957, and that the phrase “That would be me” was hardly common coin at the time, may be let slide.) It undeniably feels solid in broad strokes. Whether it’s real history or just the movie version to one side, it’s all that Capra-esque corniness that keeps me at arm’s length, though I find it kind of ironic that the film ends at almost the exact moment that Capra decided to call it a day as a filmmaker. Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.