Over the course of 40 years, director Steven Spielberg has made a career out of chronicling the American way. From the government offices of Lincoln to the beaches of Jaws, he has found new ways to explore patriotism within the country's rich history - often in relation to big, awe-inspiring set pieces. In his latest film Bridge of Spies, he turns in a film that combines his sense for adventure with his maturing sense for drama in what can be described as Mr. Smith Goes to Berlin; a Cold War film in which James Donovan (Tom Hanks) fights for what's right, even as his patriotism turns him into a notorious figure among his fellow citizens. The film is a tale of humanity for the 21st century, turning Communism not into an evil; but a complicated web in which harmless individuals get stuck. Is it bad? Maybe a little. However, this film chooses to ask us why we shouldn't give them the justice they deserve.
Early on in the film, James is seen in a discussion with a C.I.A. member in a bar. When asked to give up personal information regarding his client, a Communist named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), James gives a spiel that is - for lack of a better analogy - as American as apple pie. He discusses how despite their different heritages, the C.I.A. member and himself deserve the same liberties for being citizens. Even if Abel is from Germany, he deserves a fair trial and not one predisposed to hanging him for his involvement. It's the beginning of complications that include Americans falling into enemy hands and sending James abroad. He doesn't want to be there, but he personally fights for equality among the easy way out. It's a patriotic story akin to James Stewart turning blue in the face in that courtroom as he tells Washington D.C. to be fair to the individual. Even if this film gets darker than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it's about as Frank Capra as Spielberg is likely to get.
It also helps that Spielberg does this from the perspective of American citizens. The editing alone is an astounding effort in which juxtaposition is key. Over the course of five minutes, Spielberg cuts from Abel's trial to a classroom doing the Pledge of Allegiance into a nuclear bombing video. It cuts to the point abruptly, already forcing the audience to alter the way they consider common beliefs. While we see Abel performing Communist acts, we also see Americans filming German landscapes for similar gain. it's a petty fight between both sides. Where this could turn into a simple analogy of both sides being evil, it goes one step further and decides that both sides are flawed. Spielberg explored this to strong effect in Schindler's List and does so with cyclical effect over the course of this film's running time with returning visual motifs that run throughout the film.
At the center is James, who is the do gooder whose motivation is that he doesn't want to be there, but has to. It thankfully adds an underlying sense of comedy to the film that takes a dark subject and provides deeper insight and motivations to its characters. At one point, James asks Abel to show emotion. Abel replies "Would it help?" It's a funny juxtaposition to James, who is nothing but emotionally patriotic, complaining about various atrocities along his journey. Even then, he feels the repression that Abel displays as he journeys into enemy territory and faces uncertain futures. The film doesn't work if James isn't likable, and thankfully Tom Hanks gives another great performance that is as nuanced and charismatic as his best work usually is.
Most of all, this is Spielberg finding the perfect middle ground. Where he became known for bombast set pieces in Saving Private Ryan, he has evolved into a dramatically more complex director whose work can be understated, as evident in Lincoln. Here we get his love of history in every intricate detail, including the city of Berlin as the Berlin Wall is being built. It's an immersive experience in which a plane being shot down has the same dramatic depth as the eventual trade-off that caps the movie. It's one of the few films in which Spielberg feels like he takes his study of humanity and goes international. It's not a film denouncing Communism, but one that asks us to understand the people stuck underneath its control. It's a powerful approach that makes this an essential film int he study of justice as well as one of Spielberg's greatest achievements in film, providing one of the most intricate, beautiful, and moving explorations of Communism since director Warren Beatty's Reds.
Bridge of Spies is a film that is billed as a spy thriller, but is so much more. It isn't about the espionage so much as the people who get stuck in it. Hanks as the every man proves to work once again and gives him and Spielberg their best collaboration together since Catch Me If You Can. It's a poignant film, rich with understanding. It's a stimulating story that is just as much drama as it is suspense. It's a film that encapsulates the Cold War and the fear of Communism while also capturing something more pure about the American citizen. It's a dream of a better future done through the power of communication. James Donovan is as close as Spielberg has come to a Frank Capra character and may as well be the Cold War successor to Atticus Finch. It's a powerful drama that proves that Spielberg still has the power and confidence that we always praise him for having. It's arguably more mature and stronger than it's ever been.