There's a moment in many Steven Spielberg films when emotions reach their peak and the soundtrack — often composed by the great John Williams — swells with an orchestral passion that deflates the scene and renders the moment hopelessly sentimental. For Spielberg's detractors, the extraneous crescendo has come to symbolize the dangers of trying to cater to the broadest possible audience without necessary restraint. Why not trust your viewers to follow a good story and earn their emotional responses?
Now 68, Spielberg has left those self-defeating tendencies behind. The director's Bridge of Spies is a Cold War thriller that appears to emanate from a wondrous place where the perceived needs of the marketplace no longer apply. Old-fashioned in the best possible sense, Bridge of Spies employs superb craftsmanship to tell a riveting based-on-true-events story with which few people are familiar. Tom Hanks channeling Jimmy Stewart through a screenplay rewritten by Joel and Ethan Coen for a Steven Spielberg film? Yes, we'll have some of that, please.
In a chain of events known as the 1960 U-2 Incident, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was secretly working for the CIA, was captured by the Soviets, put on very public trial for espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison. A year and a half later, circumstances arose that might allow Powers to return to the U.S. in exchange for a Soviet spy the FBI captured in New York City. Due to Cold War restraints, the secret mission to save Powers was necessarily conducted by a civilian — insurance claims attorney and master negotiator named James Donovan (Hanks). Bridge of Spies tells the unlikely hero's little-known tale.
Spielberg's filmmaking career is filled with stories like Bridge of Spies about seemingly ordinary men who selflessly rise above expectation for the benefit of all. The casting of everyman Hanks in the film's central role supports the entire project's air of inevitability. In this case, doing the job he was born to do constitutes the ideal choice for everyone concerned — especially when combined with a screenplay that gently flouts the conventions of Hollywood spy thrillers. Hired to enhance a reportedly strong original screenplay by British playwright Matt Charman, the Coen brothers (Fargo, The Big Lebowski) lend Bridge of Spies a touch of their signature sardonic wit.
Against all odds — given the politically charged nature of its story — Bridge of Spies finds the sweet spot between cynicism and flag-waving zealotry in its treatment of the Cold War's central ideological conflict. The film manages a subtle warning that nationalism taken too far threatens to subvert the basic principles of democracy. "Shouldn't we show our enemy who we are?" Donovan asks while mounting the constitutionally mandated legal defense for Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance). That question came to the fore in a distant time and place recreated by Bridge of Spies, but it's reflected in today's headlines with alarming precision.