I'm not sure I'm qualified to critique a Steven Spielberg film. Large parts of my definition of how to make a good film come from Spielberg, who, in turn, distilled the ideas of old masters such as Hitchcock, Kubrick, Harryhausen, and Capra into wildly popular entertainments. Of all of the extremely talented directors to come out of the 1970s — Lucas, Coppola, De Palma, etc. — Spielberg is the most prolific and populist. Only Martin Scorsese rivals his artistic batting average. Sure, Spielberg can be cheesy, but Scorsese never really tried to make a big-tent spectacle picture, while Spielberg has occasionally elevated simple monster movies to the realm of high art. Since Spielberg's been copied six ways to Sunday, it's easy to take him for granted. That is, until he drops an atomic bomb of greatness like Bridge of Spies.
Like Saving Private Ryan, Bridge of Spies opens with a huge, bravado sequence that sets the realm of the film's conflict. But it's 1957, and the Cold War is in full effect, so instead of storming the beaches at Normandy, we're treated to an interlocking series of tracking shots of FBI agents stalking Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) through Brooklyn.
There are no dinosaurs or sharks or aliens in Bridge of Spies, but there is a giant monster looming just off-screen: nuclear war. I think it's hard for people who didn't spend their childhood in abstract fear of Soviet missiles raining atomic death to understand people's motivations in spy movies of the period. Directors didn't have to explain the stakes, because everybody knew that a tiny slipup could lead to the destruction of civilization. But Spielberg, ever the effective communicator, conveys the mood of the times perfectly with a single scene where his everyman hero James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) comforts his young son Roger (Noah Schnapp) who has been traumatized by a "duck and cover" instructional film.
Donovan is a lawyer who distinguished himself at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals, but is now living a comfortable life practicing insurance law. Because of his experience and integrity, he is chosen by the New York State Bar Association to be Abel's attorney. His job, he is told, is to demonstrate the superiority of the American legal system by mounting a defense of the accused spy. He earns the ire of the press and his colleagues when he saves Abel from the electric chair. After an American U-2 spy plane is shot down over Russia and its pilot Francis Gary Powers is captured, Donovan is called on to defuse the potentially explosive situation by negotiating a prisoner swap in East Berlin.
Working from an excellent screenplay by Matt Charman that was rewritten by Joel and Ethan Coen, both Hanks and Spielberg are at the top of their game. Hanks is unmannered and charming, able to summon a laugh or a gasp with a raised eyebrow or tense gulp. Spielberg can convey in one perfect composition what it takes most contemporary directors three or four quick cuts to get across. Even his scene transitions are things of beauty.
The most important thing about Bridge of Spies is its vision of America. Early on, Donovan sums up his philosophy by saying "It can't look like our justice system tosses people on the ash heap." To fearful 21st-century America, Bridge of Spies is a rebuke that reverberates from Ferguson to Guantanamo Bay. Too many contemporary stories, from 24 to San Andreas, put sociopathic jerks in the protagonist role and all but order you to accept them as heroes. But Hanks and Spielberg understand that heroes need to behave heroically. Here, they're putting forth a real-life lawyer devoted to upholding America's highest ideals, even for its enemies, as a hero to be emulated. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. said, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." Donovan might like Scotch in his Nescafé, but he represents an America that at least pretends to be good.