Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival last night, which unleashed the first torrent of reviews. That many critics stood in line for hours in frigid Joaquin-related weather doesn’t seem to have dampened their spirits. While there are few outright raves, the consensus is that the Cold War thriller is can’t-miss, whether for its opening subway chase, the thrilling crash of a U2 spy plane, or Mark Rylance’s turn as Russian spy Rudolf Abel. One word that surfaces a lot is “old-fashioned,” from the elemental decency of Tom Hanks’ Jimmy Stewart-ish performance as lawyer Robert Donovan to Spielberg’s quasi-nostalgia for the black-and-white simplicities of the Cold War. Although the scripts they’ve written for other directors rarely show evidence of their trademark style (see “Unbroken” and “Gambit”), Joel and Ethan Coen leave their mark as well, especially in “Bridge of Spies'” raft of sharply limned supporting characters. (One lamentable exception: Amy Ryan, stuck in a thankless, poor differentiated role as Hanks’ wife.) “Bridge of Spies” may not rank with Spielberg’s best, but after a three-year gap between movies — as long as he’s ever gone in a 40-plus year career — it’s good to see him back up to speed.
Reviews of “Bridge of Spies”
Peter Bradshaw, Guardian
With terrific craftsmanship, pure storytelling gusto and that Midas-touch ability to find grounds for optimism everywhere, Steven Spielberg has dramatised a true-life cold war spy-swap drama, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Those brought up on John Le Carré might perhaps expect from this moral equivalence, shabby compromise and exhausted futility. But Spielberg, with his gift for uncynicism, uncovers decency and moral courage amidst all the Realpolitik.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
A feel-good Cold War melodrama, “Bridge of Spies” is an absorbing true-life espionage tale very smoothly handled by old pros who know what they’re doing. In its grown-up seriousness and basis in historical conflict, Steven Spielberg’s first feature since Lincoln three years ago joins the list of the director’s half-dozen previous “war” films, but in its honoring of an American civilian who pulled off a smooth prisoner exchange between the East and West during a very tense period, the film generates an unmistakable nostalgia for a time when global conflict seemed more clear-cut and manageable than it does now.
Geoffrey Macnab, Independent
The film, based on actual events, evokes memories of everything from “The Third Man” to “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” but what it lacks is their seediness and desperate pathos. Spielberg is dealing with duplicity and deception, with a war that does not involve “men in arms” but the spinning of information and misinformation. Somehow, he still manages to make “Bridge of Spies” into a rousing flag-waver which celebrates the best of American values.
David Edelstein, Vulture
The movie — written by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen, based on a true story — is explicitly a dramatization of personal integrity amid social madness. And Spielberg can be pretty explicit. But as “Lincoln” showed, he has a grown-up passion for the subtle arts of negotiation and persuasion. Donovan embodies the idea that no matter how corrupt the system, a principled, talented individual can set right the most battered and bloody ship of state.
Christopher Gray, Slant
Rife with Donovan’s plainspoken moral authority, “Bridge of Spies” is a good movie that suffers from a lack of anxiety about its convictions. Spielberg counters the false binaries and nuclear bogeymen of Cold War America with an argument built from equal parts liberal humanism and earnest pleas to Constitutional law. Only rarely does the director observe how queasily at odds our patriotism is with our humanity: A stunning series of cuts segues from an audience rising in a courtroom to a group of schoolchildren reciting the pledge of allegiance, and then watching an educational video about how to defend oneself in the event of a nuclear holocaust. The impact of this sequence is blunt, but stirring. Elsewhere, Donovan’s pleas to due process are broadly phrased to allude to contemporary matters of jurisprudence and war posturing, but these political allusions lack the fraught, pinpoint pungency of Spielberg’s work in “Munich,” which managed to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center with an urgency that continues to astonish and unsettle.
Robbie Collin, Telegraph
Spielberg has always presented himself as more of a Frank Capra than an Alfred Hitchcock: he’s a storyteller with interests, rather than an artist with kinks. But “Bridge of Spies” elicits plenty of that wry, nervy tension that underpins some of the best of Hitchcock’s work — as well as that of Carol Reed, another major influence here.
Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out
The verbal gamesmanship brings on a new, energized movie, beginning with Hanks’s charming Donovan, slightly amused in his Irish crankiness, even as his fancy overcoat is stolen by German teens (“You know — spy stuff” is his explanation for the missing garment). Hanks has never seemed more like a modern Jimmy Stewart, drink in hand, just looking to get home to his bed, as the script leans into its cavalcade of slightly bizarre negotiations with Eastern European goons. (The signature of the Coen brothers, who did rewrites, is hard to miss.) “Bridge of Spies” does end up on a “Bridge of Spies,” but forgive it its more literal moments: Getting to its humane climax of coolheaded diplomacy is, paradoxically, Spielberg’s most wily and adult journey since “Catch Me If You Can.”
Peter Debruge, Variety
Spielberg may as well have gone full-“R” with this deliciously shady spy-swap plot, as the richly recreated period drama — which benefits from a crackling Coen brothers script polish — boasts more courtroom time than it does actual cloak-and-dagger intrigue (in one scene, Hanks’ runny-nose hero literally has his cloak stolen off his back by East German street thugs). While the helmer’s myth-making approach makes for great Capra-esque entertainment, younger auds may find it terribly old-fashioned — and they’d be right to think so, although Spielberg would be the first to admit it was his intention to play things classical, resolutely shooting on celluloid, while blending aspects of a tony legal thriller with a hat-tip tribute to the rich, expressionistic look of 1940s film noir.
Graham Fuller, Screen Daily
It was likely the Coens, seeking a flavor of Billy Wilder’s frantic Cold War comedy “One, Two, Three,” who intensified the absurdist comedy of Donovan’s bizarre encounters with the incongruously flashy lawyer (Sebastian Koch), representing East German interests, and the Peter Lorre-like KGB man (Mikhail Goreyev), who poses as the lawyer representing the gushing woman and kids who claim to be Abel’s family. Donovan’s head cold, meanwhile, may have been inherited from Jack Lemmon’s morally compromised corporate climber in Wilder’s “The Apartment.” Spielberg’s dialogue scenes lack the pace and venom of Wilder’s, though, and it’s unsurprising that he’s more comfortable showing how the evolving respect shared by the weary but driven Donovan and the lugubrious if stoical Abel easily overcomes their ideological differences.
Mike Ryan, Uproxx
I felt a lot like I felt after leaving “War Horse”: This is good, but it’s a little disappointing because it’s Spielberg. And maybe it’s not surprising that this is the first leg of a massive run of productivity for Spielberg coming in the next couple of years, with “The BFG,” “Ready Player One,” and the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle, “It’s What I Do,” soon following. Do you know how when even very successful musical artists — say, Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band or U2 (the band, not the plane we will be talking about later) — start a new tour, their early shows are “rough”? Still good! — but not as good as the band will be after a few months of touring. Even though it’s not really the same thing, I suspect that’s how we will think about “Bridge of Spies” — a master at his craft warming back up.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
No matter how many twists it takes, “Bridge of Spies” maintains a predictable visual polish thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose blue-hued street scenes and bright indoor lighting have been become as much Spielbergian touchstones as its themes. The score, by Spielberg newcomer Thomas Newman, apes the John Williams playbook of gentle piano and occasional trumpeting declarations. It’s never subtle, but even a smart movie about dueling agendas like “Bridge of Spies” winds up in some pretty obvious places.
Rodrigo Perez, The Playlist
The director’s technique is impeccable as usual and “Spies” looks like a million bucks in every single frame with art departments, costumes and cinematography working in concert to create something that always looks, feels and smells as top-shelf as the handsome and hardy Sacks Fifth Avenue trenchcoat Hanks wears (Janusz Kaminski’s lensing is aces as usual). Spielberg could shoot a character reading the phone book and it would still be absorbing so if some of the movie’s tenor seems routine, predictable and occasionally even banal — and in truth it does at times, but results will vary per viewer—the craft of the movie goes a long way to compensate for its sometimes strained desire to import gravitas.
Alonso Duralde, The Wrap
The segment of the film dealing with Donovan’s legal defense of Abel — against the wishes of both his firm and his family he took his objections to those search warrants all the way to the Supreme Court — makes for a powerful parable about the era of Snowden and Guantanamo, where “but” and “except for” started creeping their way into discussions about civil liberties and right to trial. (Donovan’s testimony to SCOTUS even mentions that Abel’s status exists in a gray area, since he’s neither a criminal nor a captured military combatant.) This portion of the story turns out to be the first and most successful of the three movies unfolding in “Bridge of Spies” Once Donovan goes to Europe to make the swap, the plot downshifts into fairly standard cloak-and-dagger stuff, which is entertaining but not nearly as provocative as what came before it. And then, as the capper, we get Spielberg (abetted by the screenplay and another unsubtle Thomas Newman score) unable to resist hitting the same nail on the head three or four times to make sure that everyone in the back row got the message.
Jordan Hoffman, Mashable
Spielberg does a great job of representing the strangeness of divided Berlin, but the movie eventually spins out into a series of lengthy business meetings. The script (from Matt Charman and, surprisingly, the Coen Brothers) crackles a bit when Donovan is in full negotiation mode. It will intrigue anyone who’s ever brokered a complex deal, but the movie as a whole is too reserved to interest folks who aren’t History Channel enthusiasts.