When the bomb comes 

Tom Hanks stars in 'Bridge of Spies.'

'BRIDGE OF SPIES': Tom Hanks plays an insurance lawyer brought into an international espionage incident.
  • 'BRIDGE OF SPIES': Tom Hanks plays an insurance lawyer brought into an international espionage incident.

You can't help but appreciate a title like "Bridge of Spies." The way it's flat and lurid and vague and kind of stupid, in the style of old Cold War noir — like something Fritz Lang would have directed or Graham Greene would have written. You think of trench coats and betrayal and long, sinister shadows. I can't even say it without smiling. Also, one of my co-workers recommended it, or almost: He called it a "good old-folks movie."

The film was directed by Steven Spielberg, whose name is itself a strong, trustworthy, American brand, like Ford Motors or General Electric. You can assume a certain degree of competence. Probably the most conservative of the New Hollywood crowd (compare his script choices to Scorsese's or Friedkin's or Coppola's), Spielberg nevertheless made a career out of rehabilitating — or, depending on your perspective, gentrifying — such otherwise disreputable B-movie scenarios as the UFO invasion, the shark attack and the dinosaur epic. He's at his best when he's reveling in the trash of previous generations, channeling his giddy inner 12-year-old, who could devour comic books with something like spiritual awe. Full disclosure: I'm on his side. For that matter, I'm the only fan of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" I've ever met.

So it's with some pretty profound regret that I tell you we may never know, after all, what Spielberg's pulp Cold War spy thriller would look like. Because this isn't it. With the notable exception of its prologue, this is a spy movie without spying, a political thriller without thrills. It's a good movie that becomes a muddled movie that becomes a long and pedantic movie. What it lacks in intrigue and suspense, it makes up for in attempts at moral gravity. It belongs to that other, parallel tendency in Spielberg's career, the one that brought us "War Horse" and "Munich" and "Amistad" and Oscars. It's a prestige period drama with centrist, uncontroversial political implications. The kind of film in which a stern Tom Hanks asks, at one point, "What makes us Americans?"

For about the first half of the film, the answer to that question turns out to be interesting. A courtroom drama, with Hanks cast in the principled Atticus Finch role, the film follows an insurance lawyer enlisted by the Bar Association to defend an accused Soviet spy — a thankless task nobody wants, designed to fail. Everywhere there are deliberate suggestions of our present political climate: the echoes of extraordinary rendition, drones, blind jingoism and an inept CIA willing to trade the moral high ground for gamesmanship. This half of the film depicts the irrationality of patriotism — when we're just as bad as the enemy, the very concept of an "enemy" loses all meaning, becomes abstracted, a politically useful figment of the nationalist imagination. Hanks' character gets a glimpse of this vision — sympathy for the devil — and so we do, too.

In the second half, though, having stumbled on a provocative idea, "Bridge of Spies" backs down from it and apologizes meekly to anyone who might have been offended. We see East Berlin at its most grim, a sci-fi wasteland worlds away from our sunny American lawns and marmalade and popcorn. What a relief! We treat each other right over here, when it matters — not like those communist savages. Nevermind that the film is set in 1957, when Little Rock was occupied by the National Guard, when American citizens were routinely beaten and murdered for crimes like voter registration.

In other words, what are we doing here? What's the value of another lecture on shifty mid-century totalitarian ideology? One that Spielberg and Hanks don't even seem that invested in? It's a bad fit. Put another way: Spielberg always inspires wonder, but he never inspires. He just doesn't have a knack for history or polemic. If I watched it again, I'd probably wander off after the opening sequence, a bravura "Spy vs. Spy" comic strip that affirms the director's gift for creating visual tension. Like a phantom limb of the thriller that almost was.



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