Critical Mass: Bridge of Spies is an old-fashioned thriller at its best

It’s a sad commentary on our turbulent geopolitical times that the peak of the Cold War is now viewed with some pangs of nostalgia. In 1957, the globe was split down the middle, with the threat of Soviet and American nukes hanging over every potential crisis and negotiation. Perhaps there was some comfort in the predictability of the opposition, the faith that major decisions would be checked by a preference not to annihilate the world. But there were moments of uncertainty, one of which is the subject of Steven Spielberg’s first movie in three years, Bridge of Spies.

The title refers to a bridge in East Berlin, which was frequently used as the site of prisoner swaps between East and West. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, a World War II veteran who’s settled into success as a prominent insurance lawyer. Though it’s not exactly his realm of expertise, he’s selected to defend an accused Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) in order to demonstrate to the world that every man deserves a right to a fair trial in America. Defending a Commie spy puts stress on Donovan and his family, but his service to his country is only just beginning. When the Soviets shoot down a U.S. spy plane and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), falls into enemy hands, Donovan is sent on a secret mission to Berlin to negotiate Powers’ release in exchange for his client.  

This is the fourth film that Spielberg and Hanks have made together — not counting their HBO World War II miniseries — but Bridge of Spies might have closer ties to two other Spielberg films. “The reason I bring up Amistad and Lincoln in particular is that, along with his latest film Bridge of Spies, they make up what could be called his Constitution Trilogy,” writes EW’s Chris Nashawaty, in his B+ review. “I realize that label may in fact make his new movie sound old-fashioned, patriotic, and sober — and it is those things — but it’s also a crackling Cold War espionage thriller that thrums with suspense and fleet precision.”

For more of Nashawaty’s review and a survey of other critics from around the country, scroll below. 

Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly)
Bridge of Spies is like Capra with a dash of le Carré. Hanks is in his comfort zone as Donovan, showing us a decent man grappling with history and his own civic ideals. But there’s also a rascally twinkle in his eye that shows us that Donovan is more than just a red-white-and-blue father and husband in over his head. Part of him is getting off on the cloak-and-dagger rush of it all. It’s the actor’s best performance since Saving Private Ryan.”

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (The A.V. Club) ▲
“Even when it errs on the side of the heavy-handed, Spielberg’s direction retains a canvas-like quality. Large chunks of Bridge Of Spies may consist of men sitting and talking in evasive doublespeak, but the movie always articulates itself visually, and its two most suspenseful sequences are both effectively wordless … An ode to holding fast to moral principles, geopolitics be damned, becomes a hurrah for old-fashioned big-screen storytelling.”

Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times) ▲
“Fighting off a cold, Donovan keeps telling everyone he just wants to get this thing done so he can go home and crawl into his own bed. Such fine and measured work from Hanks, who is as good as anyone has ever been at playing men of great integrity and warm hearts who aren’t to be trifled with when the heat is on. Don’t mistake the smile and the friendly handshake for weakness.”

Manohla Dargis (New York Times) ▲
“Like some of Mr. Spielberg’s other recent movies, notably Lincoln and Munich, this one is a meticulously detailed period piece that revisits the anxieties of the past while also speaking to those of the present. Yet it also feels lighter than those films, less weighted down by accreted history or maybe by a sense of duty to its significance. There are still stirring speeches and swells of important music — this is Steven Spielberg — yet for all the darkness there is also laughter…”

Ty Burr (Boston Globe)
“The movie is surprisingly low on energy if long on smarts. It’s plush, professional, tonally wobbly, and very watchable. Spielberg and his collaborators (Hanks, longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Adam Stockhausen of Grand Budapest Hotel fame) wallow in the pleasures of craft. But compact and to the point it’s not, and you may be forgiven if your mind more than once wanders to the laundry.”

Peter Debruge (Variety)
“While the helmer’s mythmaking approach makes for great Capra-esque entertainment, younger audiences 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.”

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)
The Bridge of Spies is a consummate professional’s tribute to a gifted amateur, a smooth entertainment with a strong but subtle political subtext that’s both potent and unexpected. The professional would be Steven Spielberg, a director with more than 40 years of experience whose superior filmmaking skills have been with us for so long it’s tempting to take them for granted, which would be a mistake. Storytelling this proficient is never something we see every day.”

David Edelstein (New York)
“Amy Ryan has disgracefully little to do as Donovan’s wife, but various dour agents are convincing and Mikhail Gorevoy has a deliciously evocative Peter Lorre timbre as a KGB mastermind. It’s Rylance who keeps Bridge of Spies standing. He gives a teeny, witty, fabulously non-emotive performance, every line musical and slightly ironic — the irony being his forthright refusal to deceive in a world founded on lies.”

Ann Hornaday (Washington Post)
“Filmed by longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Bridge of Spies looks as if it’s been carved from granite and mist. Blues, grays and chilly puffs of white light are to Spielberg what syrupy ambers are to Woody Allen. Spielberg — himself a child of the duck-and-cover 1950s — adroitly establishes the heaviness and barely contained paranoia of the time, which he depicts with rich, unnostalgic atmosphere.”

Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle) ▲
“Most movies about history are in some way about the times in which they were made. Bridge of Spies is not a direct allegory for our times, but rather a useful reminder that at all the pressure points of our history, there have always been people ready to do an end-run around the Constitution, out of either fear or convenience. Bridge of Spies tells us that the Constitution is not some quaint national luxury but the road map out of the darkness.”

Rene Rodriguez (Miami Herald)
Bridge of Spies has been described as a minor work from a major filmmaker, but the film is too personal to dismiss as a curiosity, and its overall theme blends right in with many of Spielberg’s previous pictures (most notably Munich, Schindler’s List and yes, Lincoln): In a world that’s been turned sideways, where it’s no longer easy to tell right from wrong, how do we preserve our integrity and character while fighting for justice and the common good?”

Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 81
Rotten Tomatoes: 93 percent

Rated: PG-13
Length: 135 minutes
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, John Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan
Directed by Steve Spielberg
Distributor: DreamWorks