Spielberg and the Coen Brothers Channel Howard Hawks in ‘Bridge of Spies’

Your correspondent spent much of the first two acts of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies — which premiered over the weekend at the New York Film Festival — trying to tune in to the picture’s particular wavelength. It wasn’t that it wasn’t working, not exactly; the craftsmanship is indisputable, the story is compelling, the acting stellar. But it’s all very loose, almost offhand, with these peculiar comic interludes and asides. And then something snapped into place, and the whole movie made sense: back in 2011, Spielberg made War Horse, a clear homage to the works of John Ford, and now, in 2015, he’s made his Howard Hawks movie.

It’s not that the subject matter is particularly Hawksian — and, in one great scene especially, Spielberg goes all in on the spy movie milieu, enjoying the tactile pleasures of the rain, the overcoats, the fedoras, the umbrellas. What he seems to borrow from Hawks is his approach to the material. Bridge of Spies opens with a nearly wordless sequence (shades of Rio Bravo), introducing Rudolf Abel, played by the spectacular stage actor Mark Rylance as a man of immense calm and deceptive ordinariness. But he is believed to be a spy, stealing secrets for the Russians (the setting is 1957, with the Cold War in full swing), and his is arrested and charged with espionage.

Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies"

It is, of course, very important that he get the best defense, this being America and all, and that’s where Tom Hanks come in. His James Donovan is a respected insurance attorney — not really a specialist at criminal law, which may not really matter. He quickly discovers he’s mostly a show pony, discovering procedural errors that would get the case thrown out of most courtrooms but are ignored in this one; this is just a mock trial, where the appearance of fairness is more important than actual fairness.

The script — by relative newcomer Matt Charman and, hey, look at that, the Coen Brothers — seems poised to head into true-legal-story waters, but it takes a sharp turn (the criminal trial is skipped entirely), though it does give our hero a speech in front of the Supreme Court about how in times of war, we must let our actions show our combatants “who we are” in our treatment of them and adherence to the rule of law, which is, y’know, timely. But what’s surprising about Bridge of Spies is how it meanders off that story into others: the capture of U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, the construction of the Berlin Wall, an American grad student’s capture by German officers, American nuclear paranoia in the “duck and cover” era, and the political bureaucracy that puts two outsiders in a room together to “have the conversation our governments can’t.”

The oddball humor of some of these scenes gives the film much more of an authorial stamp than the Coens’ last work-for-hire, the bland and forgettable Unbroken; it’s not that Hanks and company are carrying on like characters in The Big Lebowski (or, perhaps more appropriately, The Ladykillers), but the dialogue is certainly witty and intelligent — watch how the sharp insurance negotiation that opens the film, dealing with “our guys” and “one thing,” reappears in the most unlikely of places — and the picture isn’t afraid to put the serious spy stuff on hold for a minute or two here and there, for moments of offhand, human comedy.

Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies"

Hawks used to do that a lot. He made (especially late in his career) “hang-out” movies, and particularly in its later scenes, Bridge of Spies gets in the spirit of a movie like El Dorado or Hatari or the aforementioned Rio Bravo, moving the plot but letting its characters spar and jab at each other and complain about accommodations. The last bit of business between Donovan and Abel on the titular bridge is the kind of deeply-earned-mutual-respect development that Hawks would hang an entire movie on, and if Hanks recalls, as usual, Jimmy Stewart in the opening scenes (Abel: “Are you good at what you do?” Donovan: “Yeah, yeah, pretty good”), by the end, when he’s told he doesn’t have to go out on the bridge, he immediately replies, “Not likely,” with a matter-of-fact confidence that’s less Stewart than Wayne.

Bridge of Spies came in to the NYFF with an almost suspiciously low profile, thrown in as part of the main slate rather than taking the kind of centerpiece slot a film of its star power would normally demand, screening late on a Sunday afternoon without the de rigueur post-media screening press conference. Was this big movie getting buried? Turns out, no — it’s just a modest movie that puts its head down and does its work, and was presented accordingly. Some audiences will probably find it a little talky and a little slow (or perhaps a lot); some will certainly call it “old-fashioned,” and will use that term pejoratively. But when Rylance gives his big speech about the kind of man Hanks is, in front of one of those great Jamusz Kaminksi smeary windows, and the camera pushes slowly in as composer Thomas Newman sneaks in one of his ineffable piano themes over the symphonic score, well, “old-fashioned” is downright refreshing.

Spielberg has picked up the oft-neglected or even derided baton of classical studio filmmaking; Scorsese has done likewise, which is sort of funny, considering they were at the forefront of the ‘70s movement that was that classical era’s death rattle. But however he arrived there, this is a filmmaker with a lifetime of skill and experience, crafting his vintage pictures with style and grace, and we’re all better off for it.

Bridge of Spies premiered this weekend at the New York Film Festival. It opens on October 16th.