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Sunday, February 21, 2016

How Bridge of Spies Shows The Ending Stages of Steven Spielberg's Career

When all is said and done, Steven Spielberg might be known as America's greatest director of all time. Classics such as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial are some of the greatest films ever and near and dear to many people's hearts. Spielberg has shown a great knack for story structure and story telling, and he's had the opportunity to be great over several genres. Yet as he comes off his 32rd directorial motion picture and as he enters his fifth decade of movie making, I am not so sure Spielberg should be making movies anymore, and each new movie he makes tarnishes his legacy that much more. It doesn't diminish his past accomplishments, but it does diminish the way people like me think of him and respect him. That's why I watch a good film like Bridge of Spies and not ever want to see another Steven Spielberg movie again.

As a millennial, Spielberg isn't making movies for me anymore. He's making movies for my 60 year old parents and Oscar voters. I'm sure some of that has to do with Spielberg's age (he turned 69 last December), yet 70 year old George Miller just made Mad Max: Fury Road so that can't be all of it. I just think Spielberg lost whatever edge he had to begin with, and isn't in the same creative mind space that he has occupied for the last 40 years. His last five films have been: Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin, and Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. His last good movie was 2005's Munich- which is now over a decade old. Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, and War Horse are films meant for an elderly generation, and Tintin and Crystal Skull are films that 30-years-ago Spielberg would have made classics, yet fell flat (really flat with Crystal Skull). Whatever sense of adventure he had that made films like Raiders and Jurassic Park great is completely gone, and whatever eye he had for drama seems to appeal to a generation that's dying out. I don't mean to be ageist when it comes to film making- people like my parents and grandparents need to be able to enjoy films- but if you can't appeal to younger moviegoers as well then those films will be lost by the wayside.

Bridge of Spies takes place during the height of The Cold War and stars Tom Hanks (this is the fourth collaboration between Hanks and Spielberg) as a New York attorney James Donovan who is forced to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spy caught by the F.B.I. and charged with treason. The United States of America wants to show how honorable and good it is, and gives Abel his due process and a fair trial. Of course, Abel truly gets neither (his trial is a publicity stunt), but Hanks' Donovan does manage to avoid getting Abel a death sentence by convincing the trial Judge that Abel is an insurance policy trade bait in case an American spy gets captured.

Hey, wouldn't you know it, but American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a character that the film spends an inordinate and unnecessary amount of time on during its 142 minute run time, get captured, and the second half of the film sends Donovan to East Germany to negotiate a Powers for Abel swap to get the American soldier back home.

Hanks' James Donovan is Atticus Finch- a truly good and honorable attorney who represents a man not getting a fair trial and is trying to do the right thing in the face of unquestionable scrutiny. Though, unlike Finch who represents the good and purity in human nature, Donovan represents the goodness of 'Merica. This film is so blatantly pro-American that Clint Eastwood wants to do a remake about it (but with more enemy killings). There is no nuance to this film. America is clearly 100% right and the best place ever, and East Germany and the U.S.S.R. are just the fucking worst. I'm not saying East Germany and the U.S.S.R. should be painted as good guys, but at least have some nuance and shading to them as well as to the U.S.A.

It's this viewpoint for which the film is told that bugs me the most. I think this storytelling structure is why many people (including the section of The Academy who nominated it for Best Picture) enjoy and will enjoy the film (seriously, if you have kids in college or older, see this film. You'd like it a lot), but it's why I disliked Bridge of Spies so much.

Having a glossy finish like Bridge of Spies has is a trademark of Steven Spielberg. It's why people assume he ruined Kubrick's vision with "his own ending" of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. However, making a movie go down smooth and finishing strong doesn't mean the beginning and middle have to be uninteresting. One of my favorite Spielberg films is Minority Report, a film that ends with a great taste in your mouth (although I love that the third act is not as hunky dory as it seems on its face- but that's for another blog post) yet is rough around the edges for almost the entire journey.

Bridge of Spies is clean cut American propaganda that seems to be the staple of Steven Spielberg's career. Yet unlike his past work, it's difficult to make a justification for why this particular story, and in particular the way it was told, should be made. Trying a Russian spy and then using him as trade bait seems rife for a Hollywood film, yet Steven Spielberg found a way to make it bland and cliche. In fact, Steven Spielberg is finding ways to make everything he films bland, cliche, and uninteresting. It's a shame too, because I really want to see the old Steven Spielberg back again.



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