When the young cineaste Steven Spielberg kicked Hollywood into a new shape with Jaws he was still shy of 30. He was Tarantino mashed with Michael Bay minus the violence and cynicism. But what was the last Spielberg movie to make living fun? To thrill? Lincoln? War Horse? Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull? Munich? Right, he’s just not that much into fun anymore.
Bridge of Spies went down very well with critics, scoring 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and 81 on Metacritic. It hardly needs defending. But at $36m domestic US gross, it’s still a way from earning back its modestish budget of $40m. That’s small beer for Spielberg, the old box office champ: this year Jurassic World, a spawn of his own, made $650m+; comic book franchise Avengers: Age of Ultron: $459m+.
But the nagging note was struck most clearly in the popular NPR podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour: “It’s a Thanksgiving movie” — ie, it’s the safe topic you bring up with older relatives at the compulsory Thanksgiving dinner. “This is the definition of mainstream.” Ouch? “It could have been made in 1962. When you make historical fiction you expect some contemporary sensibility to leach into it … like, Mad Men is filled with that.” Ouch. Even the excellent Michael Phillips at Chicago Tribune, who was keen on the movie, thought it was “square.”
Alas, Spielberg is making movies for his grown up self. Apart from one brief sequence of handheld excitement the movie is delivered with exemplary classicism. Shots are framed for maximum clarity — the edge of a face lit against a dark background. Middle distance shots establish geography. Dialogue is expository and crisply recorded.
In Bridge of Spies Spielberg (still the “poster child for nostalgia” at nearly 70) memorialises the America of the 1950s. The decencies and etiquette. The Russian spy is arrested with a civility not even afforded to high school students today. Spielberg plays an old trick — everyone has noted that is Tom Hanks as Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but not so much the intrinsic meaning of it for Spielberg. He shows us a (gorgeously) meticulous recreation of an America of moral rectitude, the good old days, but points out the lie when the One Good Man stands his ground against the mob to insist on Justice. (Remember the old [young] perky Hanks in Big?) As with the true events it’s based on, Hanks/Donovan takes the fair trial idea all the way to the Supreme Court, against the wishes of his family and his law firm, with his home being shot up. America is great and good, yeah, but actually no, wait a minute…
There it all is: the clean classic style, the textbook pacing, the period morality, the happy family, the one good man. It really is square. It really is old-fashioned. It’s Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” from 1943 (just three years before Spielberg was born). A desideratum of values, The Dream of People Who Believe They are White (in the formulation of Ta-Nehisi Coates in the passionately bleak, bestselling Between the World and Me, but that’s another argument). This is Spielberg’s message. Autumn sunshine on Thanksgiving turkey. And I love it.