There are some movie scenes so cornball that only Frank Capra could get away with them. Think about Gary Cooper doing a radio address in Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941):
But, we’ve all got to get in there and pitch. We can’t win the old ballgame unless we have teamwork. And that’s where every John Doe comes in. It’s up to him to get together with his teammates. And your teammate, my friend, is the guy next door to you. Your neighbor – he’s a terribly important guy, that guy next door. You’re gonna need him and he’s gonna need you, so look him up. If he’s sick, call on him. If he’s hungry, feed him. If he’s out of a job, find him one.
If some present day politician said these words, it would be some hack stump speech that would probably get him accused of being a socialist by Matt Drudge. But coming from Gary Cooper, with the United States at the end of the Great Depression and just months away from World War II, it must have been like mother’s milk to hear this, and it’s still one of the great monologues of American cinema.
In the popular imagination, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” begins playing during a scene like this, and the image of Gary Cooper speechifying is superimposed over a waving American flag. But Capra is way too canny a director for such schmaltz. He throws in some comic touches to keep the scene from being cloying, and holds off on the music to let the actor do his stuff unimpeded. Take a look at this scene from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939):
The “Lost Cause” part of the filibuster must be one of the hokiest scenes ever made but… damn, is someone slicing up onions in the next room? I can’t really be crying… Anyway, no music whatsoever, and the camera hangs back, using some reaction shots as an excuse to get a close-up of the character’s anguish. Another classic scene by Capra.
We don’t have directors like Frank Capra anymore, or actors like Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper. We do have Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. If it doesn’t seem like a fair trade, remember that the odds of contracting polio while going to see a Steven Spielberg movie are much lower than when Frank Capra was still working. And if you go see Bridge of Spies, there probably won’t be a draft notice waiting for you when you get back home.
And you should definitely see Bridge of Spies. It’s the best Spielberg movie in a decade, and the best Tom Hanks movie since… well, Captain Phillips (2013), which wasn’t really that long ago. Just don’t expect a tense Cold War thriller – Spielberg has other fish to fry. Yes, there is some spy stuff, there are negotiations with the East Germans and the Russkies, and some guns are fired. But Bridge of Spies is closer in spirit to Meet John Doe or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington than The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965). Spielberg has some serious points he wants to make. There is enough plot and exotic locations (Brooklyn, East Berlin) to keep anyone interested, but mostly the movie is an excuse for Tom Hanks to deliver some speeches about Why We Fight and What Makes America Great.
Obviously, in our ADHD culture, the speeches are going to be about one tenth the length of a Jimmy Stewart speech. And Spielberg can’t resist the hoary device of having the camera push in on Hanks’ face as the orchestra plays. But… is someone chopping onions again? Dammit, my eyes are tearing up… it’s really nice to see a movie that means something again. And if that weren’t enough, the COEN BROTHERS co-wrote the script, which means that we get a side of dry wit to go with our Americana pie.
It seems churlish to point out some flaws in such a good movie but: What was up with that subway car at the beginning of the movie? Were they travelling on an R-32 subway car (1964) in 1957? The rest of the movie gets it right with some era-appropriate R-15 cars. Also, what happened with the subplot about Tom Hanks’ daughter and his assistant? Either develop that story or leave it out altogether. And can we get over that whole blue/grey look that has become so fashionable in cinematography? It’s becoming the most tired cinema cliché since “In a world…” trailers.
Having said that, hats off to Spielberg for Bridge of Spies. The director that was once synonymous with big-budget gee-whiz movies for kids has seemingly entered his mature phase. We can look forward to his future films, like… Indiana Jones 5? Untitled Jurassic World Sequel? Oh shit.