Steven Spielberg is, without a doubt, one of the most important filmmakers of all time. He’s near the top of a very short list of people who could plausibly be considered the most important. He’s also at a point where he can basically do whatever the hell he wants. But what he wants is apparently comfort food.
Instead of getting loose, Spielberg has put out a series of movies that are precisely good enough. Granted, that’s not easy to do and he recently made a 100 percent CGI animated movie and a realistic World War I drama starring a horse, so he’s not too old to take on a challenge. Still, his recent output — and Bridge of Spies definitely isn’t changing the trend — sees him shooting for the middle of the dial. We’ll call this Spielberg’s “dad rock” phase.
Obviously the term is usually exclusively reserved for driving music, but it’s fitting in this case. You know dad rock when you hear it: Straight-laced jams designed for some mild hand drumming and nothing more. Dad rock is good for singing along, but doesn’t provide a real release. Dad Rock wants you to feel good, but it doesn’t want you to feel too much. Dad rock doesn’t aspire to break ground, it’s content to fill in old holes.
It’s what the band Wilco has been pumping out for nearly a decade now. Here’s a sample of the internal monologue of everybody after first listening to each Wilco record since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky: “That was pretty good. I kind of liked it. Fine. When is NCIS on?”
Signs of ambivalence leaked into the Spielberg canon starting with 2011’s War Horse, puddled in the very responsible 2012 presidential biopic Lincoln, and have formed a wave with Bridge of Spies. The movies are fine, but they fit like off-the-rack khakis. They don’t look good on their audience.
Everyone knows this, but Spielberg remains so adept with a camera that even his worst movies are admirable as art. These films just don’t represent admirable decisions. They represent winning by default.
It should be reiterated that Bridge of Spies is super watchable. It’s a surprising, almost relentlessly, old-fashioned film with more context than subtext. The film stars Hanks as James B. Donovan, a Brooklyn insurance lawyer first tasked with defending a Soviet spy during the Cold War who must then head to the crumbling Eastern Bloc to negotiate the release of an American pilot and a college student in exchange for the undercover Communist. The film is a little disjointed, almost like three movies in one. At times it’s a legal drama, an espionage thriller, and a war movie. All three are perfectly good on their own, but when added together you get nothing special.
I don’t even recall a single “Spielberg Face.” And that’s what most of the movies in Spielberg’s dad rock phase may be lacking. Where is the awe?
The unwavering patriotism on display in Bridge of Spies, represented in Hanks’ upstanding American everyman, is populism more suited for 1955 than 2015. One can strive to make contemporary parallels between the plot’s mounting Cold War pressure mirroring America’s foreign policy with Putin’s Russia. You could also highlight the movie’s thematic legal grey areas and xenophobia in the Red Scare and tie it to Guantanamo Bay and the post-9/11 tendency toward reflexive suspicion. But it doesn’t compel anyone to think anything.
There’s even a scene straight out of the morally didactic films of Frank Capra and Stewart where Hanks addresses the U.S.congress. There he beats the audience over the head with a monologue about always acting for the good of family and country, especially during wartime. Bridge of Spies could have just as easily been titled “Mr. Smith Goes to East Berlin.”
Two-and-a-half hours of suited white men talking in a series of rooms about right and wrong seems old hat and maybe morally lazy, if not irresponsible. Except Spielberg does it so well that you have to take notice. There’s an unparalleled craft to the tension, especially in a scene where Hanks slowly pulls information by verbally sparring with what we eventually find out is the regional head of the KGB.
Thankfully Spielberg may get back in the saddle if his next projects pan out. After the upcoming animated Roald Dahl adaptation of The BFG, he’s signed up to direct the meta sci-fi actioner Ready Player One, and possibly the long-in-development Robopocalypse. Maybe then he’ll get out of the dad rock phase and find a fucking power chord.