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Steven Spielberg's 'Bridge of Spies': Can it capture a mainstream audience?

Steven Spielberg's 'Bridge of Spies': Can it capture a mainstream audience?
Tom Hanks in "Bridge of Spies." (Dreamworks-20th Century Fox)

"Bridge of Spies," Steven Spielberg's new movie starring Tom Hanks, premiered Sunday night at the New York Film Festival ahead of its release Oct. 16. With several big names and the packaging of a Cold War thriller, it would seem one of the more commercially palatable of the fall's upscale offerings.

Except it's not really a thriller.

As the premiere revealed, "Spies" is a movie that's quiet and more talky than its wrapping-paper suggests, with fewer narrative turns than might be expected from a commercial movie set at the height of the Cold War.

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The movie begins as an apparent suspense tale. Around 1960, a mysterious foreigner named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, in a performance already generating supporting-actor Oscar talk) is on the run from FBI agents after he engages in drops that look recognizably like spycraft, or at least the cinematic equivalent of it.

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But the film, which is based on true events, soon becomes something else: Abel is arrested and charged with spying for the Soviet Union. Into the mix comes James Donovan (Tom Hanks) an insurance lawyer who is called on by the government to give Abel a proper defense -- or at least the appearance of one. That leaves the attorney in a precarious position: take the case and become Public Enemy No 1. or shirk it and deny his ethical responsibility.

What follows is a legal procedural of sorts as Donovan goes through the paces to defend his client, and then, as the movie shifts from New York to an increasingly divided Berlin circa 1961, further morphs into a diplomatic procedural. An American spy pilot named Francis Gary Powers has been downed and captured by the Soviet Union, and Donovan must travel to East Germany, on the orders but not the acknowledgment of the U.S. government, a one-man diplomatic kamikaze mission in which he hopes to arrange an exchange.

Unlike a thriller, the objectives and loyalties of most characters are never in question, and there are no story whoppers of the conventional kind; it's a movie less about  what will happen next as how it will happen next.

Some of that may be the result of the Coen brothers,  who worked on Matt Charman's original script and represent two of the movie's three credited screenwriters. The "Blood Simple" and  "No Country for Old Men" filmmakers, after all, have been subverting, or sidestepping, conventional narrative for some time. (At the screening, Spielberg called them "iconic filmmakers I learned so much from and stole so much from.")

But some of it is also Spielberg's period of new seriousness. In several respects "Spies" is similar to his previous movie, 2012's "Lincoln," a putative sweeping biopic that turned out to be a legislative procedural. Both movies are, at heart, about a man who uses the power of persuasion and wonky know-how to navigate a system seemingly aligned against him.

They're each also more low key than they might have been, especially given their filmmaker's  big-screen-magic past.  And they're both very much about uncommon forms of patriotism, each saying that the word need not be applied only to big battlefield moments (like, you know, in "Saving Private Ryan") but also to more the procedural, even bureaucratic, actions as well.

Will all of this play for a mainstream audience?

Spielberg acknowledged the challenges, saying it's "not the easiest film to market" as he thanked co-producer Participant Prods., which will "get the film in front of audiences to see if they'll bite."

Helping that effort are the real-life figures or relatives of same, some of whom turned up for the premiere. (Spielberg called out to them from the podium, offering such designations as "the son of a great man.")

Working in favor of the film is precedent:"Lincoln" was a major hit, garnering $182 million despite its dense historical qualities.

"Bridge of Spies" has both a strength and a weakness that movie didn't. On the one hand, it looks like a suspense thriller, which can help get a whole bunch of people into theaters. On the other hand, because it's not actually a suspense thriller, it can make some of those people feel thwarted on the way out.

At one point in Donovan's Kafkaesque descent into Cold War diplomacy, someone tells him, essentially, "How can you know the next move when you don't know the game you're playing?" "Bridge of Spies" will weave through a similarly tricky gantlet.

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