In any Film Studies 101 class, you learn about the continuum from realism to formalism. One one end of the spectrum, you have the ultra-documentary style of realism. On the other is the strictly figurative, image-centric formalism. A good example from this year of the disparity between these two filmmaking perspectives is The Revenant vs. Mad Max: Fury Road. While neither movie falls solely on one end of the spectrum and they each have elements of the other end (The Revenant‘s dream sequences and Mad Max‘s DIY special effects), The Revenant largely leans on a realistic style, embracing long takes and period-accurate costumes and sets and accents, while Mad Max is largely formalist, filling the screen with bright colors and otherworldly images that have little immediate bearing on the world we live in today outside of their archetypal functions.
Bridge of Spies, like most of Spielberg’s work post-Minority Report, is smack-dab in the middle. From The Terminal to Munich to Lincoln to this year’s Tom-Hanks-starring Cold War drama, Spielberg has largely stuck to telling the stories straight, without directorial or producing flourish. This is called classicism- a commitment to telling the story without distractions. The period details are accurate, but only insofar as they serve the singular story at hand. The cinematography is beautiful but not striking, and the camera rarely moves in any noticeable way. The acting is solid (and in the case of Hanks and Mark Rylance, who plays the Russian spy Hanks’s character defends in court, the acting is exceptionally so), but not flashy, and the screenplay is good in that the story gets told, but there are few tangential scenes that move the audience away from the story. Essentially, with classicism, the story is the thing.
Don’t mistake my placement of Spielberg’s late period work in the middle of the style spectrum as a condemnation of that work’s quality. The style may be middling, but the end product has largely been very good. Since Minority Report, his last real foray into formalism, he’s made at least two great movies and three very good ones. Bridge of Spies falls squarely in the latter category, and that’s okay. Telling a good story is hard, and Spielberg, for as much as he has reined in what style he brought to the movies before, is among the best.