Careless is something you never think about describing Steven Spielberg. Corny, manipulative, middlebrow, overproduced, sure. But not sloppy. This film opens with Tom Hanks as insurance lawyer James Donovan arguing in a bar against awarding insurance claims to accident victims who just happened to be in the car that Donovan’s client struck. We’re meant to see him as a slimeball, which the rest of the movie takes anxious pains to disprove. Why bother with the misleading intro?
The movie that follows is engaging enough, opening with the capture of a Soviet spy in 1957 New York and then cutting to U-2 spy-plane pilots learning their mission and then drawing in Donovan, who, the film barely mentions, was also an attorney at the Nuremberg trials. Then it becomes a big Cold War comic book with little good to say about either country, though the little people on both sides have Spielbergian spunk.
The second half of the film takes place mostly in Berlin, where Donovan negotiates an exchange of spies that will ultimately take place on a bridge with snow swirling and snipers on either side pointing at the actors. Sounds good, but Spielberg’s true sloppiness begins here. He forgets to be suspenseful, and we know the director of Jaws and Munich can do white knuckles. Some cruel acts by East German soldiers make you wince, but the scariest moment, sadly, is when Donovan finds himself inside the East Berlin wall surrounded by teenage punks who want his coat. Juvenile delinquents from the GDR seem ripe with potential. But Spielberg shrugs it off like Donovan does the coat.
Instead of fun, we get detailed historicity. But as my son said afterward, just because a movie is slow doesn’t mean it’s burning. There are nice touches, such as twin scenes of people scaling walls in Berlin and Brooklyn, but there is no shiver in this version of Cold War legal life.