THE FARTHER he moves away from temples of doom, altered suburbs, and shooting stars, the easier it is to somehow underestimate Steven Spielberg. (Yes, yes, Crystal Skull, I know.) Even at his most earthbound, though, the filmmaker's basic chops still reside somewhere in the realm of the freakily supernatural. When he's cooking, there's nobody else who can do quite what he does.

Bridge of Spies, Spielberg's first film since 2012's Lincoln, is an exceptional job of work—a deliberately old-fashioned hybrid of courtroom drama and Cold War skullduggery that's so expertly put together that you may not realize the beauty of its construction until after the fact. Based on true events, the story follows a regular Joe insurance attorney (Tom Hanks) given the thankless task of defending a suspected Russian spy (the terrific Mark Rylance). As their case loses ground, however, an international incident puts them up against the half-built Berlin Wall.

The prospect of seeing Hanks back in Jimmy Stewart mode wrestling with old-timey ideological conflicts might not seem like a reason to storm the multiplex, but Bridge of Spies' narrative has some unexpected crackles and pops along the way—most likely thanks to script contributions from the Coen brothers, who bring in enough of their blessedly cynical double-speak to deflate Spielberg's tendency toward mawkishness. What really drives Bridge of Spies, though, is the opportunity to watch Spielberg masterfully hum along: The camera is always in the exact right place. Every edit has atomic clock timing. And then—just when you're settling in for the second half of a good story well told—the dude peels off a fastball, with a brilliantly staged airplane sequence that makes the entire theory of flight seem absurd. It's almost unfair, really.