Can the Coen Brothers Write a Steven Spielberg Movie?

Joel Coen and Ethan CoenParamount Pictures via Everett Collection

According to The Hollywood ReporterJoel and Ethan Coen have signed on to write the screenplay for Steven Spielberg‘s upcoming KGB drama, which is set to star Tom Hanks. The currently untitled film, which is based on a true story, centers on an attorney who became a key figure in the Cold War after negotiating with KGB agents for the return of a spy plane pilot who went down in enemy territory. A first draft of the script, written by Matt Charman, has been making the rounds for some time now, but the presence of Hanks and the Coen Brothers seems to be the push the film will need to enter production sometime soon.

Though having the Coens on board certainly bodes well for the film’s production schedule, their presence does complicate things creatively. As a director, Spielberg’s films tend to be earnest and straightforward, often with a heavy dose of sentiment involved. The Coens, on the other hand, specialize in irony and cynicism — their writing is practically dripping with it. Both creative forces are obviously talented, and have proven themselves to be adept at handling multiple genres, but there is very little common ground between their filmmaking styles. Can the Coens even make a Spielberg film, and vice versa?

If you were to imagine a spy movie written by the Coen Brothers, it would likely involve a great deal of the dark comedy that has come to characterize their films, whereas Spielberg’s would probably be an action film filled with emotional character beats and plenty of swelling music. He works on an epic scale, filled with dramatic and heartwarming moments, which is diametrically opposed to the smaller, outsider-focused films that the Coens tend to make. Spielberg’s films have gotten dark in the past, but he’s never really attempted to translate that darkness in a comedic way, instead choosing to focus on stories of humanity triumphing over terrible obstacles. In contrast, when the Coens’ characters are knocked down, they tend to stay there.

That dark edge is fundamental to all of the Coens’ work, which might be what Spielberg has the most difficulty translating, and navigating that difference will be key to creating a coherent film. On their own, the filmmakers’ styles are jarringly different, and so either the script or the direction will need to adjust to compensate for that. If Spielberg’s direction is too earnest, then much of the Coens’ sense of humor will be lost, and the darker aspects of their work will become overwhelming. However, the Coens have been branching out somewhat lately with the scripts they haven’t directed — the remake of Gambit is a much broader comedy than any that they’ve helmed, and the upcoming Angelina Jolie film Unbroken seems as if it will feature some Spielberg-esque sentiment — so they should be able to adapt their writing to the director’s more earnest style.

Hanks’ presence is also a good sign, as he’s worked with both directors multiple times, which should allow him to easily navigate any disparate tones that are present in the film. As an actor, he tends to gravitate to more sentimental films, and his earnestness would be a good balance to keep the film from getting too cynical, while his experience working with the Coens should allow him to add some edge to the film’s more heartwarming moments.

Above all else, though, they’re all talented filmmakers, which goes a long way towards smoothing over any differences.