BRIDGE OF SPIES
Review by Gordon Justesen
Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda
Director: Steven Spielberg
Audio: DTS HD 7.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Features: See Review
Length: 141 Minutes
Release Date: February 2, 2016
“The death sentence is not a foregone conclusion. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not afraid to die, Mr. Donovan. Although, it wouldn’t be my first choice.”
Just like I recently said of the Coen Brothers, Steven Spielberg is another filmmaker who is unique with the projects he makes this far into his career. He was once a name synonymous with blockbuster spectacle, though always a passionate storyteller. For almost the past 20 years, his films have mostly been fascinated with areas of our history.
Such is the case with Bridge of Spies, the screenplay of which just so happens to be co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, a grand scale film depicting a historical event that feels mostly forgotten. Who better to open our eyes to such a past chapter in our history than Spielberg? It’s bold of him to tackle a more non-familiar piece from our past following his widely known films dealing with World War II and President Lincoln.
The film depicts a crucial event in the developing years of the Cold War. In a brilliantly executed opening scene, set in 1957 Brooklyn, we see a quiet man go about his business as he appears to be tailed by several men in hats and black coats. After he appears to have eluded them, the man is later met by the same men at his residence and placed in handcuffs.
The man in question is Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a man believed to be a Soviet spy. He will be given the chance to stand trial, and in the process will be defended by American lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks). Formerly a prosecutor at Nuremberg, the well-respected Donovan becomes a despised man almost overnight for simply accepting the job.
While the majority of Americans, living in constant fear of the Russians and the possibility of nuclear war, want nothing more than to see a man like Abel put to death, Donovan argues for an extended prison sentence. He thinks someone like Abel can become something of value in the chance that an American spy is captured by the Soviets.
And three years later, as fate would have it, that’s precisely what happens. An American U-2 pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down by the Soviets and captured once he parachutes safely to the ground. Now, Donovan has been tasked with traveling to Berlin to negotiate a trade.
As expected, Spielberg nails the period detail and various locations flawlessly. The streets of New York and snow-covered Berlin do feel like worlds apart as Donovan embarks on a convoluted maze just to get this trade of spies accomplished. And the sequence involving the U-2 plane being shot down ranks among the best action set pieces Spielberg has ever presided over.
Hanks is his usual solid best, embodying the essence of Jimmy Stewart better than any other living actor possibly could. But as it turns out, the movie belongs to renowned character actor Mark Rylance. His performance as Soviet spy Abel is one of marvelous subtlety, yet most charismatic at the same time, and his oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor is more than well deserved.
Bridge of Spies is another grand piece of historical filmmaking from Steven Spielberg. Few directors show this much passion for looking into our past, especially not so familiar chapters such as the one depicted here. It only adds to the already remarkable legacy Spielberg has already attained.
This Blu-ray handling from Touchstone is terrific from start to finish. Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, once again displays a unique looking presentation that benefits tremendously from the HD format. Both the New York and Berlin locations look as authentic as can be. Colors and image detail are fantastic, all across the boards!
Though it’s mostly a dialogue driven piece, the 7.1 DTS mix benefits tremendously when it comes to certain areas. The standout moment, as expected, is the riveting U-2 plane sequence. This scene is so well captured in its sound performance, that it becomes an even more intense moment. Dialogue delivery is tremendous as always, and several set pieces provide terrific instances of background noise, especially the NYC based scenes.
We get a number of nicely done featurettes for this Blu-ray release, starting with “A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies”, which glances at the characters and the real life people they’re based on. There’s also “Berlin 1961: Re-creating the Divide”, which takes an extensive look at the Berlin Wall. Then there’s “Spy Swap: Looking Back On the Final Act”, which chronicles the pivotal trade that took place on the Glienicke Bridge. And my favorite of the bunch, a look at the U-2 spy plane sequence, which also features an appearance from the real Francis Gary Powers.
Bridge of Spies marks another strong collaboration between Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. It might be a bit more low key when compared to his more massive historical films, but it leaves just as strong an impact.