Bridge of Spies Review

In the three years since Steven Spielberg made Lincoln (previously reviewed) cinema's continued to move away from the kind of adult-oriented, studio-backed drama the director has been making for forty years or more. At sixty-nine now, Spielberg has become part of a stubborn old guard. He's at roughly the same point in his career as earlier masters like Ford and Hawks were when they did, respectively, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and El Dorado. Hitchcock was fumbling around with Torn Curtain and Topaz around that time while Wilder was settling in with his remake of The Front Page. None of these films really felt contemporary to their times, for better or worse. What has emerged now, with his latest Bridge of Spies, is Spielberg as an old man who's confidently doing it not just his own way but in a style unapologetically old-fashioned by today's standards. Shot on film stock, with a relaxed pace, the movie takes place in the late fifties and early sixties but also tends to feel like it could have comfortably come from that era as well.

Bridge of Spies opens with a largely wordless yet thrilling extended sequence where authorities track and eventually arrest a man (Oscar-nominated Mark Rylance) inside his NYC hotel room for being a Soviet spy in 1957, at the height of the Cold War. He is Rudolf Abel, quiet and unconcerned by the new attention. The public quickly turns against Abel and the trial and guilty verdict seem mere formalities. To appease the image of American due process he needs legal representation alongside the pomp and circumstance of being tried before a jury. Spielberg film's can essentially be divided into a pair of halves, with both being dominated by Tom Hanks' turn as American insurance lawyer James Donovan. The first sees Donovan essentially chosen by his firm to represent Abel, despite his and his family's hesitance. Here the focus is on Donovan trying to do his job in the face of constant resistance. Everyone around him seems to be encouraging only the barest of minimums. Donovan believes differently and sees Abel as a client like any other.

The moral fiber running through Bridge of Spies is clearly one of its proudest attributes. It could, perhaps, be taken to task for some of the particulars, but the general feeling does resonate. It's as good a portrait of an attorney trying to do the right thing as we've seen in fifty years or more. (Said attorney's experience in the film is a terrific rejoinder to the glamorization of the profession, however.) Patriotic flag-waving is kept in reasonable check as well but it's still easy to feel kind of good that due process is afforded (at least procedurally) in such a high-stakes instance. That the Supreme Court was just one vote away from overturning the Abel verdict is hardly an insignificant detail considering how anxious everyone else seems to send him to his death. Indeed, the whole story pretty much revolves around attempting fairness in tough situations. As presented here, Donovan is a moral hero for the ages.

The film's second half takes Donovan to postwar, divided Germany where he's been asked to unofficially act as negotiator in a trade with the Soviets for downed pilot Francis Gary Powers. It's a harsh transition for him, and Spielberg blankets the streets with snow while Donovan suffers from shabby living conditions, a coat-thieving gang and a bad case of the sniffles. Here the determined Donovan not only must retrieve Powers for Abel but also insists on getting back a captured American student taken in East Berlin by the Germans. It escalates into a mess. One-on-one negotiations become bloated to include a third party plus the CIA people behind Donovan, with varying intentions. The film, with screenplay credit shared by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, chugs along well but misses the master class in subtlety that is Rylance's performance for much of this later section.

Earlier in his career Hanks was so often compared favorably to Jimmy Stewart but Bridge of Spies shows that he's become closer to Henry Fonda. He's the straight-faced everyman trying to quietly lead while doing what's right. It's a natural transition, if maybe a less interesting one, and Hanks is well-suited to such roles. There really aren't that many actors today who could've pulled off the Donovan role as well as Hanks - maybe no one - and he's probably been undervalued for it after that brief period in the mid-nineties of such heightened praise. The early scenes in the second half, after he arrives in Germany, are of particular note. Hanks is able to convey the potential danger and uncertainty Donovan faces by almost underplaying the situation. To Spielberg's credit, also, there's a lot of suspense simmering masterfully beneath the surface during these scenes. The stakes are high enough that Donovan can't even bring himself to tell his wife where he's really going or reassure her that he'll be fine.

Bridge of Spies is great cinema, confidently brought to the screen by an aging master. It's like almost nothing else the studios have allowed since, probably, Spielberg's own Lincoln. The patience of storytelling is just not present elsewhere. Owing to his preferred director of photography Janusz Kaminski, the film uses light in a similar manner as in Lincoln. Natural-looking sunlight shines in through windows while colors look desaturated and bluish. To each his own on preferences but at least there's a desired look at play here. In these later years of his career Spielberg has chosen to alternate between popcorn-y adaptations and serious works, with the latter more often than not proving to be among his best. This, as with Munich and Lincoln, is no exception.

The Disc(s)

Perhaps in an example of the current filmmaking climate for adult dramas on this scale, Bridge of Spies has numerous companies above its title, including Dreamworks and Fox, but it's Disney by way of Touchstone which is the home entertainment distributor of the movie. This release being reviewed is the US Blu-ray version. It's region-free and also contains a DVD and Digital HD code.

The wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio allows cinematographer Janusz Kaminski great freedom in his framing of everything from the bridge in Berlin to courtroom interiors. It's all reproduced with great detail and finesse here in what must be as close to perfect as we can expect from modern films on HD media. There are no snags or tangles at all to this image. It looks incredible.

Audio is just as strong, with an English 7.1 DTS-HDMA track serving as the default option. Spielberg's movies have long been heralded for their attention to sound and this meets every expectation. In addition to Thomas Newman's score (subbing for Spielberg's longtime collaborator John Williams), the listener is treated to a rich variety of cues and effects which only serve to enhance the experience. Each is translated to disc here with great care. Additional audio options are available in English 2.0 Descriptive Audio and French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital dubs. Subtitle options include English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish. The DVD substitutes the 7.1 for an English 5.1 Dolby Digital but is otherwise identical.

A quartet of featurettes make up the supplements portion of this release. "A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies" (17:45) is the closest to a traditional making-of piece of the extras. "Berlin 1961: Re-creating the Divide" (11:35) mainly concerns replicating the look of that time and place during the Berlin portion of the film, including the reveal that a town in Poland was actually used for the shoot. "U-2 Spy Plane" (8:45) and "Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act" (5:42) both discuss the real-life situation of Francis Gary Powers, with his son - an advisor on the film - being interviewed.

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Spielberg's spy thriller is filmmaking like we rarely see anymore from the Hollywood studios


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