The Cold War has always been a fascinating topic for film and television, from the satirical “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” to the thoughtful “Good Night, and Good Luck” to the thrilling “The Americans.” It’s usually not the kind of topic that needs a boost of any kind, especially when there are so many different narratives that can be told around it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt when you get a an amazing trio like three-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg, two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, and four-time Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen to take a crack at such a film. As a result, anticipation and tension mix together for the Cold War thriller, “Bridge of Spies.”
Beginning in 1957 Brooklyn, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested under the charge of being a Soviet spy, with an insurance lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), assigned as his defense. Donovan takes the job very seriously, which upsets many people who want to see Abel punished, causing a pretty big backlash that include threats against his life. Donovan is not able to get him acquitted, but he is able to convince the judge to send Abel to prison instead of giving him a death sentence, the reasoning being that be might be useful as a bargaining chip with the Soviets later on.
Coincidentally, this happens around the same time that a U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is shot down over Russia and captured during a mission. A secret message is then sent to Donovan that suggests an exchange of prisoners, causing him to fly to Berlin in an attempt to arrange the trade. While there, he also hears of an American student that has been arrested as a spy, causing him to push for a 2-for-1 trade, a risky move that could end up blowing the entire operation.
I think it’s fair to say that Steven Spielberg’s latest project is a film of two distinct halves. The first half involves a lawyer, who isn’t used to this particular type of work, trying to prove a man innocent of charges that seem unbeatable. As a result, he puts his and his family’s lives in danger, all in the pursuit of giving a man that everyone believes to be guilty a chance at a fair trial, which Donovan believes everyone deserves. He even goes so far as to take the case to the Supreme Court, where he passionately speaks on Abel’s behalf, but is again denied. This half of the film is compelling, tense, and gives us the very best from its two lead actors, whereas the second half is a slightly different matter.
The second half of the film deals with Donovan’s trip over to Berlin, where he attempts to negotiate the prisoner exchange. It’s still a mildly-interesting film, but much of the tension withers away as he negotiates with one representative and then another, all while keeping in contact with his CIA handlers. The most tension the film is really able to build in this portion of the story comes from seeing whether or not Donovan is going to be able to get both prisoners out safely, an outcome that only he seems to care about. Another main problem here, and I guess this was going to be rather unavoidable, is that we lose Mark Rylance for almost all of this section, leaving the film on Tom Hanks’ shoulders as he tries to talk his way towards freeing both captives. Again, it still results in a compelling enough scenario, but it was rather surprising to see that the half with the main plot of the film ends up being less memorable than the first, more tense, half of the film.
What helps hold the film together marvelously for both halves though are the performances from the two leads. Tom Hanks is at his most Hanksian here, playing the everyman thrust into a situation that he never thought he’d find himself in, stumbling through it to the best of his ability. It’s a role that requires passion, persistence, and a little bit of uncertainty, all of which Hanks mixes together quite well. However, the real standout here is recent Oscar nominee Mark Rylance, whose reserved, straight-faced Rudolf Abel is one of the film’s greatest and most spellbinding elements. Rylance is the kind of actor who doesn’t have to be flashy to leave a memorable impression, as seen quite clearly in “Wolf Hall,” and he uses a somewhat similar technique here to great effect, leaving a performance that outshines even the great Tom Hanks.
Taken as a whole, with a mostly-engrossing narrative, fine performances, and the always-sure hand of director Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies” makes for an entertaining Cold War thriller. The story may taper off a bit in the second half, but its other, stronger elements help keep it afloat as we await the conclusion to this fascinating tale. I wouldn’t have gone so far as to nominate it for Best Picture, but there’s plenty here to like, making it a worthwhile trip back to the time of this intriguing conflict.
“Bridge of Spies” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. The picture is beautifully sharp and clear, and does a great job of showcasing the film’s Oscar-nominated production design. Likewise, the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is fantastic, allowing the film’s Oscar-nominated score and sound to shine. Overall, the film has been given exceptional treatment, leaving you with a fantastic experience.
A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies (18 Minutes): A fascinating look at the story behind the film, featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
Berlin 1961: Recreating the Divide (11 Minutes): A featurette focusing on the history of the Berlin Wall and how it was brought to life for the film.
U-2 Spy Plane (9 Minutes): A featurette that explores the history of the U-2 plane, Powers’ crash, and how the scene was recreated for the film.
Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act (6 Minutes): An interesting look behind the scenes at the film’s climax.
With outstanding direction from Steven Spielberg, a mostly-compelling story, and a particularly excellent performance from Oscar nominee Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies” is an enjoyable Cold War tale that manages to bring enough tension to its narrative to make it a worthwhile journey. It may not reach the high levels of excellence one would expect with all of the big names involved, but Spielberg’s latest still delivers where it counts.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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