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James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a Brooklyn lawyer who finds himself thrust into the center of the Cold War when the CIA sends him on a near impossible mission to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot. High stakes and suspense power a story inspired by true events that capture the essence of a man who risked everything and vividly brings his personal journey to life. (From Dreamworks’ official synopsis)

 Bridge of Spies
Bridge of Spies had the potential to be Spielberg’s next Munich (2005) – a movie that, for some reason, seems to be disappearing from discussions about the director’s work. Munich didn’t have the transformative cultural impact of Spielberg’s more popular ‘adult dramas,’ namely Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), but, even as a less financially successful entry in his canon, I would’ve thought its reputation would’ve grown by now. With the steadily aging director tying himself to movies like Ready Player One and yet another Indiana Jones sequel, I fear that these lower-impact true story movies will take a back seat during the final lap of his career. Of course, aside from the historical foundations and possible parallels to current political events, Bridge of Spies is a very different story and really shouldn’t share too many specific images or themes with Munich. But there was still the potential for tonal consistencies and for Spielberg to challenge himself and his audience.

Ultimately, Bridge of Spies feels a bit too safe, specifically from Spielberg’s point-of-view. Things begin very promisingly. Spielberg expertly captures the intricacies of the ‘50s spy game, nearly without the benefit of dialogue. It’s a thrilling slice of ‘pure film’ that proves the director doesn’t need flashy bluster to achieve something special. But this is only the introduction to Rudolf Abel’s (Mark Rylance) skill and crimes. The meat of the film pertains to pensive, dialogue-driven exploration of the moral ins and outs of the early Cold War era. Spielberg recycles some old tricks during the occasional menacing moment, especially the dizzying spy plane crash, but also seems to be resting on the laurels of his innate skill. The film comes alive during moments of supplemental context, such as the aforementioned opening and an expansive look at the construction of the Berlin wall. This and the playful editing between locations give us precious glimpses of a Spielberg that is still having fun with the machinations of filmmaking. Perhaps he would have been more comfortable crafting a more impressionistic examination of the era.

 Bridge of Spies
A lot of the film’s success depends on the quality of the screenplay, which is good, because it is beautifully constructed. Screenwriter Matt Charman (who is only really known for his television work) co-wrote his script with none other than Joel and Ethan Coen. You can definitely hear the patented Coen punch during any sequence that requires verbal sparring, minus the stagey inflection that would accompany a Coen-directed movie. There’s no mistaking Spielberg’s hand in the matter, particularly where sentimental pauses are concerned. The vigor and charm of the dialogue is generally decorative, however. This particular script lives and dies on clarity of the narrative. Though inherently intriguing, this story not an easy one to convey without extensive descriptions of legal and military mumbo-jumbo, which, if overstated, can insult the audience. Charman and the Coens do a good job stacking the exposition for the audience without holding their hands through the mysteries of the American justice system. The clarity is wonderful, despite taking a little too much time getting to the heart of the story (i.e. Donovan navigating the needs of multiple political interests to get the best deal for his Russian spy client, the captured US spy, and the innocent student entangled in the situation). Unfortunately, the characters remain more or less fixed throughout the story. James Donovan is perpetually portrayed as a good person who is punished for doing the right thing, the angry Americans that surround him rarely change their tune, Gary Powers has little personality, and the Russians are basically a faceless horde. This lack of ethical complexity and character growth definitely stifles the film, despite the efficiency and neatly-knit structure of the screenplay.

 Bridge of Spies

Video


Bridge of Spies was shot on 35mm film and is presented in 2.40:1, 1080p HD video. Spielberg has now worked with cinematographer Janusz Kamiński on every one of his films since Schindler’s List (including the entirely digital The Adventures of Tintin) and the two have developed a very specific look over the years. This diffused and desaturated imagery has served them well and earned them awards, but sometime around Lincoln, it wore out its welcome. Bridge of Spies is more of the same (a bit more dynamic, I suppose) – soft, blooming back lights, hard edges, deep blacks, and a distinct lack of colour. As defenders of the film format and possibilities of chemical grading, I don’t understand why Spielberg & Kamiński would want to use digital technology to limit their palette. Personal taste aside, this Blu-ray does reproduce the eerily homogenized browns, greens, and cobalts with consistency. The occasional brick red highlight also pops nicely without bleeding. The one thing I do really like about the cinematography is its heavy shadows. Edges are sharp and contrast is hyper-dynamic, but the pooling of the blacks doesn’t entirely crush finer textures and gradations. It’s a delicate balancing act that the transfer tends to ‘win.’ Spielberg & Kamiński tend to like using heavy grain for the sake of mood as well; though, here, it’s pretty fine, aside from some of the darkest sequences. There’s no compression issues to complain about, not even notable edge holes along the blackest edges.

 Bridge of Spies

Audio


Bridge of Spies is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound. There’s a lot going on with this track, but the sound design is also pretty delicate, so boisterous impact is limited. Contemplative silence is a vital element in the aural patterns of this particular film, so many scenes depend exclusively on the warmth and clarity of the well-centered dialogue tracks. The liveliest sequences are ones where the hustle and bustle of the outdoor environments – traffic, rain, freezing wind, military machinery – gracefully fill out the channels. The spy plane crash is a proper aural nightmare, offering a bit of poppy bombast for the sake of contrast. Another highlight is the scene where paparazzi flashbulbs ‘attack’ Donovan and his wife and sound like gunfire. Spielberg’s relationship with Kamiński endures, but Bridge of Spies marks the first time he hasn’t worked with composer John Williams since The Color Purple in 1985 (Quincy Jones scored that one). I suppose the 83 year-old Williams didn’t think he could divide his energy between Bridge of Spies and The Force Awakens, so Thomas Newman picked up the reins. Newman follows the Williams template a bit too closely, especially when it comes to maudlin underscore, but the more melodic themes have plenty of his more particular songwriting style.

 Bridge of Spies

Extras


  • A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies (17:50, HD) – A brief look at the true story behind the film with the cast & crew, including some personal memories. There’s also some behind-the-scenes footage and production art.
  • Berlin 1961: Recreating the Divide (11:40, HD) – Concerning the history of the Berlin Wall and its recreation – on location – for the film.
  • U-2 Spy Plane: Beale Air Force Base (8:50, HD) – On filming the actual U-2 planes (which still exist and are operational), the special effects of the crash sequence, and the U-2’s place in the Bridge of Spies story. It includes audio clips from an interview with the real Francis Gary Powers.
  • Spy Swap: Looking back on the Final Act (5:40, HD) – An exploration of the final prisoner exchange, historically and within the film.


 Bridge of Spies

Overall


Bridge of Spies is a very good, well-paced, neatly structured ‘grown up’ movie from Steven Spielberg, but it also feels like a safe choice for a director should really be challenging himself and his audience more at this point. Despite enjoying myself, I seriously doubt I’ll feel the need to revisit it anytime soon. The Blu-ray image quality is sharp and consistent, the sound design is delicate and clean, and the extras, though too brief, are informative.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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