Good movies are rarer than we sometimes realize. If there’s one thing you can say for Steven Spielberg, it’s that he makes good movies. His films hold together with a solidity often missing in the more bloated, action and CGI- filled blockbusters that fill our multiplexes. His characters entertain while maintaining reality and depth; his plot arcs are well paced; and damn he knows how to create cinematic tension with a minimum of fuss. All of this is true for Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s latest Academy Award-nominated Cold War thriller which has just hit Blu-ray and DVD.
Bridge of Spies introduces us to James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a successful insurance attorney in New York given the unenviable task of defending accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in criminal court. The trial is meant to showcase the American justice system, proving to the Soviets and the American people that even enemy agents will be treated with due rule of law. The trial also has a foregone conclusion: everyone from the prosecutor to the judge to Donovan’s own boss is assured that Abel will be convicted. But Donovan proves himself a conscientious advocate for the spy, mounting a strong defense on the basis of the Constitution and not on what the public, the justice system, or the CIA want him to do.
Abel’s trial occupies the first half of the film, drawing the viewer into what appears to be a courtroom drama within the tempest of Cold War paranoia. The second half of the film shifts to a more standard spy story, when Donovan is enlisted by the CIA to assist in exchanging Abel with the Soviet Union in return for American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), convicted and incarcerated for espionage. Donovan heads off to Berlin to play the broker in the midst of increasing tensions between the U.S. and the USSR, and the construction of the Berlin Wall. There he discovers another wrinkle in the presence of a second American prisoner, Yale student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), caught on the wrong side of the wall and held by East Berlin (GDR) authorities.
Tom Hanks anchors Bridge of Spies with his always comforting presence, but it’s Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel who really steals the show. Abel is a force to be reckoned with –a mousy artist who declines any attempts to win him over to the American side with a quiet dignity. He and Hanks play off of each other in a convincing, surprisingly moving way, as the two characters come to understand and respect one another. Donovan appears to be unaffected by the paranoia that so inundates his countrymen (in one scene, he explains to his son that no one is going to drop bombs on them and there’s really nothing to be afraid of), and much of that has to do with the affinity with which he and Abel relate to each other.
Bridge of Spies’ major problem lies in its episodic structure – rather than establishing a foundational narrative and ramping up the tension, Spielberg first introduces one narrative (Abel’s trial and the issues of the American justice system in the midst of an “intelligence” war) and then segues into another (the spy exchange). While the second might be the more suspenseful story, the first actually has greater resonance. The complex issues surrounding the treatment of spies, the Constitutionality of the case against Abel, and the underlying culture of paranoia that was Cold War America achieve eerie cultural commentary without overemphasizing the point. While exciting in itself, the second narrative simply does not carry the same political weight as the first, the result being that the film introduces a number of themes on which it never fully follows through.
These flaws, however, do not ultimately damage Bridge of Spies. Without making an overtly politicized thriller, Spielberg manages to introduce some subtle (and not so subtle) commentary on contemporary politics solely by telling this story. There are some questions about the historical accuracy of the plot, and indeed there’s no doubt that Spielberg has stretched certain bounds of credulity in order to create tension and expand the breadth of his story. But the overarching narrative is true, even if time frames are compressed in order to create greater cinematic tension.
It’s hard to hear discussions about questionable treatment of enemy combatants or to hear the accusations of “un-Americanism” against a lawyer trying to abide by the law without drawing some parallels to our contemporary moment. The underlying argument of the film – that what makes us “Americans” is our adherence to the Constitution and all it represents – is repeated in Donovan’s activities spurred by the rule of law and justice, both for Abel and then for Powers and Pryor. This is an ideological war, one in which Donovan, and by extension the ideals of the Constitution, are at odds both with the Soviet powers and with the United States government.
The impressive Blu-ray release in 1080p HD emphasizes Bridge of Spies’ beauty and richness of detail, from the vibrant tones of the U.S.-based sequences to the drab greys and whites of the Berlin escapade. As always, Spielberg makes spectacular use of period detail, evoking a sense of a real America of the late-1950s while simultaneously allowing those contemporary parallels to creep in. The result is a convincing, multi-faceted tapestry of images that we have come to expect from the director of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. While Bridge of Spies is slightly less serious in subject matter than those passion projects, it is nonetheless the work of a consummate director who still understands his craft.
The Blu-ray extras are primarily focused on the historical bases of the film, with some behind the scenes discussions of the work that went into making it. “A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies” explains the background of the film and the real-life people on which the characters are based, as well as providing some insight into Spielberg’s original inspiration. “Berlin 1961: Re-creating the Divide” discusses the Berlin Wall via archival and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as interviews with consultants who were present during the building of the Wall. “Spy Swap: Looking Back On The Final Act” treats of the Glienicke Bridge exchange, its background, and how it was filmed. “U-2 Spy Plane,” notable largely for archival voiceover from Francis Gary Powers, looks at the filming of the crash sequence and the historical details that went into it. Each of these features is essentially a mini-documentary with interviews with cast and crew. Most interesting are the first-hand accounts of those who lived through the period, especially from Frederic Pryor, the real-life student who becomes one of the film’s most contentious points.
Bridge of Spies does not represent Spielberg’s greatest film, but it certainly stands within the pantheon. The rise in production of Cold War narratives, in many ways, continues to reflect our own concerns with the War on Terror – a war with no borders and no front, a war of clandestine operations, a war in which the broader American population views others with suspicion and paranoia, where innocent people are killed, and not-so-innocent organizations control all our fates. Bridge of Spies may or may not take home the Oscar this February, but it stands as a testament that good, solid, socially-conscious moviemaking still has a place in modern Hollywood.
Bridge of Spies is a good, solid Cold War thriller anchored by excellent performances, intelligent directing and a strong script that's rich in social commentary.