Spielberg bakes up another delicious piece of American Apple Pie.
Small and subtle by the blockbuster pioneer’s often grandiose standards, Bridge Of Spies none the less continues to make Steven Spielberg’s case for possibly being the finest American filmmaker who ever lived. Sure, much of this tale of gosh-darn American goodness in the face of Cold War paranoia might consist of guys in suits sitting in rooms talking, but Spielberg imbues it all with such visual elegance, pulse-raising suspense, and flourishing of emotion that you can’t help but sit back and admire the work of a master almost effortlessly elevating his craft to art.
The film opens with a silent set piece executed by Spielberg with suspenseful paranoid glee. Mark Rylance plays a struggling artist in 1957 Brooklyn who is also secretly a Russian spy. We see him go about his mundane day while relentlessly pursued by special agents for the US government. He does indeed pick up a message and is caught, but never gives up any information. Yet he’s not our protagonist. That would be Tom Hanks as the US attorney assigned to Rylance’s defence. Despite the Cold War panic that ensures most of his colleagues and all of the media refuse to even consider Rylance as a person, Hanks finds the wherewithal to defend him passionately and humanely at the price of his own privacy and safety. At the same time we also see glimpses of US spy pilots in training and eventually one falls from the sky and is captured behind the iron curtain. With the competing governments unwilling to negotiate openly, Hanks is assigned to travel to Berlin to negotiate the trade of Rylance for the pilot (as well as a US student caught in the political kerfuffle). Cue even greater levels of paranoia and more direct threats to safety as Hanks frequently crosses the freshly constructed Berlin wall.
Bridge Of Spies finds an intriguing balance between the pencil-pushing paranoia of John Le Carre’s Cold War thrillers and the “little man vs. the system” sentiment of Frank Capra. It’s an ideal (if odd) middle ground for Spielberg that allows him to flex his cinematic muscles as an audience manipulating genre specialist as well as a bighearted humanist who has become more intrigued by the intricacies of conversation as his career has marched on. Reteaming with Hanks for a fourth time, it’s a chance for them to go full Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck with the actor’s humble Americana persona. There aren’t many people who can portray such an unerringly “golly gee” good character in a manner that feels sincere and genuine anymore, but Hanks can do it and does so rather well here in this too strange not to be true story.
With Hanks offering such a bright beacon of Spielbergian hope at the center of Bridge Of Spies, other actors are allowed to play things in shades of grey more appropriate for a Cold War thriller. Mark Rylance in particular is beautifully sardonic and secretive, and it’s through these more twisted supporting players that the co-writing Coen brothers’ contribution to the script shines. Though the movie was clearly a work for hire for the siblings and boasts only flourishes of their musical dialogue and sarcastic humor, it’s fascinating to see their voice combined with Spielberg. For movie geeks, the film’s dance between Coen cynicism and Spielberg sincerity is fascinating to behold and entirely appropriate to this story of a good man in an almost surreally politically complicated situation. It’s a tale that naturally fluctuates between genuine fear and awkward absurdism, so there’s no better odd coupling than the Coens and Spielberg to dance through that minefield.
Beautifully shot in the muted tones and eerily glowing lights of most late period Spielberg joints, the film has a hypnotic visual force that somehow pulls audiences to the edge of their seats in even it’s quietest moments. Bridge Of Spies feels like one of Spielberg’s most satisfying outings in a decade. It highlights all of the filmmaker’s strengths while still pushing for something deeper than the popcorn fare that made him a brand name. It would be impossible to dub the movie his finest feature given that a) it’s too small a tale for that and b) the man’s made some pretty brilliant work. Yet, it is another undeniable cinematic highlight in a career filled with them. When a filmmaker so naturally gifted at manipulating the medium like Spielberg finds a project so suited to his skills like Bridge Of Spies, it’s a gift for cinephiles to simply sit back and get swallowed up by the results. Enjoy it.
Given that this is a Disney Blu-ray and the period movie features plenty of period chain-smoking, things kick off with an anti-smoking ad in an amusing sign of the times. From there the disc amazes in its visual presentation (yes, even the smoking scenes). Disney does Blu-rays right and Spielberg does movies right, so this thing leaps right off the screen. Though colors are stylistically subdued, the picture is rich and flawless. Depth is generous, clarity extraordinary, and the way Janusz Kamiński cinematography blows out in an off-white haze looks stunning in HD. It’s a beautiful presentation, backed up with an equally impressive audio mix. Obviously this frequently quiet and dialogue-driven movie doesn’t pound through speakers like a Michael Bay joint. However, in the few sound centric sequences (the dialogue-free big city paranoia opening or the plane crash for example) Spielberg’s team use all of their blockbuster experience to deliver on hell of an immersive lossless audio track. A gorgeous Blu-ray presentation for a film that deeply deserves it.
As is the Spielberg way, special features are divided up into a handful of short documentaries. He started the “featurette-only” special edition DVD trend long ago and thankfully, he’s pretty good at making worthwhile features within those limitations. There are four featurettes. The first is the biggest, an 18-minute doc on the origin of the project, including interviews with all the key players like Spielberg, Hanks, and a few folks from the actual story who are still alive (or at least their relatives). It’s an intriguing overview of the era and the concepts behind the film, although I couldn’t help but feel that it could and should have ran a little longer (if only because there is no input from the Coen Brothers and only a few words by Rylance). Next up are a pair of ten minute docs on the creation of the period streets of Berlin and the U-2 spy planes that both pack a great deal of info into brief screentime and are both actually rather fascinating (the dedication to finding proper locations instead of constructing sets is impressive). Finally, things wrap up with a brief 5-minute doc about the Bridge Of Spies itself (Surprisingly, they actually shot on the real bridge) that concludes with some back-slapping and complimenting that’s at least well earned. Sadly, that’s all the special features the disc contains, essentially amounting to a half hour of footage. It’s a shame given all of the talented people who worked on the film and all of the history involved. It feels like these documentaries could have been at least twice as long. Perhaps more will be featured on a later release. Who knows? For now, it’s still a damn fine presentation of an excellent Steven Spielberg movie that I’ve got a feeling is going to age incredibly well.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
Bridge of Spies is not essential Spielberg, but proof that Spielberg remains an essential part of the fabric of American cinema. Despite the film’s strength and almost flawless HD presentation by Disney, Hanks is the only one going above the call of duty here, so this Blu-ray is probably just for the hardcore Spielberg completists.