A dramatic thriller set against the backdrop of a series of historic events, DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 Pictures' Bridge of Spies tells the story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a Brooklyn lawyer who finds himself thrust into the center of the Cold War when the CIA sends him on the near-impossible task to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot. Screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen have woven this remarkable experience in Donovan's life into a story inspired by true events that captures the essence of a man who risked everything and vividly brings his personal journey to life.
Steven Spielberg has one of the best track records in Hollywood when it comes to producing consistently solid films. Even his very worst movies get lukewarm reactions. Although 'Bridge of Spies' wasn't one of his more financially successful films, the reaction from critics and those who saw it was great, and the word-of-mouth pushed it along as a slow-moving box office hit. It didn't perform on the usual standard Spielberg standards, but that was just fine. Six Oscar nominations later, no one is considering it a flop.
Manyt films that wave the "based on a true story" banner are thinly based on true stories. As I watched 'Bridge of Spies' in theaters, I wondered how much of the tale was historically accurate. The content felt like it may have held the contrived stuff of too-good-to-be-true movies – but much to my surprise, all of the wildest points are absolutely factual. You're not getting a fabricated story here. You're getting a nice piece of American Cold War history, a part that isn't told in to many history books, but should be.
Tom Hanks leads the film as James Donovan, a lawyer exclusively hired by insurance companies to handle some of their stickier claims. Because he's very successful and because he worked as a prosecutor in the wartime trials following World War II, he's hired by the U.S. government to represent an alleged Russian spy that is captured in the wonderful opening scene of the film. Being set at the peak of the Cold War, this case is a serious matter. The Red Scare is in full swing. The impending threat of a Russian attack leads to massive nationwide paranoia. Anyone loosely associated with Russia and/or communism is judged as being a bad guy and viewed as a threat. It would have been easy for the 'Bridge of Spies' screenplay to up and run with these generalizations; however, instead it does something quite unique that's very effective and powerful – something that ends up being 50 percent of the movie's driving force. It humanizes the alleged Russian spy and allows the audience to actually connect with and care for him. We become concerned about what his fate might be. And for that (according to Spielberg), we can thank Joel and Ethan Coen for their reworking of the screenplay.
Although historic, this story is mostly unknown by the masses. Because of that, I'm hesitant to explain any further details about the story than what I've already mentioned. A good chunk of the entertainment value comes from not knowing where it's going or what lies ahead – but I must add a disclaimer following that statement. Movies that rely solely on surprises can fall victim to a lacking desire to re-watch. Despite 'Bridge of Spies' benefiting from the unknown, it's still just as entertaining to re-watch. Personally, I found it somewhat more entertaining to revisit at home on Blu-ray due to the perfect video quality and the astounding and flawless 7.1 audio mix. After watching it at home, the sound mixing Oscar nomination made complete sense to me.
Aside from the sound mixing and production design, my theatrical review of 'Bridge of Spies' pointed out each of the other four areas for which it was nominated. (Not to brag, but I totally called it.) It earned all of the Oscar nominations in the right place. Playing the role of the sympathetic Russian accused of being a spy is three-time Tony winner Mark Rylance, a theatrically trained actor who makes big waves with his subtle performance here. The Matt Chapman/Coen Brothers screenplay is tactical, witty and intelligent. As usual, Spielberg's direction is full of precision. And my exit comment upon leaving the theatrical screening was along the lines of, "an automatic shoe-in for a best picture nomination."
For me personally, 2015 was lacking of the quantity of quality films that usually come in a calendar year – but 'Bridge of Spies' found its way onto that small list of must-see movies that I recommend to everyone. If you haven't seen it yet, get on it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Buena Vista has placed this DreamWorks/Touchstone picture on a Region-free BD-50. Along with it comes a DVD copy and a code for the redemption of a Digital HD copy. (For those Disney Movie Rewards users, the code unfortunately isn't valid for any points.) First pressings come with a cardboard slipcover with light embossing. The two discs are housed side-by-side in a blue eco-LITE vortex keepcase. A DreamWorks reel, an anti-smoking ad and streaming trailers play before the main menu, all of which can be skipped over.
'Bridge of Spies' arrives on Blu-ray with an absolutely flawless 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Although shot and designed with a '50s and '60s style – mild haze, slight desaturation, occasionally soft(er) focus – it still consistently shines brightly.
There's a great filmic look to 'Bridge of Spies.' Shot on 35mm film stock, there's light grain that dusts the majority of the picture. On a few occasions – typically during gritty interrogation scenes or scenes set in frigid German settings – the grain is much thicker than usual.
A few elements exist that would normally dissolve imagery details. First, there's a lot of cigarette smoking on-screen. This causes settings to become hazy. Bright lighting can amplify the appearance of the haze and diminish detail, but it's obviously a directorial/design decision. In those scenes and settings, close-ups cut through the smoke and reveal the details that would otherwise be missing. Non-hazy scenes reveal great textures. You'll notice the fine pin-striping on Hanks' blue suit, the stubble that appears on his face as time unfolds, and many other minute details.
Second, like Spielberg films of the last two decades, the desaturation of the imagery makes the lighting appear extra bright. Blinding beams burst in through set windows. Blue skies appear as bright whites and grays, hiding any color and clouds that may otherwise be visible. While colors are present throughout, they're slightly muted and less vibrant than real life.
Despite the bright lighting, no bands appear. There also isn't any crushing, aliasing, artifacts or noise.
'Bridge of Spies' features a perfect 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. This exemplary track is much more active than you might anticipate from a slower period drama.
The effect mixing is off the chart. The film kicks off with the distant and low sound from the interior of a subway car. As it gets louder and louder, it begins to fill each of the channels with such a dynamic sense that it carries the genuine sound of being aboard a rocky train. This same amount of full and satisfying care is given to every location. An aggressive approach is taken with bustling city streets, stormy evenings and countless other environmental settings. Non-environmental effects can pack a punch. The mid-air emergency scene involving a U-2 spy plane and an unsuspecting drive-by shooting truly scene are just two that feature accenting sound and bring the needed emotional reaction to manipulate the senses.
With John Williams unable to score, Thomas Newman was hired to replace him. I enjoy a good Williams score, but Newman was a fantastic replacement that doesn't disappoint here. His score is mixed throughout the space wonderfully, giving the same flooding emotional response that Williams is so good at creating.
The vocal mix is clean and clear. Keeping it from getting stagnant, the range is wide. No matter where the volume lands, the clarity of the speech is always there. There's never a difficulty to understanding the dialog and it never comes across as flat.
'Bridge of Spies' didn't quite go down as one of Steven Spielberg's best films, but it's certainly acclaimed, not at all a letdown and easily one of the best films of 2015. What makes it great is that it's an entirely perfect package. From acting and directing to writing and lighting, every single aspect of it flawless. It's a perfectly oiled machine in which all of the moving parts function with precision. The extremely accurate true story is one that's entertaining to watch unfold before your eyes. You'll be surprised that you haven't heard of this real-life Cold War story until now. The Blu-ray features perfect video and audio, making this even more of a perfect package. While the disc could have benefited from a higher quantity of special features, those that are included are of great quality and will satisfy those who want to know more about the era in which it's set, the true story upon which it's based, and how the film adaptation was realized. If you haven't yet seen this six-time Oscar nominated film, I highly recommend picking it up.