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Bridge of Spies (Blu-ray Review)

29 Jan, 2016 By: John Latchem

Street 2/2/16
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray
Box Office $71.5 million
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some violence and brief strong language
Stars Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Austin Stowell.

In an age of cyber warfare, global terrorism and political correctness, the most reliable movie bad guys remain Nazis and Soviets, recalling a simpler time when the lines of “us vs. them” were much easier to discern.

Bridge of Spies pulls back a few layers of that certainty regarding the Cold War, as Americans and Russians had no qualms about spying on each other in attempt to gain the upper hand should actual war ever break out.

In 1960, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia, causing an international scandal when the United States at first denied its existence, only to have the Soviets parade its pilot out to the press in an attempt to embarrass their rivals.

The pilot’s name was Francis Gary Powers, and he would soon become the centerpiece of a negotiation that would lead to one of the great tropes of spy fiction: a prisoner exchange over a bridge.

Powers and the U-2 incident are fairly well known in the annals of world history. A man who doesn’t get as much attention is a New York lawyer named James Donovan, who found himself heading the negotiations to try to bring Powers home.

To do that, he would have to swap a captured Russian spy named Rudolf Abel, who Donovan had been assigned to defend at his trial.

At the heart of the story is the degree to which Donovan (Tom Hanks) insists on presenting a rigorous defense despite the certainty of guilt of the spy and the desire of everyone to see him hang. The political pressures are so great that judges are willing to let minor legal technicalities slide for the sake of an expedient trial, all of which irks Donovan, who lives by the moral code that succumbing to the tactics of the opposition erases the key differences that he espouses sets the American way of life above the Soviet (which certainly parallels modern debates about how to conduct the War on Terror).

Donovan’s moral convictions equally guide him in negotiations for Powers’ return, as he insists on securing the release of an American economics student being detained in East Germany. Donovan’s CIA handlers don’t care about the student, just getting Powers back, since they’re too consumed by playing the same spycraft game the Russians are. This is the primary source of the tension in what is both an effective character drama and a subtle spy thriller: The question is not only can Donovan earn the release of the Americans, but can he preserve his values in the process.

This is the kind of movie that is right in the wheelhouse of director Steven Spielberg, who is now firmly entrenched in the historical drama phase of his career. The film’s script, punched up in the second half by the Coen Brothers, takes a few liberties with actual events, but does so for the sake of creating a taut, succinct story about a very distinct moment in history.

It helps that Spielberg shot in some of the actual locations where the events took place, particularly in Germany and the bridge where the exchanges occurred.

The Blu-ray contains only four short behind-the-scenes featurettes totaling about 45 minutes, but they pack in a lot of details about both the historical source material and the process of re-creating it.

The most substantial is the 18-minute “A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies,” which details how Spielberg and the writers came to the story. Spielberg’s father, it turns out, was actually in Russia when the U-2 was publicly displayed, a fact that became something of a rallying cry to make a film of the full story.

The 12-minute “Berlin 1961: Re-creating the Divide” is a production diary about how the filmmakers simulated the dilapidated state of Soviet-era East Berlin, rebuilding parts of the Berlin Wall and filming in German-built Polish cities that still have sections unrepaired since World War II.

The nine-minute “U-2 Spy Plane” deals with re-creating Powers’ flight (Powers’ son was a consultant on the film), while the six-minute “Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act” deals with filming on the Glienicke Bridge, with a special visit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


About the Author: John Latchem

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