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Bridge of Spies

(2015) *** Pg-13
142 min. Dreamworks Pictures. Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell.

/content/films/4880/1.jpgSteven Spielberg goes into Stanley Kramer mode for Bridge of Spies, a socially conscious tale of touch-and-go diplomacy at home, at the office, and on the global stage. "Inspired by true events"—namely the intrigue around the downing of a U.S. U-2 spy plane in Soviet territory during the Cold War—Bridge of Spies also reunites Spielberg with star Tom Hanks for their fourth go-around.

Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a lawyer whose résumé includes serving on the prosecution team at Nuremberg. Now, specializing in settling insurance claims, Donovan finds himself fielding a special request from his partners (most prominently Alan Alda's Tom Watters), by way of the U.S. Government: to defend accused spy Rudolf Abel. It's 1957 ("the height of the Cold War"), but as screenwriters Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen strongly imply, the political climate compares to our own during the "War on Terror." Raising the specter of "civil liberties issues," Bridge of Spies stolidly reminds us, "Everyone deserves a defense. Every person matters."

The film begins in legal drama mode, establishing Donovan a moralist and ethicist paddling against the tides of public sentiment and institutional cynicism in chambers the judge speaks of "due process," then adds of Abel, "God willing, he'll be convicted"). At home, James's wife Mary (Amy Ryan) frets, "Tom is saying there's a cost to these things, both to your family and your firm." But the trial turns out to be mere prelude, to the 1960 U-2 incident. Once the Soviets have U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), the stage is reset for international negotiation and a potential prisoner swap: Abel for Powers.

A favored trope of '60s spy TV (a la The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) ensnared a civilian into the spy game, and Bridge of Spies derives much of its puckish wit from putting Hanks' Everyman appeal under duress. And in the Euro-thriller complications arising around the prisoner swap (particularly, a third prisoner entering into the negotiations), one might well think of Mission: Impossible.

The most obvious point of reference is Spielberg's own oeuvre, steeped in his love of old-Hollywood filmmaking. The director's deeply assured approach pleasingly straddles old fashion and modern technique, with signature cinematographic flair (executed by frequent Spielberg DP Janusz Kaminski) and a liberal application of verbal wit to match the visual. The results may not get too deep, but they make for a diverting dramatization of a Cold War tale hitherto untapped on the silver screen.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1

Street date: 2/2/2016

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Disney sends home Bridge of Spies in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD special edition with impeccable A/V credentials. There's simply no topping the treatment afforded to Spielberg's latest, which offers reference-quality video in every department: color, contrast, sharpness, texture—all work in tandem toward the end of a faithful rendering of the filmmakers' intent, with light grain achieving a filmic flavor and no compression artifacts interfering with the transfer's attention to every detail. In the sound department, how about a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix? This state-of-the-art presentation doesn't miss a trick of the theatrical mix, expertly placing sound-effects ambience for realistic settings, while prioritizing dialogue and giving a full-bodied treatment to Thomas Newman's score.

Disney offers a decent selection of video-based extras, by way of four featurettes. "A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies" (17:45, HD) wields cast-and-crew interviews to examine the history behind the film, from Steven Spielberg's family history to the political events driving the story.

"Berlin 1961: Re-Creating The Divide" (11:35, HD) gets into the history of the Berlin Wall, and how the film went about re-creating it, while "U-2 Spy Plane" (8:45, HD) proves similarly self-explanatory.

Lastly, "Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act" (5:42, HD) delves into yet more history, as well as production in Berlin (cameo alert: Chancellor Angela Merkel drops in).


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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