Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Bridge of Spies Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
A dramatic thriller set against the backdrop of a series of historic events, 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 a near impossible mission to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot. High stakes and suspense power a story inspired by true events that capture the essence of a man who risked everything and vividly brings his personal journey to life.

Film (5 out of 5 stars)
Inspired by real events, Bridge of Spies tells the story of a secret back room deal that was a turning point of the cold war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. When Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured and arrested in New York, the American justice system requests that former Nuremberg prosecutor James Donovan (Tom Hanks) represent him. Donovan is reluctant to accept as he knows it's a no win scenario but agrees to do it because he believes it's the right thing to do and because he fully believes that Abel deserves the same rights as everyone else.

Donovan quickly discovers that representing Abel does in fact impact his life personally and professionally and even his family is threatened. Despite that, Donovan's respect for Abel grows and while he doesn't condone Abel's activities, he does appreciate his character and integrity. Abel refuses to assist the authorities to help himself, which impresses Donovan who argues in court that Abel shouldn't be executed for humanitarian reasons. Donovan rightly states that at some point, the Soviets might capture an American agent, so having someone to trade might be in everyone's best interest. 

And of course, that's what happens when an American U-2 spy plane is shot down over Soviet airspace and its pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured. With neither country wanting their spies to reveal any secrets, an unofficial meeting is set up in a post-war Berlin that's in the process of becoming divided between East and West. In fact, a wall barring the two sides is being erected and an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) has been trapped on the East Berlin side, a fact that Donovan soon learns. He is told by the CIA not to worry about the student as their sole concern is recovering Powers, but that doesn't sit right with Donovan who decides to include the student's release as part of his negotiations. Considering those negotiations are being held at the height of the cold war between the U.S.A., the U.S.S.R. and with some brinkmanship from East Germany who wants to be viewed as a world player, the stakes have never been higher.  

Bridge of Spies does an admirable job recreating the tensions, attitudes, and fears of a world that is still traumatized by the second world war. Berlin hasn't even finished rebuilding the war torn city at this point, and everyone is worried about where and when the next conflict could take place. America no longer trusts their former ally the Soviet Union (the feeling is mutual), and the two sides of Berlin are coming into focus with a wall and a death strip no man's land where anyone trying to escape is shot and killed.

It's impeccably directed by Steven Spielberg and the acting across the board is excellent, with extra praise going to Mark Rylance and especially Tom Hanks who really carries this movie. There's very few actors who could have pulled off a role like this, other than Hanks I can only think of Harrison Ford, Jimmy Stewart, and Kevin Costner who could have delivered the everyman appeal and the inherent integrity that the character required. Donovan's beliefs and conscience are severely tested both at home and abroad, and it's nice to see his determination to do the right thing no matter the personal cost be celebrated. Even though this is set during the early sixties, it's surprising how relevant this story is to today's events as our society is still struggling with the same issues. 
Video (5 out of 5 stars)
This 1080p transfer looks amazing which isn't a surprise as Disney always offers a stellar video presentation. I'm sure Steven Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski are very pleased with this final result, as there's a ton of detail and textures captured here. Colors are in full display and it's great to see the subtle differences between the colorful U.S. versus the drab and cold looking East Germany. The blacks levels are deep and solid and the flesh tones are realistic. There's no digital defects to complain about as this is a fantastic transfer.
Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
Bridge of Spies' DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix is equally good with a detailed and immersive presentation that really adds a lot to the movie. The dialogue is clear and crisp and the sound effects are razor sharp. There's a ton of ambiance delivered across the rear channels, with rain, rifles, machine guns, and trains all brought to life realistically. I really loved how immersive and claustrophobic this lossless mix was. While I missed Spielberg's longtime composer John Williams, I did enjoy the great score by Thomas Newman which was blended well with the rest of the audio mix. While this mix isn't bombastic at all, it perfectly suits this movie.
Extras (3 out of 5 stars)
And now we come to weakest part of this set - the special features. Once again, we've been denied a commentary track from Steven Spielberg, but we've also only been given four short extras too. I would have loved to have more featurettes included as there's so much more that could have been covered - Donovan himself, the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, etc. It was interesting to hear comments from Francis Gary Powers' son as he filled in some of the deliberate blanks left by the movie.

  • A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies - This is an almost eighteen minute look at the film and it's my favorite extra on this set. It starts off with an explanation of how this story captured Steven Spielberg's imagination as his father was in Russia at the time of Powers' capture. We also hear from the cast and crew concerning the real life history of the people involved. 
  • Berlin 1961: Re-Creating The Divide - A short look about the Berlin Wall and the cast and crew talk about the history of the wall and how it worked in the film. 
  • U-2 Spy Plane - Another short look into the real spy plane and the events from the movie. 
  • Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act - A five minute look at the filming on the actual bridge where the swap took place. We get to see some of the behind the scenes shooting there and a visit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
  • Digital Copy of the Film
Summary (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Bridge of Spies is an excellent film and the cast and crew have delivered a top notch effort. The Blu-ray is also fantastic with an incredible video and audio presentation, but the extras should have been a lot better. This is still an easy Blu-ray to recommend though as it's a great movie expertly directed by Steven Spielberg and filled with wonderful performances.

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