The last time Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks joined forces to fight a cinematic war, it resulted in the Oscar nominated Saving Private Ryan. The two are back together battling a much different, more freezing, type of war in the based-on-a-true-story stunner Bridge of Spies. Which incidentally, is also an Oscar nominated decorated film.
Bridge of Spies is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray and the film itself would make it a must-own for any cinefile, but the bonus features delve deep into the real life spy story while educating and enlightening the viewers as to one of the more important and dangerous periods of U.S. history, the Cold War.
Hanks is James Donovan, a New York lawyer who winds up in the middle of one of the most trying times in U.S.-Soviet relations. He is tasked with representing Rudolf Abel (Oscar nominee Mark Rylance), a man charged with being a spy for the Soviet Union. Donovan believes that, despite what everyone in the country – including the judge overseeing the trial – that the accused deserves a fair and balanced trial. That does not make him very popular with the U.S. public and that is painted effectively by Spielberg and the masterful Oscar nominated script that is penned by the Coen brothers (with Matt Charman).
Things that Donovan do during the trial brings him to the attention of higher ups in the U.S. government, which have him once again in the middle of some high stakes cold warfare as he is asked by his leaders to travel to West and East Berlin and broker a deal for the release of a U.S. U2 spy pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) in a spy swap for Abel.
Bridge of Spies crackles with suspense, but it’s the most subtle of kinds that permeates in the viewer’s head. This is a Cold War after all and the stakes are so high, because all involved (including the audience) knows that if things escalate it could result in a nuclear war, i.e. the end of the world.
Hanks is once again terrific and his pairing with Spielberg is one that we hope will continue for decades to come. The pair have a clear short hand that results in both being at the top of their game in the presence of the other. The scene stealer in this tale is Rylance. His onscreen chemistry with Hanks is palpable and you truly get the sense that these two are friends and the message in that is supremely powerful when looking at the larger scope of the story with each other’s country pointing human race-ending weapons at the other.
Spielberg (and Hanks for that matter) has always been passionate about history and that comes through not only in the film itself of Bridge of Spies, but also in the bonus features. There are several that take the viewer deeper into the Cold War. It’s something that is terribly important, especially as we inch further and further away from the time period.
A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies delves into the case of James Donovan, Rudolf Abel and Gary Powers to place the entire affair in the context of the period. Where were we as a nation before this happened? How did we get here? And how did the Abel case and how it was handled by Donovan essentially a face-saving move by the United States when trying to get their spy plane pilot (Powers) back from Russian captors? If you think the dramatic version of the events is fascinating in the film, you’ll be supremely captivated by this bonus feature that places a historical, societal and cultural context to all the events. For history buffs, it’s easy to see how that Powers for Abel trade was a turning point in the Cold War. Especially insightful is how Spielberg and Hanks share their own experiences with the Cold War and how growing up under the shadow of world destruction shaped them as people, but also as artists.
Another must-see is Berlin 1961: Recreating the Divide. Filmmakers combine footage from Berlin in those early days of the Cold War with behind-the-scenes footage of how the front lines of the ideological battle were recreated with the Berlin of the film. From re-building the Berlin Wall to experiencing walking through Checkpoint Charlie it is an especially memorable featurette because it was put together just days before the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. The most powerful moment is when a German historian shares her experience living through that time. After witnessing this short feature, one might want to watch Bridge of Spies yet again, this time with a whole new perspective of the stakes.
The penultimate scene in the film takes place on the actual Glienicke Bridge. It’s a nail-biter to say the least and Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act put the spotlight on Spielberg and his team as they shot that crucial moment in the film. Actual recordings of the real Gary Powers talking about the experience narrate parts of the featurette, making it feel supremely powerful. How special was this scene? German Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the set to witness the iconic moment as Spielberg and Hanks brought it to life.
Film Itself: A-
Bonus Features: A