Sunday, January 31, 2016

Video review: "Bridge of Spies"


In such an outstanding year for movies, "Bridge of Spies" is the sort of film that tends to get overlooked. It doesn't have a flashy subject, or the hot new thing as a star or director, and it's a historical piece about an embarrassing Cold War event that many people would just as soon forget.

It got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but I don't think anyone considers it a serious contender. Nor should it be, but it's a very good picture that deserves some attention on video.

Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn who finds himself thrown into the kettle of geopolitical politics. First it's being selected to represent Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Ryland, in a wry performance that got its own Oscar nod), basically because nobody else wants the job. He tries his hardest -- which annoys some of his colleagues -- and convinces the government not to execute Abel since they might need him someday.

Someday arrives a few years later when American pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union in the infamous U-2 incident and held prisoner. Donovan is sent to Berlin to negotiate an exchange, Abel for Powers, but in the overheated era of nuclear standoff, the government can't officially acknowledge his role as their representative.

He's essentially freelancing it with his rear end exposed, making daily trips across the Berlin Wall with briefcase in hand to haggle with a bizarre array of Russians and Germans. Complicating things, the East Germans have captured an American student on trumped-up spying changes. Donovan takes it upon himself to free him too: "Two for one" is his mantra.

It's a potboiler political thriller, more about the threat of violence and dire consequences than the actual depiction of them. Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriters Matt Charman, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen turn the screws at just the right pressure, with Hanks spectacular as always as the well-meaning everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

Bonus features are OK, though Spielberg shows his typical disregard for filmmaker commentary tracks. There are four making-of mini-documentaries: "Berlin 1961: Re-creating The Divide," "U-2 Spy Plane," "Spy Swap: Looking Back On The Final Act" and "A Case Of The Cold War: Bridge of Spies."

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