We first see Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) painting, alternately examining himself in a mirror to his left and polishing a self-portrait on his right. This resonant triangular image, with Abel himself comprising one of its points in the center of the frame, shows what he sees (in the mirror), what he documents (in the painting), and what we see (a middle-aged man in a cramped 1950s-era apartment in Brooklyn, painting amid the expressive sounds of a city in swing). None of these perceptions are entirely in sync, existing as shards of multitudinous realities that ultimately amount to whatever a beholder decides they amount to. With this image, director Steven Spielberg succinctly boils Bridge of Spies down to its essence.
Spielberg hasn’t been this obsessed with perception since Minority Report, blending that preoccupation with the discursive, politically charged comedy that coursed through Lincoln. Bridge of Spies dramatizes how spoken words, as an art form, manipulate point of view. Not long after Abel’s introduction, which ends in his arrest by the United States government for suspicion of serving as a Russian spy in the Cold War, we meet James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a prominent insurance attorney who’s discussing a case with an opposing lawyer in a posh bar. Donovan’s quite cognizant of perception (it’s his trade after all), and one of his clients is intent on settling a single incident, rather than the five the opposing attorney insists there to be. If a man hits five people in an automobile accident, has he been in one accident or five? The answer, to borrow from an old joke, depends on the competency of your attorney. Donovan appears to be shrewd and connected, so we assume the incident will be deemed singular. Later, Donovan’s tasked with overseeing a prisoner trade between the U.S., Russia, and Eastern Germany, and the idea of singular and multiple incidents is revisited with a delicious sense of circuitous repetition. Is Donovan overseeing one trade or two? The answer resides in how well he can play the Russians off the Germans off the Americans.
Bridge of Spies is also another of Spielberg’s morality tales about legal procedure as a charade masking the inherent chaos and subjectivity of social governance. Under the cloak of benevolent objectivity championed by various global government platitudes pertaining to “justice,” lives countless bureaucrats scurrying to orchestrate the most beneficial political play for themselves. In Lincoln, slavery was shown to be dissolved (at least legally) through an elaborate pissing contest, which resonated with contemporary viewers well-read on the controversies engulfing Affordable Healthcare. Yet the semantical tap-dancing that politicians, attorneys, judges, and police do, with the law as their script, serves to stave off the kind of anarchy that Spielberg shows in Bridge of Spies to be overtaking the border between East and West Germany as the Berlin Wall is hastily erected. But how long can porous laws avert such anarchy? There’s a sense in Bridge of Spies of an era on a precipice, of life as dictated by the perceptions of a vast populace that can be swayed to look another way with terrifying ease.
The elegantly intricate script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen is loaded with references to perception as a malleable reality. Donovan is initially hired to represent Abel as he’s tried for espionage by the U.S. government, not because the Americans wish to see him represented, but so a point can be made about the firmness of the country’s Constitution no matter what the circumstance. (Like Lincoln, Bridge of Spies explores the present via the past, in this case commenting on contemporary immigration controversies.) Halfway through the film, there’s a bold, eerie image of people reading newspapers on a train all around Donovan, seething with contempt for his representation of the Russian. The newspapers’ headlines are subtly heightened visually, suggesting sandwich board signs advertising Donovan’s personal condemnation. At one point, Abel remarks that “the boss might not always be right, but he’s always the boss.” Even tossed-off dialogue circles the fragility of perception: When Donovan’s wife, Mary (Amy Ryan), asks for details on his trip (which he calls a fishing expedition) to dangerous eastern Germany, she asks him to give her anything to keep her from worrying, even if it’s a lie.
But the games truly begin when Donovan gets to East Germany. As always, semantics must be strictly enforced and averted in equal measure. This trade between world powers is presented as comic bickering between an American attorney and European officials whose true identities and rankings may never entirely be revealed. Theoretically, the negotiation to trade Abel back to Russia and Eastern Germany, for an American U-2 pilot (Austin Stowell) and a college student (Will Rogers) at the wrong place at the wrong time, was initiated by Abel’s family, but that’s instantly ascertained to be a ruse by all involved, particularly by the hauntingly resolute Abel. Donovan hears of a family lawyer, Vogel (Sebastian Koch), a German nationalist who can’t meet Donovan at the Russian embassy in Eastern Germany for the obvious reasons, despite his status as the ostensible reason for Donovan’s journey to the embassy. Somewhere in this convoluted war of pretense, there’s also Schischkin (Mikhail Gorevoy), a probable KGB agent who bears a resemblance to Peter Lorre.
The film is based on a true story and some of it may have even happened this way, but Spielberg’s spinning another myth about the ambiguities of myths, how they comfort audiences, affirming their private ideas about themselves, at the dangerous expense of empowering manipulators. Over the course of this narrative, Donovan evolves from hero to pariah to hero again, eventually allowed to sack out on his bed as a self-consciously frumpy nice-guy father again, partially due to his own craftiness, yes, but within a larger, less governable blob of public opinion, shifting context, and blind luck. Donovan is a superb negotiator, but he could have just as easily been killed in Eastern Germany, who longs to be globally recognized by the U.S., and his family could’ve been arbitrarily snuffed out by domestic terrorists who take the Constitution on a case-by-case basis.
Which is to say that Bridge of Spies, in the tradition of most Spielberg films, is considerably less sentimental and comfortable than many may take it to be. Spielberg is an old-school classicist by now, a master crafter of images that often transcend the literal meanings of the material they ostensibly serve. This film’s supple, fluid, smoothly, positively Preminger-esque sense of framing and movement, not to mention the editing, which connects plot points via subtle rhyming patterns, can make a cinephile’s jaw drop. Spielberg’s virtuosic formality has long been its own reward, the intensity of its invention suggesting unresolved multitudes within the stories he stages. In the last two decades, however, the filmmaker’s worked with writers muscular enough to actively bolster and complement his showmanship, such as Scott Frank on Minority Report, Tony Kushner on Lincoln, and Joel and Ethan Coen on Bridge of Spies.
Bridge of Spies merges the Coen brothers’ ironic sense of history as a series of tall tales, comprised mostly of manipulation and delusion, with Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s evocative images of loneliness and violation. When Donovan calls the police to report harassment, for instance, Spielberg covers the subsequent investigation of the house in nightmarish shadows, framing the throngs of reporters and embittered cops in long, leisurely, deep-focus takes, conveying an element of caged danger. Spielberg’s filmmaking doesn’t release tension via traditionally modern, inexpressively frenetic cutting. Every detail in every frame is hyper-tactile, exhilaratingly inescapable. Spielberg fetishizes 1950s-era America, particularly his beloved idea of the nuclear domestic unit, while understanding it to be a precious mirage that could be blinked away at any moment.
This Blu-ray offers a feast for all the senses, abounding in clarity that far exceeds the theatrical presentation of the film. All elements of all planes of every image are in constant focus. Colors, particularly the blacks and blues, are luscious, nearly viscous, suggesting tangible extra dimensions within the frame. Whites often affirm the film’s theme of truth as existing in shards, splintering images, especially the white light reflecting off of the heavy rain in a notably expressionist chase scene. Textures are tactile, from the coats worn by the characters to the various tools of espionage used by agents to the gears and gadgets within the U-2 plane. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack aurally complements the hyper-detail of the imagery, often abounding in subtle exaggerations of everyday noises: of a rumbling train jostling riders on their daily commute, of the aforementioned raindrops hitting the pavement, of feet tramping across a shabby floor, of a spy delicately removing a razor to open a hidden piece of information. This presentation celebrates the beauty of exacting density.
The supplements collectively mix archive footage of the historical events that inspired Bridge of Spies with brief testimonials from cast and crew about the shooting of the film. As is usually the case with Steven Spielberg, he tends to describe his films in terms that are far more banal than they deserve, inadvertently encouraging critics’ underestimation of him. There’s a brief history lesson about the Berlin Wall and the U-2 plane, but these segments are short and superficial. The most interesting footage shows Spielberg working with his cast and crew, blocking scenes, though there isn’t much of that to be found here. These pieces are painless, but they still add up to an unexceptional PR package.
A grippingly expressive espionage yarn, another exemplary entry in Steven Spielberg’s late-career period, receives a top-tier, must-buy transfer.