The year is 1957 and the U.S. and Soviet Union are firmly entrenched in the Cold War. Tom Hanks stars as insurance lawyer James Donovan, a man tasked with the unenviable job of defending a recently-apprehended Russian spy. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is an enemy of the state to be sure, a KGB agent who garners very little sympathy from a general public that would prefer to seem him executed. But Donovan is intent on providing the best defense possible, hoping to ensure a prison sentence rather than the death penalty.
Even a cursory glance at the real-life Abel's backstory shows an interesting lead-up to his capture that isn't depicted in Bridge. Instead of learning how the CIA discovered Abel's whereabouts, the filmmakers have chosen to (quite literally) cut to the chase. And, thanks to Spielberg's sure-handedness, it's an engrossing chase as Abel is pursued and cornered. But the real-life events that preceded it probably deserved some exploration.
And instead of a complex, insightful portrait of a spy, we're presented with a cutesy middle-aged amateur painter with a non-threatening expression of perpetually placidity. Abel, as portrayed by Rylance in a frustratingly thin (though inexplicably Oscar-nominated) performance, is a man guilty only of "doing his job." Meanwhile, after a jarring shift to what initially feels like a different movie, we meet U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Powers is sent on a reconnaissance mission over Soviet airspace. He's captured after his U-2 spy plane is shot down at 70,000 feet (a thrilling sequence). Donovan now sees the imprisoned Abel as a bargaining chip.
But, in yet another jarring transition that also feels initially like something out of another movie, a lovestruck U.S. college student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), naively wanders through a gap in the under-construction Berlin Wall. He's promptly detained by East German officials (he was apparently trying to escort a girlfriend over to the West). The U.S. government isn't particularly concerned, but Donovan—after being sent into the Soviet Union to negotiate the terms of the Abel/Powers trade—goes off script in an attempt to wrangle Pryor into the deal.
All of this, while certainly watchable (Spielberg still knows how to make a scene move), plays out with an aura of overall bland convention. We don't learn anything at all about Powers or Pryor, allowing Abel to seem more complex simply by default. The trouble is, none of these characters are explored at any length. Beyond the overall competency of Spielberg and everyone involved, there's not much going on throughout Bridge of Spies. We're asked to sympathize with a convicted Russian spy simply because he seems like a nice guy, without ever knowing the extent of the intelligence he's gathered over the years to use against the U.S.
To be fair, beyond the fact that they're U.S. citizens, we have little reason to invest emotionally in the respective plights of Powers and Pryor (the former ignored orders to commit suicide using a poison needle upon capture). All of it is deployed so smoothly and professionally, Bridge manages to glide by on the strength of Spielberg's storytelling prowess. But it's hollow inside.
Buena Vista's Blu-ray presentation is quite spectacular, featuring a virtually flawless 1080p transfer of frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiński's cinematography. Bridge of Spies was shot on 35mm film and the visuals here are awesomely film-like in terms of their very fine, natural grain. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix is richly detailed and nicely showcases Thomas Newman's understated score.
Special features, while not particularly extensive, are very informative and help flesh out the historical details upon which the film is based. There are four featurettes (totaling about 45 minutes): "A Case of the Cold War," "Berlin 1961: Re-Creating The Divide," "U-2 Spy Plane," "Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act."
The stories of the men depicted in Bridge of Spies undoubtedly could've formed the basis of a Best Picture-worthy film. Ultimately it's amazing how far Spielberg and company fell short of figuring out how to tell those stories in a focused, meaningful manner. Bridge throws a of lot of elements at its audience, but never really makes a cogent point.