It is, to be sure, a very handsome exhibit. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s preferred blown-out style of lighting transforms actual locations and the fabrications by Adam Stockhausen (The Grand Budapest Hotel) into splendid period sets, a chess board for spy games that begin in 1957 Brooklyn. Spielberg’s command of suspense, complemented by Michael Kahn’s typically sure-handed editing, is evident in the first scene, where unassuming artist and photographer Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is revealed as a Soviet spy, concealing micro-images in hollowed-out coins and shaving brushes, and captured.
Abel requires a defense, so Brooklyn insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) is drafted. Realizing the sensitivity of the assignment, Donovan is reluctant, yet his wartime experience assisting with the Nuremberg trials is felt to fit the bill. Donovan realizes how much more ambiguous this duty will be when he meets Abel, who, far from being the Communist monster of the press, shows himself to be a principled man, with a wearily ironic sense of humor. The chief pleasure of Bridge of Spies is the scenes between these two fine actors, as they sound each other out. (Between this and TV’s Wolf Hall, Rylance, one of our great theatre artists, is bringing his gifts to larger stages.)
Rather than rubber-stamp his client to execution, Donovan is able to spare him the death penalty, at personal cost. (Amy Ryan is cast as Hanks’s worrying wife, who is obliged to deal with ostracism and threats.) His far-sighted reasoning–that Abel might be used for prisoner exchanges should American spies be detained in Soviet-bloc countries–proves accurate, as U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is taken prisoner in the USSR in 1960, and a Yale student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), runs afoul of East German authorities in 1961. Donovan is dispatched for a highly risky exchange in early 1962, to unfold on the Glienicke Bridge between West and East Berlin. His mandate is to retrieve Powers, but he insists that he free Pryor, too, setting up a second act of tense negotiations and cloak and dagger. (Minus the dagger, though Donovan’s actual cloak falls victim to hostilities.)
Fact-based though they are, these “payoff” scenes, after an hour of careful setup, fall flat. The Coen brothers had a hand in the screenplay, and while there’s a bit more of their fingerprints here than on the deadly dull Unbroken–Donovan’s introductory scene, explaining insurance law, seems very much their work–their spirit is lost in a dustbin of history. A series of stale us vs. them encounters, enacted by a flavorless supporting cast, lead up to the bridge rendezvous, which is heaven-lit, like the climax of another of Spielberg’s alien meeting films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Bridge of Spies is weirdly reverent of its vanished place–the postwar anxieties and grim crosscurrents that ripple through The Third Man (1949), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), and many other films made during the “old” Cold War are embalmed in Spielberg’s attractively packaged theme park presentation.
Isn’t entertainment enough? Sure–but Spielberg long ago matured into a great humanist, and he’s made swifter, less talky entertainments. The movie’s coda contrasts two very different walls, one good, one bad, a reminder of the folly of totalitarianism and the blessings of hard-won freedom. The message, I reckon, is that crushing politics can be outrun, and that admirable “little guys” like Donovan and Abel can get us to the finish line. Bridge of Spies is comforting, yet banal, in a way you notice when this master director is off his game. (Thomas Newman fills in for John Williams, ably, unremarkably, so the movie sounds off, too.) Maybe the not-really-ended conflict, currently transpiring in Syria, is too fuzzy for a filmmaker who prefers to spell things out, and too gray to appropriately accommodate his humor and sentiment.
After the summer movie season comes Indian summer movie season, as all the hottest hits gravitate to Blu-ray and DVD. And there was no greater success this summer than Avengers: Age of Ultron…well, until Jurassic World stole Thor’s hammer a few weeks later. Still, a worldwide gross of $1.4 billion isn’t exactly nothing, and with World a week or two away from release Ultron has grabbed hold of the home market.
I had my say about the movie when it opened, and a second viewing, projected on my large screen (humblebrag), didn’t change my opinion too much. (The little oases of one-liners and wise-ass actor shtick that open up around battle scenes were ever more appreciated.) Still, wowza, what a disc! The Marvelverse is the shiniest, coolest place in the universe on Blu-ray, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix is crunchy–when the possessed Hulk and Iron Man fight it out, my subwoofer practically sank into the floorboards, and I thought I heard a neighbor or two nosing around my door. Ok, next time I’ll invite your kids over.
So I can’t knock the experience of watching Ultron, which is available on DVD and as a 3D Blu-ray, too. I had a good time with it, just not as much a good time as I had with the first installment, which was lighter and buzzier. And the supplements do bring us closer to the whole gargantuan enterprise. A relieved Joss Whedon rambles through a storehouse of anecdotes on a commentary track, there are some OK deleted and extended scenes to wade through, and a brisk making-of EPK and other featurettes. Plus a gag reel, gags being in too short a supply this time. Maybe Ant-Man can bring the funny when he joins the team. And maybe Spielberg and the Coen brothers could suit up for a superhero entry, which could really be something. Ultron, make it happen.