Oscars 2016: Bridge of Spies


The Film: Bridge of Spies

The Pitch: The Insurance Lawyer Who Came in from the Cold 

Number of Nominations: Six

Which Categories? Best Picture. Best Original Screenplay. Best Supporting Actor. Best Original Score. Best Sound Mixing. Best Production Design

Will it Win? Steven Spielberg seems to be a constant favourite of the Academy’s, even when he delivers a merely good film instead of a truly great one. As either producer or director, he has been nominated 16 times, for films as varied as E.T.The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, MunichWar Horse, and Lincoln. He has won three Oscars, and will probably win more in the future, but I don’t think Bridge of Spies will win Best Picture, as much as its story and sensibilities might appeal to the core of the Academy. On Saturday the Producers Guild selected The Big Short as Best Film, a good indication of how the Oscars will go.

This is a solidly-made historical drama about the Cold War that features everyone’s favourite everyman, Tom Hanks as James Donovan, a lawyer who first defends a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, and then travels to East Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the Russians: Abel for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 spy plane pilot. The screenplay is Marc Platt and Joel & Ethan Coen, and the Coens’ trademark verbal wit is on display in a couple of scenes, and elevates an otherwise by-the-numbers script.

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The standout of the film is Mark Rylance in a terrific, understated performance as Rudolf Abel, perhaps cinema’s first Russian spy with a Scottish accent (don’t worry; that’s explained.) I think Mark Ruffalo is going to win Best Supporting Actor for Spotlight, but it would be lovely to see Rylance win, if only because he’s the only character actor in a category filled with stars (Ruffalo, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Hardy, Christian Bale.)

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The lovely score (both stirringly patriotic and rather moody) is by Thomas Newman instead of Spielberg’s usual composer, John Williams.

Adam Stockhausen’s production design might win him an Oscar because the Academy is always partial to period films, and Stockhausen and his crew did a wonderful job of recreating Brooklyn and Berlin in the 1950s. Stockhausen won for his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Is it a great film? No, but it’s very well-made. There are no massive set pieces or intricately choreographed sequences: most of the film consists of people sitting in rooms and talking. It’s engaging, nonetheless, and it gets by on the charm of Hanks, Rylance’s weary performance, and a few moments of Cold War humour.

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It’s been more than a quarter-century since the Berlin Wall fell, and almost sixty years since Gary Powers was shot down over Russia. Do the majority of moviegoers today even know who Powers was? The events and attitudes in Bridge of Spies might strike some in the audience as a bizarre slice of ancient history, but if they’re troubled by the thought, they needn’t worry, because nice Tom Hanks is here to explain and make everything right.

Is it a great script? Not really. It’s actually two films yoked together. For the first hour it’s a legal drama rooted in Cold War paranoia. Donovan is reviled for defending a Russian spy, while he lectures all and sundry about the importance of treating his client fairly, and there is much talk of the Constitution (it isn’t as lofty as Lincoln but it shares that film’s sense of right and wrong.) Meanwhile schoolchildren are terrified by classroom movies that outline a Russian nuclear attack.

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The second half of the film is a thriller that sees Donovan in Berlin, acting on behalf of the CIA (although officially he’s only there as a private citizen) as he negotiates a prisoner exchange with the Russians, which gets complicated when another American, a young student, is arrested by the East Germans.

Spielberg tries mightily to make these two halves gel together, but it doesn’t quite work, and you can see where he’s had to trim to keep the film moving. Although there are moments of real danger, if anything the film’s tone is rather jaunty. This is not a particularly somber take on the Cold War. The scenes in the Russian Embassy are written and played as comedy. We have the Coens to thank for that, I suppose, and for keeping any overt sentimentality out of the story (this is one of Spielberg’s least mawkish films.) In one shot you can see a marquee for a cinema in Berlin that includes the Billy Wilder farce One, Two, Three. Bridge of Spies doesn’t have that film’s spirit or energy, sadly.

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The film does, however, do a nice job of comparing the actions of the two spies. Abel never gives up any secrets to the other side, and Donovan holds him in high regard (he may be a Soviet agent, but he’s still a client worthy of a dignified defence.) Powers, on the other hand, was despised in the United States for many years because he allowed his U-2 spy plane to fall into the enemy’s hands, even though he never admitted anything to the Russians.

Bridge of Spies is filled with familiar faces, but doesn’t feel overwhelmed by stars.

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The Knick‘s Eve Hewson is wasted in the role of Donovan’s daughter; a romantic subplot involving her is raised, then dropped. Amy Ryan is similarly wasted in the thankless role of Donovan’s wife.

Verdict: Three and a Half Bricks in the Berlin Wall out of Five

 

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