Monday, February 01, 2016

OVP: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Film: Bridge of Spies (2015)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell
Director: Steven Spielberg
Oscar History: 6 nominations/1 win (Best Picture, Supporting Actor-Mark Rylance*, Original Screenplay, Score, Sound Mixing, Production Design)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

I doubt you've noticed, but I surely have, that there are still some very important films from the 2015 Oscars that have not been reviewed yet on this blog that you might expect to be done, including three films that were nominated for Best Picture of 2015.  However, over the next five days we'll be rectifying this situation with a review-a-day of one of the films that on February 28th AMPAS will be celebrating in grand style (including all three Best Picture nominees).  The first of these films that I need to get reviewed, however, is the Cold War drama Bridge of Spies, the latest in a long-line of films from Steven Spielberg that went on to be nominated for Best Picture (this is Spielberg's 17th nomination for an Oscar).  The film reunites Spielberg with one of his favorite muses, Tom Hanks, and is a handsome if not always particularly consistent film that left me a bit, well, cold, even if I could see its obvious merits.

(Spoilers Ahead, though you know, it's real-life so maybe if it's truly a spoiler you should read a book) The film hardly lacks for a grabbing plotline, as it follows the trial of Rudolf Abel (Rylance), a man who is accused of espionage against the American government after spying for the Soviets and who is eventually exchanged for a disgraced air pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell, who, like his cousin, is ridiculously handsome).  At trial, rather than just putting on a show for the sake of justice, his attorney James B. Donovan (Hanks) actually tries to defend Abel, getting him out of the death penalty and eventually goes to the Supreme Court stating that the search of Abel's home was done illegally under the Constitution.  In a miscarriage of justice (at least in the way the film plays it...though as Cate Blanchett stated in a recent interview you should never count on a movie to give you an accurate history lesson), the Supreme Court sides against him 5-4, but all of the stalling that Donovan has done on behalf of his client is worth it when it's revealed that both Powers and a student named Frederic Pryor are being held captive by the Soviet Union, and there is opportunity for the two of them to be exchanged for Abel.

The film is at its best when Hanks, who is quite good in the film and weirdly is anathema to an Oscars that once adored him (he's far better in movies like Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks, and Bridge of Spies than he was in Philadelphia or Forrest Gump, at least in my opinion-the movies themselves are decidedly better), is negotiating and there's genuine fear of what will happen next.  This isn't a particularly well-known chapter of Cold War history, and so (particularly with Pryor) I didn't know if the exchange would legitimately happen, though the law of Spielberg-related films pretty much guaranteed that it would.  Hanks is so compelling as an honest, everyman in the way that (at his best) he recalls Jimmy Stewart.  Particularly in his conversations with Abel, a man who has a completely polar worldview point than his own, or when he's desperate to get the best out of the exchange situation (and perhaps restore his family's honor), we get a really great movie, one that would feel in place during Spielberg's heyday.

The film doesn't know how to sustain such moments, however.  For every sequence like Francis Gary Powers' failed flight (which is riveting moviemaking), there's a lot of predictable backlash scenes to Donovan, ones where you sort of feel like those people that aren't played by Hanks or Rylance are portrayed by cartoons.  His wife, in particular, is so underwritten you wonder if Amy Ryan was just playing solitaire with a stogie and cubalebra, nursing her sorrows about finally being cast in a Spielberg film and all she gets to do is shoot loving and doting looks at Tom Hanks.  The film doesn't really know what to do with the moments between the thrilling ones, and it occasionally even feels like it is being tasked a bit too much with recreating history (we get it-human beings are occasionally awful and Americans take their freedoms for granted-we've all seen Trump rallies, we know how this thing works).  However, these are quibbles more drawn out of the fact that the film is competing for six Oscars, and as a result my bar for entry into the "superb movie" club is a bit raised.  Overall this is a fine if too safe picture, one that doesn't make Oscar look wildly ambitious but won't bring shame to his name either.

Those are my thoughts on Bridge of Spies-I know we're a few months after the fact, but I suspect most of you caught the movie so let's have at it.  Why do you think Oscar won't nominate Tom Hanks anymore?  Where is Mark Rylance in comparison to the likes of Mark Ruffalo and Sylvester Stallone in the Best Supporting Actor race?  And where is Bridge of Spies on your personal Best Picture lineup?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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