2015

Film #527: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Those of you who have read this blog from the start know that Oscar’s relationship with Steven Spielberg goes back a long way and that many of the director’s films have been nominated for Best Picture. In fact this year marks the fortieth anniversary of Spielberg’s first inclusion in the Best Picture category for Jaws which ultimately lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It then seems fitting that another Spielberg film, in this case the thrilling drama Bridge of Spies, be included in this year’s field of eight contenders for Best Picture.

Bridge of Spies started life as an idea by British screenwriter Matt Charman who learned of lawyer James B Donovan’s work as a negotiator after reading a footnote about him in a biography about JFK. Charman then met with Donovan’s son and learned more about the extraordinary story about this seemingly normal insurance lawyer who was tasked first with representing a man charged with being a Russian spy and then by helping to negotiate the release of two American citizens who were trapped behind enemy lines. Charman’s script was eventually picked up Dreamworks with the studio’s co-founder Steven Spielberg eventually agreeing to direct. Despite being different in almost every conceivable way, Bridge of Spies shared one similarity with the last film I watched for this blog; The Martian as both had strong first hours and then lapsed during their middle section. In the case of Bridge of Spies I feel this was due to the fact that the first hour featured the capture and trial of Rudolf Abel who Donovan was recruited to defend. I believe that Abel was the most intriguing character in the film and every time actor Mark Rylance was on screen I found myself absorbed in the action. In fact I had high hopes for the film as a whole after watching the first ten minutes which saw Abel being pursued by the CIA were fantastic. The next hour which followed Donovan’s attempts to get justice for Abel were equally engrossing thanks in part to the script co-written by Charman and the Coen Brothers. Where Bridge of Spies fell down for me was in its middle section in which Donovan is dispatched to East Germany to negotiate the trade of Abel for U.S. airman Francis Gary Powers. These scenes didn’t particularly work for me as neither the screenwriters nor Spielberg had particularly made me care about Powers’ fate and therefore I didn’t particularly care if he was released. Equally Donovan’s time in East Germany meant we were deprived of any scenes featuring Abel and instead we were given numerous scenes of men sitting in offices having the same sort of conversations.

Luckily Bridge of Spies picked up in the final scenes which depicted the trade-off itself and reunited Donovan and Abel one last time. However, I was even a little disappointed by the final set piece as I was expecting it to have the edge of your seat quality that you’d look for in a spy movie. Unfortunately everything seemed awfully neat and I wasn’t particularly a fan of the overly patriotic scenes that ended the film which saw Donovan gazing out of his train window as he was greeted by many examples of American iconography. But I think these final scenes were exactly what caught the eyes of the Academy voters when they were deciding which films to add to the Best Picture list. I personally wasn’t surprised at all to find Bridge of Spies was nominated for Best Picture as it’s an old fashioned espionage film which is set in the 1950s and features a recognisable star and director. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Bridge of Spies as there were several fine elements to a film that ultimately just wasn’t the sum of its parts. The most valuable player amongst Spielberg’s ensemble either on screen or off was Mark Rylance, whose performance as Abel has to be one of 2015’s best. Rylance is utterly captivating and the fact that he utters very few lines of dialogue makes his performance all the more impressive. Additionally I feel the combination of Rylance and Tom Hanks is a winning won as the former’s quite withdraw delivery combined with the latter’s more animated performance made their scenes together shine. Praise must also go to Spielberg’s long-time collaborator cinematographer Janusz Kamiński who adds a certain slickness to the film which makes it stand out from all of the other period espionage dramas. Kamiński also delivers some of the film’s finest moments during its baggy second act especially when he conjures up vivid imagery during the scene in which Donovan observes people being shot whilst attempting to cross the Berlin Wall. Somebody who has been left out of the awards nominations is Tom Hanks who I feel deserves praise for portraying another everyman caught in an extraordinary situation just as he was in Captain Phillips. Maybe the Academy don’t feel it’s necessary to honour Hanks any more however I feel that he’s delivered several fine performances in the years since he last received an Oscar nomination for Cast Away.

But I’m not going to get carried away in a diatribe about who the Oscars should have nominated and how many times as I’d be here all day if I did that. What I will say is that Bridge of Spies is a film that when it’s on form is utterly captivating but when it lags is a little disappointing. That being said, despite some poor pacing, Bridge of Spies is still a fine piece of film-making from Spielberg which is bolstered by another great turn from the reliable Hanks and an acting masterclass from the wonderful Mark Rylance. In fact if Bridge of Spies does win an Oscar I would say it would be for Rylance’s performance and at the moment I can’t see anyone but him winning the Best Supporting Actor Award.

Next up my review of Adam McKay’s banking drama The Big Short.

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