"Bridge of Spies" arrives in theaters next Friday (Oct. 16) with inevitably high expectations, coming as it does from director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks, who are teaming up for the first time since "The Terminal" in 2004. They have five Oscars between them – not to mention another four for Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote the screenplay. Does this film live up to their collective reputations?
It certainly won over the crowd at the New York Film Festival where it world premiered on Sunday and was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation. And critics are cheering too. The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy calls it "An absorbing true-life espionage tale very smoothly handled by old pros who know what they're doing." Vulture's David Edelstein finds it "sober but stirring." And Variety's Peter Debruge proclaims that it's "a riveting, feel-good time for the whole family (two instances of the “F-word” notwithstanding), putting it on track to top 'War Horse.'"
"War Horse" (2011) marked Spielberg's eighth film to be nominated for Best Picture. Prior to that were: “Jaws” (1975), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “The Color Purple” (1985), “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “Munich” (2005). And “Lincoln” contended in 2012. Of these nine nominated films, only "Schindler's List" won the top prize.
If "Bridge of Spies" reaps a bid, Spielberg will break his tie with John Ford. And he will be just three behind William Wyler who directed 13 Best Picture nominees, including three winners ("Mrs. Miniver," 1944: "The Best Years of Our Lives," 1946; "Ben-Hur," 1959).
"Bridge of Spies" ticks a lot of Oscar boxes: it's an old-fashioned heroic drama set during the Cold War, telling the true story of an insurance lawyer, James Donovan (Hanks), tasked with defending alleged Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and then negotiating a prisoner exchange with Russian and East German officials.
Important subject matter: check. Real-life heroic character: check. A filmmaker and star with strong Oscar pedigrees: double check.
The stakes in "Bridge of Spies" are low compared to Spielberg's last two Oscar vehicles; negotiating for three prisoners compared to the epic battles of World War I ("War Horse") or the fight to end slavery ("Lincoln"). Even so, this film elicits the same rousing, up-on-your-feet ovation that recent Best Picture winners like "The King's Speech," "Argo" and "12 Years a Slave" were able to inspire.
Spielberg has racked up 15 nominations in all and the academy has awarded him two Oscars for directing ("Schindler's List" in 1993, "Saving Private Ryan" in 1998) and one for producing ("Schindler's"). He is so beloved by Oscar voters that "War Horse" managed a Best Picture bid in 2011 even after reactions to the film turned out to be somewhat muted. And "Bridge's" old-fashioned heroism and Cold War setting will likely appeal to older members of the academy.
According to the combined predictions of the 19 Oscar experts we've polled, "Bridge of Spies" is ranked ninth with 20/1 odds as of this writing. That is up a notch from October 1, before the film premiered, when it was in 10th place with 22/1 odds. One expert – Gold Derby's Jack Matthews – goes as far as to say it'll win Best Picture.
If there's one thing standing in the way, it's the film's stoicism. Donovan is the kind of earnest, unironic good guy who I think can only be played by Hanks these days because Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck are no longer available. At one point he gives a CIA agent a lecture about the Constitution and even appeals to the Supreme Court about upholding American values. But his righteous speeches don't exhibit the kind of showy, overflowing emotion that usually makes academy voters salivate; Hanks's Donovan is a do-gooder who doesn't showboat.
Hanks, a two-time Best Actor champ ("Philadelphia," 1993; "Forrest Gump," 1994), hasn't been nominated since "Cast Away" 15 years ago and is overdue for an Oscar comeback. Two years ago, Oscar watchers were shocked when he was unexpectedly snubbed for both "Captain Phillips" and "Saving Mr. Banks."
Meanwhile, Rylance is the kind of respected thespian who often contends for Best Supporting Actor – he's a multiple Tony-champ and a recent Emmy-nominee for "Wolf Hall" – though his character is even more reserved than Hanks's.
Among the below-the-line contenders are Janusz Kaminski's cinematography, Adam Stockhausen's production design (he won last year for "The Grand Budapest Hotel") and Thomas Newman's score. Period films like this should always be taken seriously for their costumes, though Kasia Walicka-Maimone's designs may be too understated in a category that usually rewards the most ornate wardrobes.
The film's chances are even better if audiences flock to it. Hollywood often can't resist a success story, and a populist, crowd-pleasing Spielberg film like this could turn out to be a moneymaker, even with its subtle style and period setting; who would have guessed that a talky historical drama like "Lincoln" would end up being a nearly $300 million worldwide hit?
Hollywood is a business after all, and success sells, even at the Oscars.
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Photo: "Bridge of Spies." Credit: Courtesy Ev/REX