Are we underestimating ‘Bridge of Spies’ in Oscar race for Best Picture?

When Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” opened nationally in mid-October, it immediately took a front seat on the Oscar bus, right next to Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” which had opened two weeks earlier. Now, inches away from the actual starting line, “Bridge” is sitting several rows back, behind “Spotlight,” “Carol,” “Room,” “The Revenant,” “Brooklyn,” “The Big Short,” and perhaps even the early summer blockbuster “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

What happened?

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“Bridge” was well-reviewed (81/100 on Metacritic, 91% on Rotten Tomatoes) and it had all of the prerequisites of an industry awards contender: exceptional, non-CGI productions values; elegant, atmospheric cinematography from Spielberg’s brilliant collaborator Janusz Kaminski; a tour de force supporting performance from British actor Mark Rylance paired to another “old pro” turn from Tom Hanks; and a riveting story torn from the headlines of yesteryear’s newspapers

But less than three months after praising “Bridge,” critics buried it. According to a Metacritic tally of 235 Top 10 lists, only 31 critics bothered to mention it and it ranked twenty-fifth, behind almost every other movie you can remember. The question, as the weight of opinion shifts from critics to filmmakers, is how well it is regarded by the 6,000-plus voting members of the academy.

That audience skews older than the collective critical body and it is almost certainly more respectful of the kind of classic Hollywood filmmaking that “Bridge” represents. The film’s harshest critics used words like “stodgy” and “old-fashioned” to describe it, but they might have attached the same words to “Casablanca” if it was released last year.

I don’t know about stodgy, but it is old-fashioned, a period spy thriller in the manner of a John le Carré novel while having the advantage of being a true story that a significant number of Academy voters remember. The downing of Francis Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane over Russia and his capture in 1960 was a big effen deal, a caught-with-your-pants-down embarrassment for the U.S. that threatened the fragile détente of the Cold War.

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That event is sub-text for the behind-the-scenes drama that followed and resulted in an exchange of spies between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Spielberg perfectly renders the look and mood of the late Eisenhower Era, but he then takes the movie into unfamiliar territory, the wrangling, strategizing and gamesmanship of enemies maneuvering for advantage in the spy business.

Central to that is the determination of Hanks’ James Donovan, an insurance lawyer assigned to defending Rudolph Abel, the captured Soviet spy that everyone accept Donovan wants to see executed. Donovan persuades a federal judge to spare him on the chance that he may eventually be used in a prisoner swap, which came to pass with the capture “over there” of Powers.

The viewer wants to see Abel spared for another reason. Rylance’s stoic, compassionate performance humanizes him and makes us yearn as much for his release as that of Powers. He may be a spy, but he’s a kind one. Rylance has dominated critics voting for supporting actors and is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination if not the statuette itself.

But the argument here is that the movie will make the cut, too. It doesn’t have the action of “Munich,” or the sentimentality of “Lincoln,” the last two Spielberg movies to be nominated, but thanks to a script done with the leveling influence of the Coen brothers, it’s a better movie. Old-fashioned? Okay.

And in the first week of guild primaries, it has already gotten the love of the producers, writers and cinematographers and if Spielberg were to show up on the DGA ballot next Tuesday, we may have to start thinking of “Bridge of Spies” as a threat to move back to the front row of the bus. 

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 Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

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