by Alan Yudman
I had an interesting discussion with my father. He asked whether BRIDGE OF SPIES was Oscar worthy. It’s an interesting question. I gave the usual explanations that it’s hard to tell, it’s early, Oscar-bait films generally are released at the end of the year. Blah blah blah. Then I began telling him about the movie and I think I slowly convinced myself that it might be one of the 10 movies nominated. It is the story of one lawyer played by Tom Hanks who is asked to do the thankless— defend an accused Soviet spy at the most tense time of the Cold War. It covers a bunch of history, including the shooting down of a U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union. Directed by Steven Spielberg it’s almost predictable that the film will be great… or at least better than most. Spielberg and Clint Eastwood are so good at what they do, that their films seem too perfect, too pristine. It’s the problem I had with Eastwood’s AMERICAN SNIPER last year. But in this case, pristine and clean work. This is set in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a time when life was more pristine and clean. That style serves the story very well, because Spielberg is so good at organizing these historical dramas, his direction doesn’t get in the way. He’s substance over style. I suppose that is a style in and of itself. Hanks” James Donovan is an insurance lawyer with some history of serving the prosecution at Nuremberg. He is once again asked to serve his country, to defend the spy Rudolf Abel, wonderfully portrayed by British stage actor Mark Rylance. Rylance plays the mild mannered spy with a quiet dignity and a little humor. He is meek, yet stronger than those who accuse him of espionage. It is a masterfully quiet performance. Donovan tries his best to give Abel the capable defense entrusted to him, but no one wants him to succeed and his doesn’t except for one prescient moment. He asks the judge to spare Abel’s life because, well, you never know when we may need a spy to swap to the Soviets. Parallel to this is the story of the U2 spy planes and Powers being shot down over Soviet territory. That’s where Donovan’s idea bears fruit. The CIA wants to trade Abel for Powers, but they don’t want to use official channels, so Donovan is recruited to be the negotiator. Hanks is so reliable and true in every role and it is no different here. Donovan wants to get Powers back, but also wants to get an American student wrongly captured in East Berlin as the wall is going up. His CIA contacts want him to forget the student but he knows what is right, seemingly learning a lesson from the Soviet spy he defended. Hanks’ Donovan is forthright, honest and patriotic… the second half of the twin moral centers of the film along with Rylance’s Abel. The script, co-written by the Coen brothers and Matt Charman, is wonderfully understated yet powerful at the same time. Now, back to my father’s question, is BRIDGE OF SPIES Oscar worthy. I can see many nominations in the future, screenplay, director, actor for Hanks and supporting actor for Rylance. So, yes it is worth of consideration and is just the type of movie that could win awards. Tune in next March to see if any of that comes true.