Best Picture Profile: Bridge of Spies

Mark Rylance plays Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy arrested in the U.S. in the dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.

As we come closer to the Academy Awards, we’ll be posting short profiles of each Best Picture nominee, attempting, in our own ways, to not only sum up what the movie is about, but why we believe it scored one of the eight coveted nominations, and why it could possibly take home the big prize come Oscar night. Enjoy!

In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released, and it’s pretty magnificent that more than forty years later, Spielberg is still delivering high quality films, or at the very least, films that can hold an audience’s attention. Bridge of Spies aims to achieve something higher than what it actually attains. It ain’t Lincoln, but it sure ain’t Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s a respectably made, well-acted historical thriller, with a few key elements that make it Oscar worthy.

Based on a true story (the Oscars sure do love their true stories, don’t they), the film follows James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer in 1950’s America, at the height of the Cold War. The FBI captures Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is tried as a Soviet Spy, and to pass it off as a fair trial, enlist Donovan to act as the defense attorney. After getting to know Abel, Donovan talks down the sentence from the death penalty to life in prison, in case an American soldier suffers the same fate in Soviet America, and a switch is to be made. Well, truth is indeed stranger than fiction, because that’s sure as hell what happens.

What follows is a less-than-stellar trip to Russia for our everyman hero Donovan, and an ultimately intense exchange on the titular “Bridge” where Abel is exchanged for the American soldier (as well as an American student who was being held by the Soviets). The script, written by Matt Charman and given a subsequent revision by the Coen Brothers, does a fine job of keeping the audience from utter confusion, as well as providing charming character moments for our hero (Tom Hanks continues to be charming as ever here). But it’s Mark Rylance as Abel that makes the film stand out above the rest, a darn shame since Rylance is really only in the first 20 minutes and the final 10 minutes of the film. But his performance is well tuned, subtle, and complex. There’s a reason he’s nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Rylance brings a level of class and dignity to this character that isn’t really seen in too many other Oscar movie performances this year. He makes this film.

And indeed, that final trade on the bridge is supremely tense, which is a shame since most of the rest of the film, well….isn’t. It’s mainly a “Get from Point A to Point B” kind of film, which dramatic swells of music here and there. I wish I had more to say about this film, but as you can sort of tell, outside of Mark Rylance, it didn’t leave the biggest impression on me. It’s as remarkable as anything that Steven Spielberg is still able to get such great performances and tell such gripping stories over such a storied career. But for Bridge of Spies, there ain’t a Best Picture Oscar on the other side of this bridge.

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