Attention stat hounds: The next time a Steven Spielberg movie lands a best picture Oscar nomination, he’ll elbow John Ford out of the way on the list of filmmakers who have helmed the most. The two currently share the runner-up spot with nine apiece, a distant second to William Wyler’s 13. Is “Bridge of Spies,” a dramatization of lawyer James B. Donovan’s efforts to negotiate the Soviet release of downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers at the height of the Cold War in 1960, the movie to do it? Or is it just another in a long line of projects that looked good for awards on paper, but ultimately fell short?
The film premiered Sunday night as a no-frills selection at the New York Film Festival, i.e., Disney apparently did not opt for a splashy opening, closing or centerpiece selection slot. It was an unassuming way to insinuate what is in many ways an unassuming contender into the race.
This is very sturdy craftsmanship, the sort we’ve come to expect out of Spielberg and indeed take for granted. At 140 minutes, it feels overstuffed, but luckily the superfluous material comes in the first act, allowing the rest to catch a stride all the way through to the end. It’s thematically potent, dealing in notions of idealism particularly meaningful in the face of today’s perceived Constitutional slippery slopes. And it features a leading performance that commands the story as well as or better than any other this season.
That was a particularly notable element for me. Let’s be clear: Tom Hanks isn’t stretching much here, if at all. But his likable presence is so wonderfully utilized, his character so noble and strong and, above all, active, that the two-time Oscar winner could crack the best actor race. And a sprinkling of humor throughout (much of it seemingly owed to the presence of the Coen brothers on the page) just gives the whole thing, including Hanks’ performance, another texture.
But it’s Mark Rylance who will likely stand out for most as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who was exchanged for Powers and Frederic Pryor, an American student captured by the Germans. The “Wolf Hall” star brings a dry humor to the role and gives Abel a soft nobility to match Donovan’s honorable backbone. It’s a very endearing turn, and though the story eventually deserts him for a long stretch, it could resonate in a supporting actor category that won’t feature anything else quite like this.
Working again with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s frame is ever-immaculate, camera movement precise and motivated. Michael Kahn gets playful with his editing at times, providing a bit of life rather than simply allowing the history lesson to unfold. Each of them have received multiple Oscar nominations for their work on Spielberg’s films and each commands respect in his branch.
However, Thomas Newman’s score is mostly understated and sort of clashes with the material, I found. That could be the result of Spielberg’s work being so intrinsically connected to John Williams’ music all these years (the maestro was not available to him for the first time in three decades). Nevertheless, the music branch of the Academy tends to have its favorites, and Newman is certainly one of them.
So it could be a top-to-bottom player. Or it could be a touch muted for voters’ tastes. What it is regardless is a testament to Donovan as a hero worthy of a monument such as this. If, as noted separately, voters are eager for something that makes them feel good this season, “Bridge of Spies” could fit the bill. That it also finds a deeper layer of melancholy in recounting one of the darker eras of human history, and all the heartbreak and paranoia that came with it, only adds to the punch.
“Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Color Purple,” “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Munich,” “War Horse” and “Lincoln.” That’s the lineage. Can “Bridge of Spies” crack it?