Oscar bait can be such a draining term used to define a movie that has some stature to it. Maybe there has to be some preconceived venom behind the words when they’re uttered, but to me, it always seems to be a term that is used to put what executives would refer to as “prestige pictures” in its place for acting like infants fondling for the tit of the Academy.
It is easy to see them — they usually come in period garb with a hint of wisdom and a wind of importance. Sadly, Steven Spielberg may be slumming it with these recognitionally famished films, which look for an ink let of self-worth before disappearing into the void. Lincoln, War Horse, and his latest, Bridge of Spies, on the surface look like Oscar bait, but the underlying currents of his last film show that asking Spielberg to cook with normal ingredients will only end with an outstanding final product.
The film opens following Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a man who is maneuvering around New York City with his paint brush and easel — and the tension of questionable men following his every move. Abel is eventually arrested, being called a Soviet spy and being whisked away as quickly as he came.
The year is 1957 and the Cold War is in full effect. In another part of New York sits James Donovan (Tom Hanks). He is across from a man who is questioning “his guy” over a claim that he ran into five motorcycle drivers and caused a collision. Donovan is an insurance lawyer and very much against referring to the driver as “his guy” because that insinuates blame or fault on his end.
Donovan, though, has to come back to the office to face his next task — he has been chosen to defend Abel in court for his crimes against the United States of America. With obvious reluctance, Donovan gathers notes and heads home to discuss the possibility of taking on a case he feels he has no ground to stand in.
Bridge of Spies teleports you into the 1950s, but the present day sits like a haze over it. Donovan is given a no-win case. Nobody wants Abel to live any longer — not even the judge — and his actions are so undeniably bad that he shouldn’t even be considered in the first place. Or at least in the eyes of the public.
Thanks to a tight script by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, the film gives a humanity to Abel, which is also a testament to the skill by Rylance to create sympathy for the man, who, as Donovan says, is just doing the job of his country as any American would ask of their spies and soldiers.
Done mostly by the rewrites of the Coen Brothers, who added motifs and a dash of humor to the historical drama, Bridge of Spies speaks to the audience not in anger or disapproval, but in a plea. Much like Donovan does to the Supreme Court, the film is asking for empathy even when around a curtain of evil.
But the public isn’t the judge of someone’s fate. There is one judge, and even he struggles to come to terms with accepting Abel as a man rather than a wolf. In a time when evil still finds its way into the world in the form of terrorist organizations and threats against the country, Bridge of Spies is a lesson in empathy and one that does it with a soft hand rather than a finger pointed at the viewer.
An organic flow comes from the film’s script, another testament to Charman and the Coen Brothers, and the actions and consequences feel earned rather than put on to further cement the point. Peace is not won with brash decisions and force, it is won with minds and compassion with a slight understanding of the state of the world on the other side of the table.
Spielberg is the difference in this, which is impressive for a director known for sometimes tacking on sentiment and pressuring you to ooze with emotion. But with Bridge of Spies, it never feels forced. Spielberg directs like a pro, not letting any frames go to waste and remembering to allow for Hanks, Rylance, or the script to take the lead every so often.
Bridge of Spies is Spielberg, Hanks, and the Coen Brothers reminding you what good, professional filmmaking can look like while putting on a clinic in bringing home the past to help you learn about the present. It is a lesson in empathy and a soft warning to the acts to come. But most importantly, it is a prestige picture that does more than just looks good for the prom, and it is wonderfully hopeful to see these movies challenging themselves to be more than last night’s dinner.