Bridge of Spies

There are some films that just reek of what’s known as “Oscar bait”. These films are usually helmed by a renowned director, have big names, and deal with a topic that’s the equivalent of a dangling carrot. It’s usually a biopic about a famous person or event. From the above criteria, “Bridge of Spies” qualifies as Oscar bait. The good news is that it’s pretty good Oscar bait, even though in a field of unusually good competition, it doesn’t stand a chance.

The films strings together a series of events. It’s the height of the Cold War, and insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) has the unenviable task of representing in court Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a spy working for the Soviet Union. Donovan successfully prevents Abel from meeting death, despite it being a rather unpopular decision.

However, things get increasingly dangerous when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stockwell) is shot down and is held captive by the Soviet Union. To make matters even worse, the Berlin Wall is being erected, and American economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is caught on the wrong side of the wall. Donovan now has the unenviable task of flying into Germany after a proposal to swap Abel for Powers is floated, but Donovan also wants Pryor, and things get really tricky.

Nothing warms the hearts of the Academy members like a biopic, if we’re to believe the cliché. In particular, it’s almost too easy to rake in the nominations when you channel the halcyon days (if you can call them that), where the biggest fear anyone had to worry about was a nuclear war. The relative stability of domestic life, the ornate suits, the belief in our country: one might feel nostalgic about the period if we didn’t factor in all of the obvious baggage that came with it.

As for the film itself, it’s a well-made, well-acted piece. The acting is solid, with Rylance getting a nomination for his surprisingly good performance as a Soviet spy who’s more human than you would initially expect. The Coen brothers co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, but unlike other Coen movies of the past, this one doesn’t imbue itself with the weirdness you’d expect from the Coens. Steven Spielberg also keeps a sure hand in the director’s chair, although that is nothing particularly new.

One flaw the film struggles to overcome, however, is the density of the material. For many of us who grew up outside of the Cold War, the events taking place on screen may seem like the part of history class you might’ve glossed over. The story is told well, but making it more digestible might have made it more accessible. Then again, this movie is perhaps targeted at adults old enough to either remember these events or know them by heart.

“Bridge of Spies” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, so you are be able to watch the Oscar-nominated film before the ceremony. One thing’s for certain: This movie is weak tea compared to some of the other feats of cinema that have graced the Best Picture field. Nonetheless, there are worse films to choose from than this Cold War drama.

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