Saturday, February 13, 2016

Oscar Talk: Bridge of Spies

Mark Rylance in the "Bridge of Spies" first scene

I have been a little surprised by the apparently muted reception that "Bridge of Spies" has received in the run-up to the Academy Awards ceremony.

At first I thought maybe this was because the movie was released much earlier in the year than other best picture nominees, most of which came out in November and December.  But then I checked; "Bridge of Spies" had an October release.

(Studios seem to favor this late-release strategy, hoping that movies that win top awards will sell many more tickets after the Oscars.  It did not play out for last year's best picture, the quirky "Birdman," which sold $37 million in U.S. tickets the year it was released and only $5 million more after the Oscars; 60 percent of its $103 million gross came from foreign sales.)

So why is "Spotlight" favored for the best picture award while the also-nominated "Bridge of Spies" is seen as a non-starter?

Consider the differences:

"Spotlight," is a straightforward good-guys-going-after-bad-guys morality play whose ending is never in doubt.  Its environment in Boston is mostly a newsroom -- a white-collar workplace of computers and fluorescent lights -- public records offices, coffeehouses, parks and parking lots, plus several social events.

"Bridge of Spies" is more subtle.  Its setting is earlier, during the Cold War, when people worried about the existential threat of American and Soviet nuclear arsenals. The unease is personalized in the lead characters, played by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance (the favored supporting actor candidate), who recognize each other as serving different governments, but also as human beings.
     The atmospheres in "Bridge of Spies" are nuanced and support the movie's themes -- New Yorkers' anger at due process protections being given to a Russian spy, and then cold, gray Berlin, where citizens in the eastern sector are being effectively imprisoned by a wall and a thuggish Russian-sponsored regime. The good guy-bad guy element is there, but it is established by what is seen in the movie.

Interestingly, a common complaint about "Bridge of Spies" is that it lacks tension.  I think this is more true of "Spotlight," but I may be the only one.

Maybe we're just so used to Steven Spielberg turning out great movies that we take him for granted.
He's won Oscars for best movie ("Schindler's List) and best director ("Saving Private Ryan") plus seven and five other nominations, respectively, in those categories.

"Bridge of Spies" has been nominated for four other Oscars -- its Coen bothers/Matt Charman screenplay, music, sound mixing and production design.

Meanwhile, "The Revenant" has 12 nominations.  It is a novel story, of course, and Leonardo DeCaprio is getting both support and resistance in his siege/campaign for best actor.  Certainly the movie is ambitious in its locations and story, but even with all that, people complain that it's just too darn long.

Perhaps what distinguishes "The Revenant" and "Spotlight" is the level of promotion that has been generated for each of them.  This happens in all kinds of election procedures, as any American voter can attest.

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