Clenching the Nomination - Bridge of Spies - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Clenching the Nomination – Bridge of Spies

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Andrew discusses the scene in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies that he thinks secured the film's Best Picture nomination. You can check out all of our overall guesses on the major Oscar categories for 2016 here.

Clenching Bridge of SpiesDespite some back and forth from some hardcore cineastes about the quality of Steven Spielberg's artistry, he's remained one of the most consistently pleasing storytellers in cinema.  But since he and George Lucas each had a hand in bringing the '70s American renaissance of film to a close, there have always been detractors to his work.  For me, no director whose filmography contains Munich, Minority Report, and Schindler's List can be "playing it safe" or solely aiming to please.  Spielberg's been modest in his success, perhaps tempered by the reaction the cineastes gave him in the late '70s and early '80s, and continues to put out great work.

That's what makes the modest success Bridge of Spies so appealing.  It's got another fun Tom Hanks performance, a bit of the sly Americana critique Spielberg frequently inserts into his films, and a compelling plot that spirals out nicely.  For all the international shenanigans at the core of Bridge of Spies, the movie's mostly about two men whose codes of value must weather the storm of their respective webs of deception.  The scene which best encapsulates these different threads occurs well into the surprising third act of Bridge of Spies, and quietly reminded the Oscar voters just how good Spielberg can be.

James Donovan (Hanks) arrives in Germany to meet with a Soviet liaison to exchange an American pilot for Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), the Soviet spy Donovan defended in America.  There's something immediately off with Donovan's entrance into what he thinks is the Soviet office as Spielberg shoots an extreme convex close up of the door to mentally prepare us for distortion.  On the other side, Donovan is surprised to find three people who claim to be Abel's wife, daughter, and cousin.  What follows is a great moment of humor as Spielberg arranges the three interlopers as a unit who clearly didn't have enough time to get their stories straight for Donovan's arrival.  They stand there, repeating their names, while Donovan looks on with incredulity.  It's a masterful moment for Hanks, who goes into a wonderful deadpan expression as he endures the forced theatricality of Abel's "family".

The shift in this scene is spectacular for its visuals and the tone in the performances.  Spielberg doesn't cut rapidly as Donovan is dealing with the "family", but they are more frequent as they keep trying to find the correct orientation of their relationship with each other to convince Donovan.  When a commanding officer arrives the close-ups are gone, the "family" marches out with the faux sadness of their expressions quickly changing to grim determination on the way out, then Spielberg goes into one of his fantastic single takes.  The camera goes from a medium-long shot of the two men, finally alone, to a medium as they sit, and finally close-ups of Donovan and the officer - all while steadily panning the camera in a crescent motion between the two performers.

Other moments in Bridge of Spies have more blunt dramatic heft, such as the cut from Abel's trial to the school children watching a reel on nuclear annihilation, or when Donovan speaks before the Supreme Court.  While Spielberg is the unquestioned king of effective schmaltz, it's the tiny storytelling gestures in this moment of "family" and coded conversation which cemented its nomination for Best Picture.  Spielberg never loses his focus on entertainment, be it via the amusing shot of Donovan on one side and the "family" crying on the other, or when the officer looks at Donovan with daggers as Donovan reveals information he wasn't supposed to bring to the negotiating table.

This reminds us how Spielberg is one of the few, and effective, remaining classical Hollywood stylists.  There's no need to play an ace when a deuce will do just fine, and Spielberg lets the gigantic stakes of this negotiation play out in superb shifts of comedic and dramatic tone, all while keeping the visual compositions varied from one moment to the next.  Spielberg isn't a jack of all trades, he's a master of them, and in this moment we see the quiet craftsmanship which won him another Best Picture nomination.

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Posted by Andrew

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