My favorite genre of movie has been the courtroom drama for as long as I can remember. Maybe it is the speech nerd in me who loves the oration of attorneys. Maybe it is because they tend to feature a cast of characters what with the accused, the attorneys, the judge, and the witnesses. Mostly though, they are remnants of an era of movie making that isn’t very commonplace anymore.
While TV is always littered with great courtroom dramas, the movies about lawyers are few and far between. They are rarely prestige pictures like A Few Good Men or Philadelphia. Instead, they are decidedly B-movies like The Lincoln Lawyer or TheJudge.
Possibly my least favorite genre besides boxing movies is spy movies. James Bond always struck me as inept. How can you be a good spy if everyone knows who you are?
So, I went into Bridge of Spies with high hopes but tempered expectations, as I didn’t know how much it would be spy thriller and how much it would be a spy movie.
Turns out, it is neither. It is a thriller in the vein of the greatest Alfred Hitchcock movies, except the stakes are not just a man running for his life, they are about international relations and the tight rope its protagonist James Donovan (Tom Hanks) must walk in order to avoid nuclear holocaust.
In other words, it is exactly the type of movie I yearn for these days and is in extraordinarily short supply. The movie is accessible yet important, entertaining, yet well-made, and packed to the brim with incredible performances about flawed people trying to navigate very Frank Capra-like questions about whether or not to do what is right or what is easy.
Invoking Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg means the inevitable Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart comparisons are inevitable, but this really is exactly the sort of moralistic everyman Stewart would play. As Hanks walks the streets in the 1950s period garb, it is essentially effortless to picture Jimmy Stewart in the role. Considering it has tones of Stewarts two most notable collaborators, Capra and Hitchcock, there is really no person better for the role than Hanks who is, as expected, spectacular.
What is surprising though is that the real scene stealer of this movie is stage actor Mark Rylance, who plays the accused spy Hanks’ attorney character is defending. His subtle mannerisms seem far too small for an actor who cultivated his craft on the stage, but everything that is remarkable about this performance is what is unsaid; what is conveyed in the raise of an eyebrow or a labored sigh. If I had to say which aspect of this film, which should hopefully be nominated for scads and scads of awards, was most likely to bag an Oscar, it would have to be Rylance as Best Supporting Actor in a career-defining performance.
Lately, the Oscars have been all about nostalgia. The Artist, which took home tons of gold men in 2010, is an overt ode to old Hollywood and the way things used to be, as was fellow nominee Hugo. Even Argo is about the thrillers of the 1970s and an era of filmmaking long gone.
This year, the inevitable nostalgia nom seems to be primed to go to perennial Academy favorites Spielberg, Hanks, and co-screenwriters the Coen Brothers, though I wonder if the forthcoming Hail, Caesar!, also penned by the Coens, might split the vote. Maybe both will be drowned in accolades and the studios will realize more people like me are desperate for adult entertainment with no comic book heroes or drug traffickers or, most imperatively, boxers (I mean seriously, Southpaw and Creed in the same season? Enough with the damned boxing movies). Currently, Bridge of Spies has raked in around $35 million dollars and, as Mark Harris noted on Twitter, this movie is holding strong so far and I envision it could be one of those Thanksgiving films you go and see because it is something everyone can agree on. I hope that is the case.
Really, I only had one criticism of the film, which is its somewhat bombastic use of musical score, which is par for the course when it comes to Spielberg. I always pardon his tendency to schmaltz though, mostly because I am not getting schmaltz from anywhere else except the Hallmark Channel. So, I can only hope this movie, which like its protagonist opts to do what is hard rather than what is popular, is rewarded for not turning this into some Bourne-like action movie. It assumes the audience can be just as thrilled with a small movie about the potential end of the world, and what makes all the more remarkable is that it really happened, this man really did save us from a potential apocalypse and he did it with words and actions, not with guns and explosions. If only other movies could take notice of this “standing man” who may seem inconsequential at first glance, but in actuality is really rather remarkable.