Of all the Oscar nominees, Bridge of Spies is the one I’ve been dreading writing about the most. My feelings on the latest Spielberg drama are complicated, due to my internal struggles to classify it by that terrible, outdated binary distinction of it being a “good movie” or a “bad movie”. It’s almost as if my inner film snob is trying to strangle itself, Dr. Strangelove-style.
In terms of technical craft, it is fine.
But I don’t talk technicals in my reviews. I talk about emotions, characters, stories, images, concepts, and interesting and memorable events. And when the first thing that comes to mind after a STEVEN SPIELBERG MOVIE of all things is the technical craft, the alarms start to go off. This is a director whose whole of his image is based in his innate ability to play the audience like the orchestra, swelling emotions like string sections under the hand of maestro John Williams. And yet, here is a film that left me feeling… nothing.
I walked out of the movie acutely aware that a craftsman, whom I have respected as an artist for years, had tried to manipulate my feelings for the characters and story before me, and he failed hard. Like the far, far worse The Danish Girl, I find that the more I think about it, the less I appreciate it. And I just loathed The Danish Girl from frame one save for Alicia Vikander, while initially I did try to defend some of the more troubling aspects of Bridge of Spies as soon as I viewed it before Christmas.
The acting is just unimpressive on the whole. Tom Hanks played his role as you’d expect Tom Hanks to play any role outside of the realm of the Wachowski siblings, and I didn’t care. Amy Ryan as his wife makes no significant impression, whatsoever. Alan Alda makes his rounds as still relevant older actor, yawn. The kid playing Francis Gary Powers, of the U-2 Spy incident, doesn’t make any sort of impact that he’s supposed to. Character actors come and go portraying various degrees of hostility, strong-arming, and intolerance that you’d expect from any message movie.
Of the whole cast of characters, the only one who makes a substantial impression is Academy Award-nominee Mark Rylance as the incriminated spy Rudolf Abel. In a movie filled with stuffy and stale archetypes, he brings a quiet precision to his character, sighing at the complexities of American justice systems prejudiced against any semblance of equality for his petty actions. The direction is where this movie falls short in terms of audience sympathy for the American characters, or any characters actually.
Granted, a good portion of the screenplay was at one point in the hands of the Joel and Ethan, the Coen Brothers. They bring a fast-paced banter to the story that certainly lifts it above uninvolving period drama and upgrades it to a level of ambition that is still mildly entertaining, just not successful in winning me over. That being said, classy banter does not a good movie make. Take for example the 1992 remake of the classic, low-budget noir Detour; that movie had an excellent hard-boiled script, but the actors just couldn’t handle it and the movie completely fails as thriller and drama. The difference between Bridge of Spies and Hail, Caesar is there were characters and situations that intrigued me in the latter, while I was nearly bored to tears in Spies.
The direction is where I realized just how unhappy I was with the movie. Spielberg tries on multiple occasions to grab on to emotions that were nonexistent on my end throughout. At the big trial, Tom Hanks makes a grand old speech for liberty and justice for all, and it lands with a hollow thud. I wasn’t swayed to his side as I should have been because I was already there. I believe in liberty and justice for all, this isn’t that ethically dubious, spy or no spy. Later on, we view youths in East Germany being gunned down as they attempt to cross the Berlin Wall. And again, it felt hollow. I felt like I was getting reheated outtakes from Schindler’s List, in a lesser package. I felt Spielberg simply going through the motions rather than making an honest effort.
The reason I mentioned technicals above is that, on paper, this film works fine. The editing, camera work, sound, music all do their jobs, but they overshadowed the lacking sense of story and investment/stakes. That is the sign of a truly flawed script and directorial duties. Trying to get involved in the storytelling and coming up empty save for “it looked nice, and sounded nice” is not the reaction this movie needed.
~Now let’s change gears and talk about a truly excellent movie that was snubbed in categories Bridge of Spies picked up.~
Carol is a much smaller scale movie than the latest Spielberg project, being the tale of a unique relationship ignited between an amateur photographer/full-time department store clerk and a married housewife. The film stars Rooney Mara of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network fame, alongside screen demigoddess Cate Blanchett, two-time Oscar-winner and patron saint of screen actors, whom audiences may recognize from the Lord of the Rings saga and The Monuments Men.
The story does concern itself with certain subjects that are still in contention throughout much of the United States. The unique relationship of mention is a close friendship that does evolve into lesbianism. The first hour is foreplay and character buildup for the ingénue Therese (pronounced Teh-rezz) and the lovely titular Carol Aird. The film doesn’t jump headlong into the intimacies of the bedroom, rather it explores the intimacies of female relationships in the early 1960s.
The acting is utterly top-notch. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are radiant whenever they get a chance to steal the focus from Ed Lachman’s gorgeous photography. Also along for the narrative are Kyle Chandler as Harge, Carol’s estranged husband and Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend and confidante, Abby. The characters transcend their performers and take on actual existence on the screen, which is the goal of all great film performances. Under careful, consolidated direction from Todd Haynes, the cast work alongside one another, moving the story along at a good pace, keeping the performances front and center in tandem with the imagery and Carter Burwell’s ingenious scoring.
Seriously, the music is incredible. As much as I loved the thrilling tones of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to The H8ful Eight, I feel the score to Carol is so much more moving and deserving of recognition. The score is most certainly Mr. Burwell’s most Burwellian score, since Fargo at the least. The best way to describe it is an Adagio for Love as influenced by Phillip Glass. The strings and piano combine to form a perfect ode of nostalgia and melodrama, like one’s memory of a first love.
Topping off my list of exquisite elements of Carol is the imagery, delivered through the lens of Oscar-nominated Ed Lachman. The film was shot on Super 16 millimeter film, exuding a sense of being shown a private stash of home movies. The generous amount of soft lighting and truly lush color adds to the dream-like quality of the pictures. I mentioned H8ful Eight previously, and I have to say, even with all of Tarantino’s grandstanding about his use of 70-mm film in that project, methinks this little film about love makes a better case for preservation of physical film elements than that film did in all of its bloated three hours.
Unlike Bridge of Spies, I was fully invested in the love story on-screen from the minute we are introduced to Carol and Therese. There wasn’t a single moment where I lost interest in what was unfolding between the lovers and struggled to reattach my attention to anything, be it a filmmaking or storytelling element. Through the emotional journey audiences are transported on, the romantic tension and surprising amount of dramatic involvement will catch audiences off guard.
See, Carol is going through a divorce over the course of the film, and her husband Harge does not approve of the relationship she initiates with young Therese. There is a single moment shortly past the halfway point where a betrayal takes place that truly puts the stakes of Carol’s marriage into focus. With such stakes present, the hardest of hearts will be hard-pressed to honestly say they can’t relate to Carol’s decisions, regardless of her lifestyle choices.
The Academy most ungraciously passed Carol over for Best Picture and Best Director. Initially, I felt shocked and disturbed by the omissions. But then I thought about the Academy’s history with LGBTQ projects and then it hit me. The previous projects of queer intrigue recognized by AMPAS all contained a significant arc of tragedy. Brokeback Mountain, The Imitation Game, Midnight Cowboy, Dallas Buyers Club, and Milk were nominated for Best Picture, but only Midnight Cowboy took home the statuette, and all ended poorly for their characters. The sole exception to this pattern being 2010’s The Kids are All Right, but since that was a comedy, which the Academy has a terrible history of overlooking, it received nothing for its efforts.
Carol is not by any means a tragedy; it is a tad harrowing at times, but the tone of the film is not one of “woe is me, for I am queer”. And actually, the focus is not on the genders, but on the romance, something more queer movies should take note of. It’s an update on the Romeo and Juliet story with the tragic bits replaced with that of 1950s and 60s high melodrama, which director Todd Haynes mastered previously in the Best Director-nominated Far from Heaven.
The point of it all is that instead of gracing a daring and matter-of-fact presentation of queer romance with well-earned recognition, the Academy went with the lazy, easy choice of nominating the old-hat, typical choice that only points to how outdated and out-of-sync the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are with increasingly progressive movie audiences. For an organization that previously gave big awards and recognition to the likes of 12 Years a Slave and Philadelphia, the Oscars seem to act more like they are filling thematic quotas rather than actively recognizing quality film efforts that just so happen to push boundaries.