Best Picture Nominees 2016 – Bridge of Spies


Bridge of Spies is a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and written by the Coen brothers. It also stars Tom Hanks, a prolific and popular actor. With such an ensemble of talent it seems clear why this film would be nominated for Best Picture. Perhaps that’s also why I found the film so disappointing.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is technically good, but I didn’t get and sense of tension. I was never emotionally invested in any of the characters except Hanks’s Jimmy Donovan, and he came equipped with some grade AAA plot armor. That this is Donovan’s story and he’s the triumphant hero is obvious from his introduction. The setting is 1957 and the Cold War has settled comfortably into the American psyche. Jimmy is a lawyer who is tasked by the government to provide a defense for a man who is an accused spy for the Russians. The man, Rudolph Abel, is guilty. He is indeed a spy as we see earlier in the film. However he gives no real motivation. Abel is a loyal and honorable man, and he stands faithfully by the pledges he made to serve his country, but he is no zealot. He lacks any sort of passion or fervor for what he does. His character is so dispassionate that one is forced to wonder why he does a job so dangerous. Are the Russians forcing him to do it somehow? Do they have his family hostage? Is he just suicidal? We are never provided an opportunity to step into his head and truly understand what he does as the movie moves swiftly through his farcical trial and on into sentencing. At this point the judge is again motioned by Mr. Donovan, this time on his personal time, to sentence the spy to prison and not to death as everyone expects that he will.

Donovan doesn’t bother to appeal to the judge’s sense of humanity or honor for enemies as it was apparent from the trial that these werent important to him. Rather Donovan appeals to the pragmatic side and offers up an argument that we may need a spy to trade in the future. Conveniently for the story this happens to be a smart move. As it happens the Russians are about to shoot down a U-2 spy plane and take the pilot hostage. For some inexplicable reason the US government again taps Donovan to go to Berlin, which is sort of neutral territory in the cold war, and negotiate for the hostages. Berlin is busy truly dividing itself at this time, and the East has started construction on the wall that would come to be a symbol of Communism for decades to come. Caught up in this event, on the wrong side of the wall is a young American graduate student who is studying the economics of Communism. The Germans capture him and imprison him as a spy. Despite this, our intrepid spy in the making Donovan never encounters any real resistance.

Donovan is inconvenienced from time to time during his trip to Berlin, but the threats fail to feel tangible. A German street gang steals Jimmy’s expensive coat and he’s forced to walk in the cold for awhile. That’s literally the harshest consequence that he suffers. He never takes a punch or gets so much as legitimately threatened with a gun. We are constantly told there is danger, but nothing to make it really tangible. Jimmy negotiates with the Russians and East Germans separately for the release of both prisoners. In the end both men are traded for Abel and both of the captured spies return home to chilly welcomes.

Just as we have no real motivation for Abel, there is equally no discussion of the motivation for Donovan to put everything on the line to “do the right thing”. He seems willing to sacrifice the safety of his family, both physically and financially to follow his moral compass. An admirable trait to be sure, but the man is also a lawyer; we see him quibbling and “lawyering” a point to save the insurance company money in the film. Perhaps it’s just my own prejudice, but he doesn’t appear to take the moral high road, so it’s confusing when a few scenes later he is willing to risk everything, lie to his wife and go to Berlin to negotiate the return of an American spy. His motivations for doing so are at best unclear.

The lack of clear motivations for the characters made this movie less enjoyable, which is a shame. I really enjoyed the technical aspects. The scenes were well shot and the transitions were nicely done as well. The pacing felt good as we moved through the story and few scenes felt too long or unnecessary. Despite this, the story lacked any real impetus or punch. There was never the true sense of danger that would really make the whole thing work. Danger was constantly paid lip service but it never ended up manifesting. For these reasons I would not vote for this movie as Best Picture this year.

Next up: Brooklyn starring Saoirse Ronan and directed by John Crowley.


Best Picture Nominees 2016 – Room

Room is a movie directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Emma Donoghue. It’s a character-driven story about a young woman named Julie and her son Jack. In many ways Jack is a typical child, full of questions and energy. Julie is a typical mom, she teaches her son things he needs to know, answers his questions and does the best she can to raise him. What makes their story special is that the two of them are held captive in a small room with just the necessities, a single door and a skylight. Ignorant of the truth of his situation and the existence of the larger world, Jack is happy as a clam. He is content every morning to follow his ritual of greeting all the furniture and fixtures in the room with them, eating his meals, exercising, and watching TV. In Jack’s life this room is all that exists and it’s as big as his imagination. When watching the movie you really feel how happy Jack is to be here, how full and complete he feels that this his life is. However, Julie knows better and you can see in her eyes the frustration and anger that comes with being trapped. She does her best to answer her curious child’s questions without ruining his innocence and happiness. As the story unfolds you find out that Julie was kidnapped 7 years ago and imprisoned in this room by a man she has come to call Old Nick. Old Nick is a disgusting human being who keeps Julie locked up here so that once a week he can show up and rape her. Old Nick being the horrible person that he is doesn’t take much interest in Jack, who is obviously his son, but as the movie begins on Jack’s 5th birthday Old Nick starts showing an interest in his son. This pushes Julie to a breaking point; she knows that they need to escape, and soon. She hatches a desperate plan to get Old Nick to unwittingly carry Jack, whom he thinks is dead out to bury him. This desperate plan relies heavily on a 5 year-old who up until yesterday had the firm belief that there was only outer space beyond the walls he had grown up with. As Jack escapes and causes a scene Old Nick abandons him and flees like the coward that he is. Jack is rescued by a kind and patient policewoman. Trying to coax information out of him is frustrating as Jack is scared and confused. Normally I dislike child actors, they have a tendency to be either too wooden, or too dramatic, but Jacob Tremblay who plays Jack does a phenomenal job displaying fear and confusion mixed with the desire to trust and feel safe again. Eventually the police glean enough information from his nods and one word answers to establish a search area and figure out where his mom is at. Julie is rescued and reunited with her son. Both are taken to a hospital to recover.

It’s at this point that it becomes clear that escaping was the easiest part of their return to the real world. Julie’s parents are reunited with their daughter and Jack is introduced to the concept of grandparents, and a larger family to care for him. Julie struggles with returning to a world she felt had abandoned her, and the myriad feelings that come with that. Jealousy at her friends who had lived normal lives, anger at her parents who couldn’t keep her safe, and fear of the future and what it might bring. Having lived for so long without a choice, the sudden plethora of options is intimidating. In many ways Julie, who was kidnapped when she was 17, is still a teenager developmentally. She has missed out on so many of the life lessons one picks up in their early 20s as they make mistakes in life. Julie responds by shutting down, an understandable response, but one that removes her from her child’s life at a time when he needs her very much. During this time Jack is confused by his mother’s reactions to things and is exploring his new home and family. Leo, his grandmother’s new husband, is key in getting Jack to open up. Leo, you see, has a dog, and Jack has seen dogs on TV and is infatuated with them. Once his immune system has sufficiently recovered he is introduced to the dog and begins to trust Leo and grandma Nancy and rely on them more as his mom is “gone” more and more often. Julie is eventually convinced to do an interview about her experience to help pay some medical bills and other expenses. During the interview she is asked if she ever thought about asking her captor to take the child to a hospital and abandon it there so that it might have a chance for a normal life. The implication is Julie was selfish for keeping Jack with her. The look on Julie’s face as she realizes her darkest fear, that she was a bad mother, that it was her fault that Jack, who she loved so much was suffering, is just heartbreaking. This is the final straw that snaps Julie’s ability to cope and she tries to commit suicide and is discovered by Jack in the attempt. Fortunately Julie survives but moves into a psychiatric facility. Jack continues to grow and makes a friend with a kid next door. Eventually his mother returns and they begin to build toward a new future together as a family. In the end they return to the Room for a visit, and upon inspecting it, Jack, who has new found perspective, decides that the Room was okay for him when he was 4. Now that he is 5 however, he is big enough for the world.

This movie really hits the emotional moments well. It takes you along on Jack’s roller coaster as he discovers the world and expands and changes his perspective. It has moments that allow for greater introspection by the audience. I found myself irritated with Julie for not telling Jack the truth, but then I realized how futile an activity that would be. There is nothing Jack could do to change it, and lying allowed him to still be happy. In the end isn’t that what parents want most for their children?

The directing and acting in the film is top notch and its ability to evoke emotional responses from the audience make this film a strong contender for the Best Picture award this year. The story of human suffering is much more real and relatable than The Revenant, which seems a story best left to tall tales. This relatability, the translation of emotion from screen to viewer is the big reason why I think this movie has a chance to be a dark horse winner at this years award show.

Next up: Bridge of Spies, directed by Spielberg.


Best Picture Nominees 2016 – The Revenant

Every year I like to watch all of the Best Picture nominees for the Academy awards. This year I’ll start with the latest offering from Alejandro Innaritu, The Revenant. You may recall that Innaritu’s Birdman took home the coveted award last year. Garnering a nomination for this year’s entry, Innaritu stands a decent chance of being a repeat winner.

The story of The Revenant follows the tale of Hugh Glass, a widower frontier scout with a half Pawnee teenage son named Hawk, who is hired by a fur trading company as a guide. Also on the expedition is John Fitzgerald, a survivor of an attack who has had half of his scalp removed. A disastrous encounter with a local tribe leaves the expedition with diminished strength and on the run. Glass is scouting a safe trail for them across the mountains back to their fort when he is attacked and savagely mauled by a bear. The commander is unable to mercy kill Glass and leaves him in the care of Fitzgerald, Hawk and Bridger, a younger man about Hawk’s age. The men are to wait for Glass’s natural death and then give him a proper burial.

After the commander’s men leave, Fitzgerald offers to mercy kill Glass for the safety of his remaining caretakers. Glass reluctantly agrees. However, his son arrives in time to witness it and tries to stop Fitzgerald. During the struggle, Fitzgerald kills Hawk. Fitzgerald then drags his body off and lies to Bridger about knowing where Hawk is. In the middle of the night Fitzgerald awakens Bridger with a tale of seeing the local natives who have been tracking them nearby and that they have to leave. He then bullies the younger man into leaving Glass, who certainly won’t survive. Bridger reluctantly goes with Fitzgerald.

Glass miraculously survives his injuries and goes through an extensive ordeal to return to the fort and try and get justice for his son. This ordeal includes being abandoned with no food, a long trip down the very cold river, and riding his horse off a large cliff into a tree, all apparently within days of suffering severe injuries. He has a short respite when he finds a Pawnee man who is willing to share food and shelter with him, but other than that he eats almost nothing. It’s assumed that he can reach down and get some snow for water whenever he needs, but we never see him doing so. After having somehow never succumbing to his injuries, the numbing cold, or the starvation, he succeeds in returning to the fort. Fitzgerald, seeing him return alive, steals some money and a horse and takes off to escape the justice he knows is coming.

While not the noblest of motivations, the story of revenge is easy for the audience to understand and empathize with. And this is where the movie really fails for me. I never really get the sense from Glass that anything other than his own survival is the reason for his intense struggle to best the elements and continue living. It is certainly clear from an intellectual standpoint that we are supposed to think he wants revenge for his murdered son, but it fails to reach on an emotional level. The relationship with his son isn’t well established. We are given flashbacks of the murder of his wife and of Glass nursing his son back to health from some unknown illness, but these scenes fail to carry much emotional weight or impact. The audience is expected to understand that Glass feels strongly about revenge because it’s how we should feel, not because the movie has in any way made us feel this. Sometimes this works, but this movie hinges on our belief that Glass would do literally anything and everything to get revenge for his son, and that requires the movie to make us feel some emotion. The one encounter we see between father and son is brief and consists only of Glass reminding Hawk that he is different and everyone dislikes him for it. He doesn’t stand up for his son and his rights as a person, he never appears to care especially much at all for the boy aside from the flashbacks. Flashbacks which could easily be fever dreams as he also repeatedly sees his deceased wife.

In stark contrast the seemingly selfish motivations of Fitzgerald actually seem practical and reasonable given the circumstances he is confronted with. While not an honorable man in the traditional sense of most Westerns, he never really seems to have a predilection for murder or theft of any sort. His motivation to receive the payment that he worked for seems completely within reason. For me it was easier to empathize with Fitzgerald’s attitudes and actions. He’s a man who can make the hard choice and do what needs to be done. When he makes his decisions they feel right, they aren’t without their regrets or the desire to not have to make them, but his motivations are clear. Survival is what’s most important to him, and that includes getting paid for his work. This is clearly evidenced by his willingness to end Glass’s suffering. It’s not a deed he relishes, but it is one that is necessary.

While not bad, or uninteresting, I found The Revenant at times very unbelievable. I love movies, and am fully capable of suspending a lot of disbelief, but this movie found a way to stretch that ability to the breaking point. Glass’s journey is full of enough misfortune for Murphy to raise an eyebrow in disbelief. This film also lacked an emotional core to really draw me in and make me empathize with Glass. I didn’t feel the raw emotion of his struggle to survive as advertised. For these reasons I would not vote for The Revenant for Best Picture.

Next up: Room by director Lenny Abrahamson.