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Quick, name your favorite Steven Spielberg movie. You likely said Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park. Some might even have said E.T. If you are a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, however, your answer probably involved one of Spielberg’s classic dissections of American or global history, for whenever the director aims his camera at the past, the Academy tends to sit up straight and listen. They did it again this year with Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, an admirable account of a Cold War negotiation. But do they love it enough to reward it with Best Picture?
Bridge of Spies has most of the ingredients you would put in an “imaginary” Oscar contender. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, the movie is set during the heated moments of the Cold War, when an American attorney (Hanks) agrees to travel behind enemy lines to Berlin so he can negotiate the release of a captured U.S. pilot (Austin Stowell), all while defending the judicial rights to a suspected – and detained – Russian spy (Mary Rylance), who our own government wants to prosecute without the benefit of a fair trial.
By Spielberg’s standards, Bridge of Spies is commendable but hardly exceptional. The film enjoys a 91% Fresh grade on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 81% grade on the far more discerning MetaCritic. The Academy, however, fell for Bridge of Spies hook, line and sinker… as they tend to do whenever Spielberg retells history. Earlier this year, the film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (for Rylance). And when you trace a line through Spielberg’s interactions with the Academy, you understand why this happened – and why it could result in a Bridge of Spies win on February 28.
In recent years, all of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar nominations occurred when he has dabbled in the past. Lincoln earned him a Picture and Director nomination, as did Munich in 2005. War Horse isn’t centered on an actual historic event, but it’s a period piece, which the Academy has shown they prefer from the bearded genius. Naturally, Spielberg’s three Oscar wins are attributed to Saving Private Ryan (Director) and Schindler’s List (Picture and Director). His box-office busting blockbusters? They tend to get overlooked come Oscar time.
Simply put, when Steven Spielberg directs noble historical dramas, the Academy responds.
Does that mean it will happen again this year, leading Bridge of Spies to the podium on Oscar night? It’s unlikely, but still possible, if only because this year’s Best Picture race has failed to produce a clear-cut frontrunner. Spotlight, The Revenant and The Big Short have acquired some important pre-Oscar hardware to bolster their Best Picture odds. But the Academy membership prides itself on standing apart from the various guilds that pave the way to Oscar night, so Spielberg’s movie remains in play.
It remains in play for so many reasons, as well. As mentioned, it’s a Spielberg historical drama, with the esteemed Tom Hanks in the lead. It’s also working off of an Oscar-nominated screenplay co-credited to industry darlings Joel and Ethan Coen. Bridge of Spies is a quiet financial hit, earning $164 million globally against its reported $40 million budget. When Spielberg works in the past, he’s efficient and dependable, and the Academy tends to gobble it up. Bridge of Spies answer critics who claim the industry doesn't make movies the way they used to. Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck would have carried the role in a similar fashion ot Hanks, and the deliberate pacing of the drama mirrors melodramas of the late 1940s and '50s. I can see what older Academy members would connect to when they watched Bridge, either in a theater, or on a Screener DVD.
Now, it’s worth noting that while Steven Spielberg’s historical dramas collect nominations, the nomination alone often ends up being the prize. Lincoln lost out in 2013 to Ben Affleck’s Argo, and War Horse was trumped by The Artist (another slice of the past that tickled the Academy’s fancy). Bridge of Spies isn’t necessarily being discussed in that small group of Bets Picture frontrunners, the way that Oscar pundits are mentioning Spotlight or The Revenant. But history has taught us that when it comes to Oscar and Spielberg, stories set in the past have a very bright future.