'The Awards Pundits': 'Bridge of Spies,' Derivative Contenders and Pseudo-events

Bridge Of Spies Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Dream Works

This is the fifth installment of what will be an ongoing dialogue, throughout the awards season, between THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg and executive editor, features Stephen Galloway.

GALLOWAY: Scott, we finally got to see Steven Spielberg’s new film, Bridge of Spies, on Sunday. Is it a game-changer?

FEINBERG: Well, it certainly got a fair hearing: every pundit in the business saw it simultaneously in L.A. or in New York, where it  screened at the New York Film Festival. Reviews and reactions have generally been favorable, if not over-the-moon — probably the equivalent of a B+. I found it to be a solid, well-made, entertaining film of the sort that could have been made 50 years ago — and since that's precisely what a lot of Academy members wish more movies would be like today, I think it will end up landing a bunch of major Oscar nominations.

GALLOWAY: How do you think it compares with previous Spielberg-Tom Hanks collaborations?

FEINBERG: It's not spectacular like Saving Private Ryan, or disappointing like The Terminal or purely commercial like Catch Me If You Can; I would argue it falls in-between, more on par with Spielberg's more recent Munich, War Horse and Lincoln — and those all got a ton of noms.

GALLOWAY: I’m not sure. Spielberg is a beloved figure today — such a contrast to the pre-Schindler days, when the Academy seemed to resent his success. But he hates campaigning, and so does Hanks, and I just feel this film will need that extra push to cross the line.

FEINBERG: I think it will be helped, to some extent, by the fact that, in a weird and unfortunate way that DreamWorks will surely drive home in its campaign, it's still relevant: U.S.-Russia tensions are now at their greatest level since the Cold War, and at a time when we need skillful negotiators, like Hanks' character, we instead have to consider the possibility that the next president of the United States will be Donald Trump.

GALLOWAY: Wouldn’t you love to see Spielberg make the Trump movie? Who would you cast? Not Daniel Day-Lewis, I’d guess.

FEINBERG: It's a shame Shelley Winters isn't available.

GALLOWAY: It’s interesting how topical the movie is — especially when it must have been written some time ago. It addresses issues we’re debating today: Do accused spies (or terrorists) deserve to have the presumption of innocence and be treated with all the rights accorded to an American by the Constitution? I bet, if Spielberg had taken the same issues and made this a contemporary movie instead of a period piece, it would be the awards frontrunner.

FEINBERG: But it may not be bad for the movie that it's not being trumpeted as "the one to beat" at this early date, because doing so raises expectations so high for people who haven’t yet seen it that it becomes almost impossible for the film to be anything but a disappointment.

GALLOWAY: I’ve said this so many times. The Oscar race is just like a political race — you can peak too soon. Nobody wants to be the Rick Perry of awards season.

FEINBERG: I think back to other early frontrunners like Up in the Air, The Butler and Boyhood — all very good movies — and remember how things panned out for them, or didn't. I wonder if Spotlight will be similarly hobbled down the road for having broken out early this season, right out of Venice and Telluride.

GALLOWAY: It faces a bigger danger — being compared to its famous predecessor, All the President’s Men, another real-life story about journalists trying to bring down an enemy whom you barely get to see. I'm reading those comparisons everywhere. Spotlight was clever to make its own journalists more of a rag-tag team than Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman; but keeping the bad guy largely offscreen may just be too reminiscent of the Alan Pakula film.

FEINBERG: It’s always dangerous when some people compare you to a beloved classic, because champions of the earlier movie tend to react defensively against that.

GALLOWAY: Which we’re seeing with Black Mass. You know how much I liked that, but so many people I’ve spoken to compare it to The Departed, which won best picture. The filmmakers are going to have to explain what the Johnny Depp film does that’s new and different — though I think he's guaranteed a nomination for a phenomenal performance. Remember before GoodFellas came out? Everyone kept saying, “Oh no, not another Godfather mafia story!” And it was so fresh and original that you never heard another whimper of that. Great films don’t imitate; they almost seem to react against the way their subject was treated before. What were Westerns like before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? What were gangster films like before Bonnie and Clyde? They were totally different. Voters are going to think about what new ground these movies break before committing to them.

FEINBERG: Rather unfairly, Spielberg's films aren't compared to similar films, but to the best of his own, a standard that's very hard for any film to meet. But I suspect Bridge of Spies will wind up with a batch of noms, probably including picture (it would be Spielberg's 10th), director (the days of the Academy resisting Spielberg are long gone) and supporting actor — with only a few words, stage great Mark Rylance all but steals the show.

GALLOWAY: Really? I’ve been waiting anxiously for years to see him in a major movie, but he played the role in such a low-key way, I wonder if that zapped some of the drama.

FEINBERG: The film could also get nominated for its screenplay, which was penned by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers —

GALLOWAY: You’d never think of this as "a Coen brothers film," but they’ve worked as writers-for-hire before — just last year they adapted Unbroken.

FEINBERG: — and it could get nominated for cinematography (Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski), film editing (another Spielberg regular, Michael Kahn), original score (much loved but still Oscar-less Thomas Newman), production design (Adam Stockhausen, the defending winner for The Grand Budapest Hotel) — and perhaps lead actor for Hanks, who gives an understated performance as a decent everyman insurance broker turned Cold War negotiator who reminds me a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch...and Tom Hanks.

GALLOWAY: I love his work, but he's competing in a brutal category this year.

FEINBERG: As he did two years ago, when he was snubbed for Captain Phillips.

GALLOWAY: So which films look most primed for a long awards season?

FEINBERG: Perhaps the small handful that have performed solidly with critics and audiences — Disney-Pixar's Inside Out, Universal's Straight Outta Compton and, after its screenings at the Toronto and New York film festivals and performance at the box office last weekend, Fox's The Martian.

GALLOWAY: The Martian is looking stronger by the minute.

FEINBERG: But that sort of pedigree doesn't guarantee a win — after all, Avatar, the highest-grossing movie ever, lost to The Hurt Locker, one of the lowest-grossing movies ever nominated for best picture. Still, I doubt most of this year's other best picture hopefuls wouldn't trade places with that trio in a heartbeat.

GALLOWAY: And its director, Ridley Scott, may stand an even better shot than the film. He’s revered, aging and never has been recognized — not even in the year when his film Gladiator won best picture — and he’s out there working it.

FEINBERG: In fact, he's my guest on episode five of Awards Chatter podcast, which posts tomorrow. And he’s not the only vet who’s putting himself out there: Youth’s Jane Fonda accepted the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film on Saturday, and it was just announced that Joy’s Robert De Niro will accept the Hollywood Film Awards’ Career Achievement Award on Nov. 1 — and they both already have two Oscars to their name!

GALLOWAY: Which might make it tough to pick up a third. Look how hard it was for Meryl Streep.

FEINBERG: But putting yourself out there is actually really important, because it’s very rare that Academy members give an Oscar to someone who they think doesn’t really want one — notable exceptions being George C. Scott, Mo’Nique and Christian Bale. That could handicap a few other contenders this year who are largely unavailable (as opposed to unwilling) to hit the circuit.

GALLOWAY: I can't think of two better performances this year than Matt Damon's in The Martian and Alicia Vikander's in The Danish Girl — and they're both stuck shooting the same film: the new Bourne movie. The problem for Damon is, people are going to have to be reminded he's acting, because he makes it look so simple and real — and voters like to see the acting. And with Vikander, people still aren't quite sure who she is or if they want to see that movie.

FEINBERG: Also worth noting — Vikander's costar Eddie Redmayne is off shooting the Harry Potter companion piece Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And a whole bunch of others are off to make some money on Kong: Skull IslandThe Hateful Eight’s Samuel L. Jackson, Room’s Brie Larson, I Saw the Light’s Tom Hiddleston and Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell.

GALLOWAY: Scott, we won't have anybody to interview!

FEINBERG: It's a shame that that sort of thing matters, but it always has and always will — the Academy is not some grand judge up on a mountain, as many mistakenly believe, but rather a group of people with very human preferences and prejudices, as our "brutally honest" Oscar ballots remind our readers every year. If they don't see and like your movie and/or you, good luck winning their support.