Steven Spielberg has tackled the Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was only a matter of time until he did the same with the Cold War, which he masterfully depicts with his latest historical drama “Bridge of Spies,” released Oct. 4. Like he did in “Lincoln,” Spielberg shows us a United States at war with itself. Except the national issue is no longer slavery, but the scourge of Communism. In his first “spy movie” (although I count “Munich” as the first), Spielberg brings the golden period of espionage to life.
And like we had with the idealistic Honest Abe, there’s now the incredible true story of James B. Donovan, a New York insurance lawyer who found himself and his nuclear (pun intended) family in the middle of the conflict when an accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel falls into his lap as a client. Eventually, Donovan would use Abel as a bargaining chip to free captured U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over Russia.
“I don’t really think about Donovan or Schindler or Lincoln as my hero. I think of them as people I can learn something from but I’m really happy to hear if any of those characters become, you know, the heroes of others,” Spielberg said on a nation-wide conference call. He also said that he doesn’t set out to “forge” heroes when it comes to his historical movies. Rather, “It’s okay to do it I think with, you know, a piece of comic art or real, you know, Saturday matinee popcorn adventure movie,” Spielberg said. He cited Indiana Jones as a specific example (much to the excitement of my inner nerd), commenting that he’s glad audiences have lifted the character of Jones up as their hero.
Like 2012’s “Argo,” “Bridge of Spies” is a taut political/spy thriller that manages to hold your attention even if you know the ending. “All movies cast spell. Not just my movies, but every movie casts a spell. And all audiences, if they get involved enough in the characters and the story, they suspend their disbelief and part of that suspension of disbelief means cancelling what you know about what really happened in the world,” the director said. “To allow yourself to imagine, could a third World War result if Donovan’s negotiations are not successful in retrieving Gary Powers from the Soviet Union? That’s just the magic of audiences. We couldn’t make movies and I couldn’t be a storyteller unless I had audiences willing to allow me to tell these stories and to accept these stories, even though sometimes they know it really happened in history and we weren’t all annihilated.”
Donovan is played by that champion of the everyman Tom Hanks in his fourth collaboration with Spielberg. What has come to be the director’s trademark, Donovan is an ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Hanks doesn’t disappoint with his most powerful historical performance since Captain Miller in “Saving Private Ryan.”
“I just feel lucky that Tom wants to work with me so many times. He’s clearly and arguably one of our greatest actors of this or any generation,” Spielberg commented on his relationship with the actor. He also described Hanks as a “chameleon” who, like Daniel Day-Lewis, can step out of who they are in real life and take on an entirely new persona.
“Tom has so much versatility,” he continued. “From Captain John H. Miller to Viktor Navorski in ‘The Terminal’ and then from Carl Hanratty in ‘Catch Me If You Can’ to the bulldog negotiator of James Donovan in ‘Bridge of Spies’… Those are four very different people and I’m very lucky that I know an actor that can play so many different parts. I would love all those different parts to be in my movies.”
Like he did in “Munich,” Spielberg gives the movie a conscience in the form of Donovan who strives to provide Abel with the complete fairness and unbiased nature of the American justice system even when everyone else wants to see his client executed. Mark Rylance plays Abel with a childlike aloofness, never fully realizing the odds against him. The director said the screenwriters chose to write him as an “enigma.” His refrain of “Would it help?” to Donovan’s curiosity at the lack of his fear imbues some much-needed humor into the stony-faced proceedings. Spielberg actually addressed the topic of humor in his no-nonsense movies,
“I think there’s humor in every situation and the worse the situation, the more characters in the situation need to find something to distract them from the imminent, you know, dangers and so humor to me is a natural byproduct of just being alive … I find that even in my most serious of my movies, you know, to not have humor would be to deny the actual existence of the way all of us kind of live our lives. Even when we think nothing’s funny about what’s happening to us, there’s always somebody watching that thinks it’s pretty funny to them,” Spielberg said.
The script, written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, smartly makes the film relevant to today’s America, alluding to modern day issues like attitudes toward illegal immigration. Spielberg said he chose the brothers to help write because of their talent for concocting irony. He also asserted that the movie explores other issues when he said, “In the 50s we flew U2s over the Soviet Union, and today we’re flying drones everywhere. We were spying on each other all through the 50s and 60s, and today we have a great deal of cyber hacking, which is a form of espionage.”
Donovan becomes a major player in history, meeting with CIA Director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) before setting off for East Berlin to negotiate the release of Powers. When he gets there, the plot gets a tad convoluted as he meets with German lawyers and KGB operatives, but it’s all intentional to showcase the confusion of the negotiation process itself and raises questions of who can and can’t be trusted.
The shots of people fleeing from East Berlin as the Russians begin building the wall is a powerful sight that only Spielberg can conjure. It brings to mind the scene containing the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto in “Schindler’s List.” In fact, the attention to detail is what makes the movie so engrossing, from Adam Stockhausen’s production design to a pan down of camera flash bulbs strewn over a courthouse floor being crushed by a departing Donavan. Interestingly, Spielberg didn’t even plan to show the bulbs, but felt it a great homage to his generation. “When celebrities or infamous people were suddenly on that national scene, they would suddenly be thrown from suburbia into a situation where they, for the first time and probably their entire lives, had to step on flash bulbs because their lives had remarkably changed,” he said.
Personally, my favorite scene shows a classroom of young students watching the detonation of an atomic bomb (duck and cover, kids!) being projected on a blackboard, their faces lit up with horror. It’s the little things like this that give a feeling for what it was like to grow up in a time of constant fear. In fact, the director’s interest in directing historical movies stem from his duty as a father. “When I started having kids, it made me both look ahead and then forced me to look back, ‘cause I’ve always loved history. I excelled in history at school probably not much else,” Spielberg said. “I’ve always said to my kids, “you can’t go forward unless you know where all of us collectively have been,” and so I’ve always had this interest in historical subjects, like biographies, but I never really turned to that until I got serious about being a parent.” He also paid attention to other tiny details like the fact that Donavan had a terrible cold all through the negotiations in Berlin.
Spielberg admits that the most challenging scene to shoot was the swap of Abel for Powers on the Glienicke Bridge, the location place of the trade-off and the inspiration for the movie’s title. “That was a difficult scene not just because it was so cold and we were all freezing, but because there was a lot of weight on all of us to make that the best scene in the movie,” Spielberg said.
In their 15th time working together (“Oh, my god I haven’t even counted. Is it really my 15th time?” said a genially surprised Spielberg), Janusz Kaminski and Spielberg go for a gritty, washed-out sort of cinematography that bears resemblances to “Private Ryan,” “Catch Me” (set around the same time period) and the dystopian feel of “Minority Report.” After all, the second Red Scare did turn America a little dystopic (seen with McCarthy’s House Un-American Committee and blacklisting). According to Spielberg, they went for different color palettes for the time spent in America and “behind the Iron Curtain.” These colors are important to the story being told. The director explained, “We’ve always tried to find a lexicon to tell the story visually that would just enhance the words the writer has written and the actors are performing.”
Thomas Newman’s score contains his usual mysterious musical cues, but it too often tries to mimic John Williams’s from “Private Ryan.” “[John] only didn’t do this one because he had slight medical procedure right as he was supposed to start writing the music, and he had to take a seven week break before coming back to finish the score for J.J. on ‘Star Wars’,” Spielberg said. The first 35 minutes of “Bridge of Spies” contains no music whatsoever; both director and his two composers decided to have “the sounds of New York be the musical score for the first half hour.”
On the subject of historical fact, the director admitted that while other of his movies like “Schindler’s List” and “Lincoln” were “virtually true from cover-to-cover”, he had to take a certain creative license with “Bridge of Spies. “In order to make it more tense and more suspenseful, I needed to take license with the sequence in order to condense a five year story into something that only feels like it’s taking place over six or seven months,” he said.
All in all, the Spielberg said he’s all about the characters. In a great answer that sums up his career he said, “Well, you know, in the early part of my career I was always drawn in by characters. Everything I ever did was character based. You know, maybe my first movie about the truck chasing the car, it’s called ‘Duel,’ even though it’s a big scary truck and a little red car it, it there would be no story if there was a human being we cared about driving the little red valiant. And so all of my movies have really been about the characters but throughout my earlier concepts or big notions for movies in the 70s and 80s, sometimes upstage the characters that were really making those stories believable and yet a lot of credit was going just for the concept.”
He continued, “And my feeling today as I’ve gotten older and the concepts have maybe gotten smaller. They’ve only gotten smaller because the characters have gotten bigger and I’m much more interested in focusing my attention on really interesting people like the character of Rudolf Abel and the character of James Donovan. Those are the kinds of stories that really interest me today.”
This is certainly true for “Bridge of Spies,” an intimate look at one man caught in the crosshairs of a “war” for information that involved two large superpowers. Spielberg’s characters are only set to get bigger—literally—with next summer’s “BFG,” an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel, which will have Rylance in the starring role. But before we roam into the land of giants, the director’s current movie draws attention to the fact that we need to change, even if the Cold War is over.
Spielberg said, “I just find that Donovan, the real James Donovan, is a great example of what we need more of today, not only in the diplomatic world, but both on Capitol Hill and the way people would be. We should be more patient with each other in trying to figure out and celebrate what makes us different, and stop being so quick to judge someone who is not the same as us.”
Touche, Mr. Spielberg.