In it’s 53rd year at Lincoln Center, the New York Film Festival has stacked the deck with real-life portraits of courage. Each of the centerpiece films are biopics centered on acts of immense courage. There’s the opening night selection, The Walk, with Joseph Gordon Levitt as high-wire walker Phillip Petit, and then there’s Miles Ahead, the closing night selection, which was directed by and stars Don Cheadle as one of the most influential musicians of all time, Miles Davis. For the centerpiece, there’s Danny Boyle’s unforgiving, but affecting portrait Steve Jobs, penned by Aaron Sorkin, which takes a look at the titular tech superman and Apple CEO.
Another complicated hero altogether is revealed in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. In the film, Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, the real-life insurance lawyer that defended a supposed Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, during the Cold War. Spielberg taps into some of his celebrated skills, such as his eye for period detail, the eternal struggle of maintaining a happy home while working in controversial politics, and what it means to be moral. Abel, played with subtly and introspection by master-of-the-stage Mark Rylance, becomes more than just a client for Donovan, but a means to demonstrating America’s true capacity for justice. Putting his family and wife, Mary (Amy Ryan), in danger, as well as the reputation of his firm and boss, Thomas (Alan Alda), Donovan strives for a seemingly unachievable mission. After an American pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is taken captive by the Soviets, Donovan initiates a trade: Powers for Abel. With a script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, the story moves at an exciting pace with characters that ignite an examination of good, evil, and the multitudes we possess in between.
In New York City a few days ago at the Ritz Carlton off Central Park, Spielberg and Hanks sat down for a press conference to discuss Bridge of Spies. While discussing history’s heroes and the role of America’s integrity on the international stage, parallels between the Cold War and the current national conversation were undeniably drawn.
Steven, how did you get involved with this and why do you think it’s taken so long to tell this story? For Tom Hanks, this unsung real life American hero that we ‘re discovering in this movie – do you see him as maybe a bookend or another chapter in men you’ve played before who are similarly heroic?
STEVEN SPIELBERG: I knew nothing about this story two years go. I knew about Gary Powers because that was big news and it was national news when he was shot down and taken prisoner in the Soviet Union. I knew nothing about how he got out of the Soviet Union. I knew nothing about Rudolf Abel. I knew nothing about James B. Donovan. That all came to me, as all good stories come to us, in a surprise package. There was no brand preceding Bridge of Spies. It was simply a piece of history that was so compelling personally for me, to know that something like this, a man who stood on his principals and defied everybody hating his family for what he thought he needed to do – equal protection under the law for even an alien in this country, even for a Soviet accused spy – that was, to me, a righteous reason to tell this story.
I was meeting with the Donovan family, the two daughters and the son, this morning. I found out something I never knew. In 1965 Gregory Peck came after the story. Gregory Peck got Alec Guinness to agree to play Abel. Gregory Peck was going to play Donovan and they got Stirling Silliphant to try and write the script. Then MGM, at the time, said, ‘No, I don’t think we’re going to tell this story.’ I didn’t even know that until a couple of hours ago. We weren’t the first.
Alan Alda [to Spielberg]: Do you know why they didn’t want to tell the story? Was it still politically difficult?
SPIELBERG: It was 1965 and Bay of Pigs had happened. The Cuban Missile Crisis had been averted like a year and a half before and the tensions were too taught between the Soviets and United States of America for MGM to get into the politics of the story.
TOM HANKS: And Greg Peck’s previous movie was soft at the box office.
SPIELBERG: Yes, yes it was Arabesque, which was a spy movie with Sophia Loren.
HANKS: It was thought as though he had no career left in movie making so those geniuses based their decision on that. I don’t view this as a bookend to anything because every movie starts fresh and has to exist on its own in its auspices. The interesting thing that happens when you play somebody real is you have to have meetings with them if they’re alive and you have to say, ‘Look, I’m going to say things you never said and I’m going to do things you never did and I’m going to be in places you never were, despite that, how do we do this as authentically as possible?’ Much like the boss, I was fueled by no pre-conceived notion of James Donovan. I knew nothing about the man. When you’re coming across the guy who is an awfully good insurance lawyer that then ends up being part of such a momentous six days in history – I’m a selfish actor. I’ll lunge at that opportunity, regardless of anything else I’ve done prior.
For you Steven, you’ve done a lot of movies about fictional heroes and then you’ve done a lot of movies about real heroes. Which do you find more challenging or compelling? For you, Tom, playing a character like this, how did you find him? What was the heart of this character for you?
SPIELBERG: I don’t really distinguish between a fictional hero and a real life hero as a basis for any comparison. To me, a hero is a hero. I like making pictures about people who have a personal mission in life or at least in the life of a story who start out with certain low expectations and then over achieve our highest expectations for them. That’s the kind of character arc I love dabbling in as a director, as a filmmaker.
HANKS: The key to the guy for me, he wrote an awful lot about his own life. He wrote a book about his experience with Rudolf Abel that goes so in depth into the trial I felt like I was a court stenographer. It just goes on and on and on, this motion and that motion. I ended up not reading it all but look, you look for some degree of superstructure of how it is and (Hanks turns to Amy Ryan) outside the fact that he’s got a smokin’ hot wife, you look for something in the past. That he was a prosecutor of the Nuremberg war crimes – that means he wasn’t the type of soldier that went off and wanted to kill as many Nazis as possible. He was the guy who wanted to nail as many Nazis as possible using the letter of the law. That’s a different kind of man. When you take that into account, it pays off in the screenplay, for example I thought at one point his arguments to the Supreme Court about Rudolf, I thought “oh, come on, let’s not guild the lily here, let’s not turn this into more of an operatic moment than necessary” but it turns out that it’s exactly what he said to the Supreme Court. It’s a factor that emboldens itself to the process of making the movie. And it’s never wrong playing a guy who’s got a smokin’ hot wife.
Steven, I thought your depiction of the building and the completion of the Berlin wall was amazing and it’s something all students studying that area should have to see. I felt that way about Lincoln also. You said you spoke to Donovan’s kids this morning and I’m sure more of the family was involved during the whole process. Were you able to talk to Abel’s family from the other side?
SPIELBER: No, not at all. Abel went behind the iron curtain. He sort of went into the obscurity of that. At one point towards the end Donovan’s life, he went to Russia with the hope of meeting Abel again and wasn’t able to find him and get into contact with him. I think there was little help. There was some obfuscation going on at the time. He was hoping to have one more moment with him but never had that moment.
Steven, your last movie, Lincoln, came out during the presidential election year and now this movie, Bridge of Spies, comes out a few months on the heels of this Iran deal. Obviously you could not plan the latter, but what lessons do you think Donovan and Berlin have for us today and what impact would you hope this movie has on the national conversation?
SPIELBERG: It’s interesting about the national conversation, it keeps changing everyday. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make the national conversation your priority. It just doesn’t work that way. You make a movie that is relevant to our times because the Cold War seems to be coming back. I wouldn’t call what’s happening between Vladimir Putin and the Obama administration a Cold War but there’s certainly a frost in the air. With the recent encroachment into Crimea and ambitions further into Ukraine and what’s happening right now in Syria, it seems like history is repeating itself. That was not the case when we first set up to tell this story. Those headlines hadn’t been written because those infringements hadn’t taken place yet. There’s so much relevance between the story in 1960 and the story today. The whole idea that spying has reached a technological apogee of almost open season for anybody that knows how to operate an operating system and knows how to get into somebody else’s operating system. The cyber hacking that’s going on today is just like the spying that went on then. A lot of hacking is sports cyber hacking. It’s not even with any goal in sight, it’s just pick through a rubbish heap to see if there’s any actionable information or something that can be bartered with. There are just so many eyes on all of us and we have eyes on all of them. What started then, almost in a polite context – the Cold War was almost polite in terms of the in the way that we were spying on eachother – today you just don’t know that when you’re watching television, is television actually watching you? You don’t know that.
HANKS: Oh, yeah it is.
I hope you don’t mind a prosaic filmmaking question. Those wonderful scenes in East Berlin, especially as the train goes over while they’re building the Berlin wall, was that just a really big set, or was it a practical location somewhere and if it was the latter, how difficult was it to shoot there?
SPIELBERG: Are you talking about when the train is on the overpass going across the wall and you witness the shootings at the wall?
That, and some of the other scenes—the bicyclist going from one side to the other and getting caught behind the lines.
SPIELBERG: We shot that on the border of Poland and Germany in a town called Breslau. There’s a Polish name for it, but when the Germans invaded Poland they changed the name to Breslau.
SPIELBERG: Wroclaw! Thank you, Tom. There are still bullet holes in all the buildings from WWII there. They never repaired it. We went to the area to the closest to East Berlin that looked just like East Berlin for those two specific scenes that you mentioned. We actually built that wall. A wonderful production designer Adam Stockhausen who does all of Wes Anderson’s movies and he did 12 Years a Slave—won his first Oscar for that – he did our movie and did an incredible, exceptional job really making a modern scenic look exactly the way it looked all those years ago.
Steven, this is for you and the cast. Two years ago you predicted the implosion of the film industry and I’m wondering two years later where your thoughts are on that now. For the cast, where does a film like Bridge of Spies, a serious adult drama, fit into the changing landscape?
SPIELBERG: To clarify, I didn’t predict the implosion of the film industry at all, I simply predicted that a number of blockbusters in one summer, those big sort of tent pole super hero movies, there was going to come a time where two or three or four of them in a row didn’t work. That’s really all I said. I didn’t say the film industry was ever going to end because of it. I was simply saying that I felt that that particular genre doesn’t have the legs or longevity of the Western, which was around since the beginning of film and only started to wither and shrivel in the sixties. I was also trying to make the point that there was room for every kind of movie today because there seems to be an audience for everything. Even five years ago there wasn’t an audience for everything. But now, these little movies just squeezing in and finding a a birth next to these huge Queen Mary type movies and their able to find an audience, enough of an audience to encourage the distributor and the film companies to finance more of them, these are not just films like Bridge of Spies, it’s independent movies as well.
One thing I really enjoyed about the film was it represents an American ideal that’s sort of lost. It really made me smile and Donovan, his character. This film has a very distinct Coen brothers flare. This is for everybody – I wanted to know how their style affected your direction and your acting.
SPIELBERG: Gee, I wonder what they had to do with any of this? I think that the Coen brothers looked upon this, they’re not here to speak for themselves, I’m just going to hazard a guess, that this was a genre that they were very compelled by, from their early years as lovers of movies and genres, like the spy genre. I know that they reached out to us because they heard about the story and they expressed their interest in the story. I think when they reached out to us they thought that we just had a treatment and didn’t even have a script yet and were wondering if I wanted to meet with them. I let them know that we did have a wonderful script by Matt Charman but I was going to go deep with all the characters and deeper with story and deeper with the research and they threw their hats in the ring. They really came to us and stepped on board because this is a genre that really peeked their interest. We’re very lucky to have them. That was the script that Tom first read and that Mark first read.
So, you know, they made a huge contribution while always acknowledging the heavy lifting that Matt Charman did when he found this story and put it all together in a manageable, very taught drama.
Did they come up with the scene early on – “it’s not my guy?”
HANKS: This is the second time I’d been in anything that the Coens had done—I call them Joe and Nathan. Their dialogue scans if you know what that means. It ends up devolving into almost a percussive give and take that’s different than other motion picture dialogue in which it is mostly text as opposed to subtext. There’s a number of great examples of it throughout, but that first scene, which is essentially an insurance negotiation, I think that’s them to a T. There is a – I don’t want to put too many roses on what they do – but there is a cadence that is individual to each character that the dialogue scans in a way. A lot of times you read screenplays in which one very specific thing is happening in the scene and both characters sound the same after a while, they lock into the antagonist, protagonist thing and that just never happens with this. It seems as though somebody is either rocking back in their heels in a Coen brothers scene while another person is making arguments you can’t even begin to imagine. It’s pretty cool when you get to wrap your heads around that.
I was so struck by the way you portrayed the right to counsel that we all have allegedly and I was wondering if to prepare for that you thought of, or consulted with, people who defend say, men and women at Guatanamo Bay?
HANKS: It ends up getting quite fascinating because, and I mean this, immediately after I read the screenplay, I did what everybody does – you just Google the guy you’re going to play. I Googled James Donovan and there was an awful lot and a lot of it was repetitious but I came across a piece on YouTube in which the real Donovan, when he was defending Abel, was interviewed at the courthouse and he literally stated the reason why he took the case and the reason why he carried it all the way to the extremes of the Supreme Court. He said, ‘You can’t accuse this guy of treason. He’s not a traitor. He’s actually a patriot to his cause. Only an American can be a traitor. Only an American can commit treason against their own country. He’s just a man doing his job in the same way we have men doing their jobs over here.’ As soon as you start assassinating and, let’s extrapolate, as soon as you start torturing the people that we have, well then you give the other side permission and cause to do the same exact thing and that’s not what America stands for, at least not what America [stood] for at the time when I took ethics in school and I read my Weekly Reader and I learned the lessons of our forefathers. As soon as you start executing anybody you think has gone against your country, well, you’re not that far removed from the KGB and the Stasi. That’s not what America was about. This is what Donovan took with him from the get go. You can’t deny it.
Bridge of Spies opens October 16 nationwide.