Steven Spielberg & Tom Hanks Talk Bridge of Spies, Coen Brothers & Putin

We sat down with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks to talk about Bridge of Spies, the Coen Brothers, and the legacy of the Cold War.

When Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and the rest of the Bridge of Spies cast entered a New York City ballroom to discuss their new movie about Cold War paranoia and two great superpowers, it had been less than a week since the UN General Assembly had gathered down the street to hear U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. At that event, both fired passive aggressive salvos at their purported ally’s Middle East strategy. Several days later, Russia began bombing U.S. backed rebels in Syria.

Bridge of Spies might be a period piece about the escalating tension that came when Brooklyn lawyer James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) negotiated the trade of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for captured CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1960 Berlin—but it could hardly feel more modern given the current political climate.

This bit of unpredictable timeliness for the national conversation could not have been expected, but it certainly highlights the importance of the questions Spielberg raises in his new espionage thriller. When I asked him about the parallels and its potential influence on that larger American dialogue, Spielberg both noted the similarities and spotted more relevancies.

“It’s interesting about the national conversation,” the Bridge of Spies director said. “It keeps changing every day, and 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.

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“I wouldn’t call what’s happening now between Vladimir Putin and the Obama administration a Cold War, but there is certainly a frost in the air. And with the recent incursion into Crimea and ambitions further into Ukraine, and what’s happening right now in Syria, it seems like history is repeating itself.”

Spielberg pointed out that those headlines of course had not been written when he first started developing this film. “But there is so much relevance between the story in 1960 and the story today. The whole idea that spying has reached a technological [peak] of—it’s almost just open season on anybody that knows how to operate an operating system and can 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 cyber-hacking is sports cyber-hacking. It’s not even toward any goal in sight. It’s just picking through a rubbish heap to see if there’s any actionable information or something that can be bartered. And so, there is just so many eyes on all of us, and we have eyes on all of them. What started in almost a polite context—the Cold War was more polite in the terms of the way we were spying on each other than the way it is today. Today, you just don’t know that when you’re watching television if television is actually watching you.”

That sense of intangible ambiguity that seems to fuel anxieties both in 1960 and 2015 might be one of the things that first attracted Spielberg to the project, who by his own admission had not even heard of James Donovan or that fateful trip to Berlin until very recently.

“I knew nothing about this story two years ago,” Spielberg said. “I knew about Gary Powers, because that was big news, it was national news, when he was shot down and taken prisoner in the Soviet Union. But I knew nothing about how he got out of the Soviet Union; I knew nothing about Rudolf Abel; and I knew nothing about James B. Donovan. That all came to me, as I think all good stories come to us, in a surprise package, because there was no brand preceding Bridge of Spies.”

In fact, mere hours prior to this press conference, Spielberg had only just met with James B. Donovan’s remaining family who still live near the area where Donovan first took on the task of defending Rudolf Abel in court. And the children of the lawyer-turned-diplomat revealed a fascinating bit of movie history: while Bridge of Spies will be the first time many learn about this story, Hollywood attempted to tell it 50 years ago before the politics of the day mooted that as impossible.

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Says Spielberg, “In 1965, Gregory Peck came after the story and Gregory Peck got Alec Guinness to agree to play Abel. Gregory Peck wanted to play Donovan, and they got Stirling Silliphant to try to write the script. And then MGM at the time said, ‘No, I don’t think we’re going to tell this story.’ And I didn’t even know that until a couple of hours ago!”

Who did end up writing the Bridge of Spies screenplay represents one of the more unexpected collaborations in recent memory. While it was Matt Charman who discovered and pursued the Donovan/Abel story as a film, bringing it to Spielberg’s attention and providing the narrative backbone of the drama, it was Joel and Ethan Coen who came aboard to offer the finishing touches in a very Coen Brothers fashion.

According to Spielberg, the Coens reached out to him first, because he suspects they were lovers of the spy genre and what this film might represent.

“I think when they reached out to us, they just thought we had a treatment and didn’t even have a script yet, and were wondering if I wanted to meet with them,” Spielberg said.

He also acknowledged that Charman’s first draft was already strong enough to lure Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance onboard to play Donovan and Abel, but the Coens brought a unique perspective to the voice of the characters and their world. Rylance, who also attended the press conference, agreed and credits the Coens with massaging out the details.

“It was absolutely fascinating to then see what the Coen Brothers’ imagination does to a script, and I expect Steven’s as well in working hand-in-hand with them,” Rylance said. “My image for it is going to a very great masseur and feeling all of the blood and energy is going right to their fingertips… It wasn’t a different story. What mattered creatively was Matt’s body [of the story]. But they just really got the spine in place and massaged it, and clipped a few things. And it felt even more alive and whole.”

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Tom Hanks distinctly recalls the Coens crafting his first scene in the film where Donovan is all smiles as he decimates another lawyer over drinks about the insurance claims of a car collision. He credits that sequence, and the overall tone of all the characters’ dialogue, with a special kind of screenwriter’s touch.

“[Their dialogue scans] end up devolving into almost a percussive give-and-take that’s different than other motion picture dialogue in which there’s mostly text, as opposed to subtext,” Hanks said. “There’s a number of great examples of it throughout. But that first scene, which is essentially an insurance negotiation, that’s them to a tee.

“I don’t want to put too many roses on what they do, but there is a cadence that’s individual to each character that, best I can think of, is the dialogue scans in a way. Because a lot of times, you read in screenplays, one very specific thing is happening in the scene, and both characters sound the same after a while. They just lock into the antagonist/protagonist thing. And that just never happens with this. It seems as though somebody is rocking back on their heels while another person is making arguments that you can’t even begin to imagine. And I must say, it’s pretty cool when you get to wrap your head around it.”

But of course that ability to inhabit separate, even folksy voices is all in service for a story that has eminently modern concerns. As we explore in our Bridge of Spies review, the film seeks to shine a light into areas considered too dark for Donovan’s contemporaries to consider—and many Americans today don’t want to hear about it either.

During the conference, Alan Alda presciently observes that this happens whenever we decide to label any group as an “enemy.” It’s often similar arguments about justice and security. In history, Donovan came down on the same side of the issue as John Adams did when he defended British soldiers accused of instigating the Boston Massacre. And that same debate was present in the room when another reporter asked Tom Hanks about the current invisible elephant: did he see any similarities between Donovan’s search for justice for Abel during Bridge’s first half with the current black hole resting on the shores of Cuba, which we call Guantanamo Bay?

For his part, Tom Hanks recalled his earliest research on Donovan, which led to him finding a YouTube video of an interview the lawyer did while representing Abel’s interests before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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“[Donovan] said, ‘You can’t accuse this man of treason. He’s not a traitor. He’s actually a patriot to his cause. Only an American can be a traitor, and 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 [there].’

“As soon as you start assassinating—and let’s extrapolate—as soon as you start torturing the people 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 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 that you think has gone against your country, you’re not that far removed from the KGB and the Stasi. And that’s not what America is about, and this is what Donovan took with him from the get-go.”

Bridge of Spies premiered at the New York Film Festival and is in theaters everywhere on Friday, Oct. 16.