NEW YORK – The title of Steven Spielberg’s new film tells you it’s about espionage. “Bridge of Spies,” which opens October 16, is the based-on-fact story of James Donovan, a New York lawyer, played by Tom Hanks. Donovan negotiated the 1962 prisoner swap of imprisoned Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance, and downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.
It’s not only an espionage story. Along with Cold War elements you might expect — secret missions, concealed microfilm, the Berlin Wall — “Bridge of Spies” is a family story, or stories. Donovan’s dealings put his wife and children under stress (Amy Ryan plays his wife); and a semi-comic subplot concerns Abel’s faux-wife and daughter the Communists trot out as a bargaining ploy.
Then there’s the way “Bridge of Spies” is a Spielberg family story.
Shortly after Powers was shot down, Spielberg’s father, an engineer, went to Moscow on an exchange. He and some other Americans went to see a display of pieces of the downed U-2 and Powers’s flight suit. A Soviet officer demanded their passports and marched them to the front of the line so he could berate them. “Look what your country is doing to us!”
“Luckily, my father got his passport back,” Spielberg said. “Otherwise, maybe I wouldn’t be here. And when my Dad came back, the first thing he showed me were his photos of the plane and flight suit.” Clearly, they made a big impression.
This was on a Sunday morning last month in a midtown Manhattan hotel. Spielberg, who was nursing a Starbucks venti, has considerably more salt than pepper in his beard now. He turns 69 in December. Between his age and list of achievements, he easily qualifies for grand-old-man status. When this was pointed out, he laughed a bit nervously. “I’m not even 69 yet!,” he mock-complained. “I don’t see myself as grand or old.”
Perhaps he shouldn’t. Spielberg retains a boyish quality. His ensemble — tweed jacket, chinos, sweater vest — looked more empty-the-closet undergrad than professorial casual. The boyishness came through most in his manner, a winning blend of eagerness and curiosity.
Especially curiosity. Spielberg was there to promote “Bridge of Spies,” yes, but he was no less interested in talking about the likelihood of another Indiana Jones movie (“I’m certainly intending it to happen at some point”) or his admiration for Pope Francis (“When he was speaking before Congress or at the UN, I felt that he was the youngest guy in the room”).
“Bridge of Spies” reunites Spielberg with Tom Hanks — after “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “Catch Me If You Can” (2002), and “The Terminal” (2004). That reunion is a form of family, too. They were executive producers on the HBO series “Band of Brothers” (2001), and there’s a real feeling of fraternity when Spielberg talks about Hanks.
Amy Ryan, in a telephone interview, spoke of the fun of watching Spielberg and Hanks — “these legendary characters” — joke around between takes and observing the chemistry between them. “You have to remind yourself they’re just people,” she said. “You want to just gawk at them.”
“It’s the same relationship we’ve always had,” Spielberg said of Hanks. What wasn’t the same was Hanks’s way of proceeding. The actor “felt a relevance in this character to his own life and times,” Spielberg said.
It’s startling how often in “Bridge of Spies” the Cold War echoes the global war on terrorism — or even the current debate over immigration. Constitutional concerns figure almost as much as they do in Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012).
“Tom put a lot of personal gravitas into the choices he made in his line readings and the way we blocked the scenes. I usually do two or three takes with Tom, then walk away. We did seven, eight, nine takes, because Tom kept coming up with a new approach. Tom was so open to experiment in this process, more than I’d ever experienced with him before as his director. He was just so open and free and challenging himself.”
Spielberg attributes much of Hanks’s response to his sharing scenes with Rylance. Abel is worlds away from Thomas Cromwell, the Rylance character American audiences are most familiar with, in the “Masterpiece” mini-series “Wolf Hall” (2015). This performance is no less memorable. It’s already generated talk of a possible best supporting actor Oscar nomination.
“It was interesting to watch these two great talents equally occupying the space and completely competing for my attention,” Spielberg said. “When the camera was on both of them, I didn’t know who to look at. That was pretty powerful for me to experience.”
Spielberg hadn’t worked with Rylance before. Right away, he was impressed. After one day of shooting he asked Rylance to read for the title role in his next project, “The BFG,” based on the Roald Dahl novel. He got the part. The movie is scheduled for July release.
“It’s incredible what he did,” Spielberg said of Rylance’s performance as Abel. “I’m very lucky that I’ve got in my life right now a [working] relationship with Tom Hanks, Daniel Day-Lewis [who starred in “Lincoln”], and Mark Rylance. Now if I can only get Meryl Streep in one of my movies. Spielberg laughed and shook his head. “If I can only get Meryl in one of my films!”
Streep may or may not ever become part of Spielberg’s movie family. Its most vital members, he suggested, are the two younger generations of his actual family. “Being a dad, then being a movie director, in that order, that’s what I most enjoy doing,” he said — and the latter increasingly depends on the former.
“The scariest thing [for a filmmaker] is repeating yourself,” he said. “I want to stay relevant with the times. I’ve been very lucky that my kids have kept me relevant. Having seven children and now three grandchildren, they really keep you up to date with how they’re getting their information and what they consider to be their 21st-century value system. The values don’t always align with my own values, or those of my parents. But they’re very compelling and keep me relevant just because I’m exposed to how they see the world. That’s a godsend.”
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.