Steven Spielberg didn’t just direct “Bridge of Spies,” a riveting new Cold War thriller.
In a way, he lived it.
“I remember the duck-and-cover exercises,” Spielberg said during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The most frightening sound of my childhood was the air raid siren. Even today, I still cannot recall a sound that chills me to my marrow like that.”
The movie, out Friday, stars Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer tapped to provide a defense for suspected Russian spy Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance.
Donovan later is tasked with negotiating a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Scenes depicting Donovan’s children quaking through terrifying safety films shown in their classrooms, and discussing what to do if atomic war were to break out, were informed by Spielberg’s own memories.
“The films we were being shown told us we could walk down the street and we would see a flash brighter than the sun and we were supposed to lean against the wall,” he said. “My dad was so practical and would say, ‘I don’t think hugging the wall is going to protect you from a 50 megaton blast.’”
The movie has even more personal resonance. Spielberg’s father, an engineer, happened to be in Moscow after American pilot Francis Gary Powers’ high-altitude reconnaissance jet plane was shot down.
“My dad stood in line and saw Gary Powers’ helmet and flight suit,” Spielberg said. A Russian colonel approached the American delegation, snatched up the elder Spielberg’s passport and yelled, “Look what your country has done to us.”
Powers was part of the prisoner exchange that Donovan was charged with handling.
“It was a beautiful ripple of history,” Spielberg said. “I was very familiar with the Gary Powers story, but I didn’t know anything about the spy swap or anything about Rudolf Abel and James Donovan. That was the most serendipitous thing out of this whole equation.”
Screenwriters Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen were able to use documents such as U.S. Supreme Court transcripts, but the movie isn’t a documentary.
“Our film is a historical drama,” Spielberg said. “All the events are real, but the treatment is fictionalized.”
The film, which also stars Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife and Alan Alda as his legal colleague, is painstakingly steeped in the early 1960s, but feels geopolitically timeless. Then, as now, news headlines teemed with global tensions. Unlike modern diplomats, Donovan was able to operate free from the tools of today’s information age.
“The movie has a lot to do with the arc of the conversation,” Spielberg said. “The weapon at Donovan’s disposal was his ability to use facts to persuade the opposing team.”
“Donovan was adept at being able to phrase the facts at hand to convince a judge, to convince our own Supreme Court, and also the Russian KGB,” Spielberg continued. “Remember what he had going for him and what we don’t have going for us. The amount of communication that was both propaganda and classified was manageable. Today, almost every secret gets out.”