Director Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies, tells the story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a Brooklyn insurance claims lawyer who is thrust into the center of the Cold War when he’s assigned to represent Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Not only does the film expose an extraordinary story during the Cold War, but it also carries over themes relevant to modern day society.
At the core of Bridge of Spies is the concept of spycraft. In the United States, Abel is being tried by the American government for spying on behalf of the Soviets. Meanwhile, fighter pilot Francis Gary Powers’s (Austin Stowell) U-2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union. Powers is then captured and interrogated as an American spy. Within the film — and within the Cold War in general — warfare revolved around spying. Spielberg pointed out that the idea of being watched constantly is still relevant today.
“Only in the last two years since we unearthed this story for the first time and started telling it, a lot has happened that has taken us back to the life and times of the Cold War,” Spielberg said during a conference call.
According to Spielberg, there are obvious comparisons to the espionage and spycraft during the Cold War to the spying that goes on in America today.
“In the ’50s we flew U2s over the Soviet Union, and today we’re flying drones everywhere,” Spielberg said. “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.”
Essentially, the themes and anxieties of the Cold War — national security, privacy and espionage — are every bit as relevant today; except instead of an outsider enemy of the Soviet Union, the cause is a little closer to home. Whether it’s whistleblower Edward Snowden or the constant reminder that advertisers are watching consumers’ transactions online, one thing is clear: Civilians are being watched.
By bringing to popular culture the issues of the Cold War, this film brings up questions of how far governments should go to protect their civilians. Spielberg, along with Hanks and Ryland, manages to make the audience feel for and relate to Soviet spy Abel, even though Abel represents the opposing side. After all, Abel appears to be a good man who’s just doing his patriotic duty for his country.
Moreover, central to this film is how Donovan abandons his ordinary life to not only defend a Russian spy, but also to travel to East Berlin to negotiate with the Soviets to release Powers and another hostage American in turn for Abel. Though it remains slightly confusing as to why Donovan becomes so immersed and intrigued by the Soviet spy Abel, Donovan is still a man who sticks to his values and the American virtues of democracy and fair defense.
However, Donovan is not a soldier in any sense — he does not physically fight his way to victory. Rather, he employs the art of conversation and the art of negotiation, according to Spielberg. Like all good heroes, he refuses to give into societal pressure and fear tactics, and instead holds onto his deepest values despite a potentially dangerous outcome.
Spielberg proclaimed his admiration for Donovan’s tactics and the kind of story he represents.
“[Donovan] is a great example of what we need more of today not only in the diplomatic world, but on Capitol Hill and just the way people should be more patient with each other in trying to figure out or trying to celebrate what makes us different and not being so quick to judge someone who is not the same as us,” Spielberg said.
Though viewers may see Donovan as a hero, Spielberg said it isn’t his job to “forge heroes” as much as it is to provide accurate representations of the events of history.
“I don’t really think about Donovan or [Oskar] Schindler or [Abraham] Lincoln as my hero. I think of them as people I can learn something from. I’m really happy to hear if any of those characters become the heroes of others,” he said.
Donovan, Schindler and Lincoln are only three characters in the many true stories Spielberg has portrayed on screen. These films not only teach, but also draw parallels to similar modern issues. And, according to Spielberg, it’s essential to not only look at these instances of the past to help to look at the present, but also to look forward to the future.
“When I started having kids, it made me look ahead and then that forced me to look back ’cause I’ve always loved history,” Spielberg said. “I’ve always said to my kids you, 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.”