DreamWorks’ BRIDGE OF SPIES opens October 16th and five of the main players have hit the road to spread the word about the incredible story of the Hollow Nickel case and the true American hero who guided it through to its rightful conclusion. Steven Spielberg (Director), Tom Hanks (James B. Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan) and Alan Alda (Tom Watters) sat down with us at the Ritz Carlton in New York City. James B. Donovan was an insurance lawyer who was asked by the government and by his boss, Tom Watters, to represent Rudolf Abel in his trial for espionage. As always, I’ll try to keep out any spoilers, but BRIDGE OF SPIES is based on a true story, so the only real spoilers would be how the story was relayed, including changes to the true story.
The story of James B. Donovan came to Spielberg’s attention a couple of years ago in a script written by Matt Charman. Spielberg was inspired by this piece of history that he hadn’t known about, though he had heard of Gary Powers. He was impressed by Donovan, a man who stood on principle and who recognized equal protection for aliens and, even, accused spies. Spielberg shared with us that he had learned just that morning from members of the Donovan family that Gregory Peck had tried to bring this story to the big screen back in 1965. Peck had intended to play Donovan and wanted Alec Guinness for Abel. MGM turned it down, though, because it was too soon after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
The timing of the release of BRIDGE OF SPIES at a time when the world is erupting with alien/refugee rights issues is coincidental, but Spielberg anticipates the movie will have an impact on the national conversation about those issues. He wanted to make a movie relevant to our times. Spielberg feels that we are getting close to another Cold War – “there’s a frost in the air.” “Spying has reached a technological apogee.” Cyber hacking is almost expected now and people are “sport hacking” – digging around just to see what’s there. “When you’re watching TV, is TV watcing you?”
When creating a movie inspired by a true story, the hero will remain a hero, but not necessarily in the same way he was a hero in real life. Spielberg doesn’t distinguish between fictional and living heroes. “A hero is a hero” – a person with a personal mission and it’s the hero stories that have the character arcs Spielberg loves. Abel, the accused spy, is also a hero (Hanks reiterated during the press conference that Abel was not a traitor, but a patriot to his country’s cause), and Rylance, hand-picked by Spielberg for the role, was able to play him as a sympathetic character, because, as he told us, he “just said what was on the page.” He had originally been drawn to the film by the Marr Charman script and was fascinated by the Coen brothers’ treatment, likening it to a massage that spread the life blood of the story to every detail. Spielberg shared that Coens were compelled by this genre and approached Spielberg about working on the script, adding a percussive give and take to the dialogue in both the text and the subtext. There were several lines in the movie that were easily (and correctly, as affirmed during the press conference) attributable to the Coens. Can you figure them out?
James B. Donovan is another in the long line of everyday heroes played by Hanks and, as with every other hero, Donovan is played as a unique person, not as varying shades of the same character. WIth every role, Hanks starts fresh. When he plays a real person, Hanks does whatever he can to meet that person, if still living, to be able to portray his character as accurately as possible, even though, as he tells them, Hanks may be saying things he never said and doing things he never did, sometimes in places he never went. For Donovan, who died over 40 years ago, Hanks went to the two books written by Donovan, about two very imporant periods in his life, including “Stranger on a Bridge,” which details the Rudolf Abel story. The Supreme Court testimony in BRIDGE OF SPIES are the actual words spoken by Donovan before the Supreme Court.
Some of the more heartbreaking scenes were centered around the Berlin Wall, which was under construction at that time. The set was constructed by Adam Stockhausen on the border of Poland and Germany near Breslau/Wrocław, where bullet holes still stipple the walls of buildings. I’ve been on both sides of the Berlin Wall and they did a remarkable job recreating not only the physical wall, but the emotional responses to it, too.
Bolstering the spy and law stories are Donovan’s work and home life, each giving us an insight into where Donovan drew his strength and found his courage. Alda and Ryan both commented on the strength of devotion of Donovan for the law and his family. Ryan shared that she’d been able to see Donovan family photos and in every one, Mary Donovan is smiling at James Donovan. With love and devotion like that at home, it’s not hard to understand why Donovan made the choices and took the stands that he did. The law firm, too, seemed to be familial, in the old paternalistic way of working life, and in BRIDGE OF SPIES, the beginning of the shift from employee-based employment to customer-based employment is depicted, with Watters willing to give the law a backseat to client interests. “Security and justice are on a seesaw.” (Alda)