How real the fear, how immediate the sense of danger, as Americans imagined how they would react to a nuclear attack. As the 1960s began, this notion of potential tragedy reached every corner of the country as people realized that peace of mind only comes from feeling we are at peace.

With the meticulous precision he brings to every movie moment, Steven Spielberg uses a single sequence to recreate the tension of the early 1960s in Bridge of Spies. As young students fear the sounds of sirens, contemplate what to place in shelters, watch films about nuclear danger and practice how to duck and cover, Spielberg captures the fears of a nation that hopes to never experience this hopelessness again.

What impresses about Bridge of Spies is how Spielberg makes this statement without forcing his point of view. Gone are his heavy habits as a young director who could over-emphasize instead of trusting the subtleties of narrative and character to naturally generate drama. The result is one of his most satisfying films, partly because it feels effortless. He makes us want to spend more than two hours returning to a chapter that too many fail to remember.

To recreate the Cold War, Spielberg reaches for a forgotten page from history when, in 1960, an American U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia. While President Dwight Eisenhower faced global criticism, a Brooklyn attorney named James B. Donovan — who, a few years before, had unsuccessfully defended an accused Russian spy named Rudolph Abel — found himself in the middle of international diplomacy when he tried to negotiate an exchange between countries to give each man his freedom.

Rather than let himself get too detailed in retelling the story, Spielberg uses the narrative framework to tell a broader tale of a nation trying to come to grips with its sometimes uncomfortable role as international policeman. With subtlety, the script by Matt Charman, and Joel and Ethan Cohen, suggests themes that resonate today, without stretching credibility by tying every incident to a current event. Their words, like Tony Kushner’s in Spielberg’s Lincoln, give the director rich situations to stage in the meticulous manner that defines a Spielberg film.

The words inspire strong performances, too. Tom Hanks, so strong in Captain Phillips a couple of years ago, continues his later career surge with another definitive portrayal of an average man caught in circumstances beyond his imagination. Essentially an ensemble player, Hanks has a commanding instinct to fit into the texture of a story rather than turn a role into a star turn. He and Spielberg again demonstrate their uncanny knack for knowing how to bring out the best in each other. Mark Rylance, as Abel, turns in a supporting portrayal that is original in its approach and refreshing in application.

Technically, every element of the film is perfectly positioned in that way that we expect from Spielberg. From the details of the production design, to the tension of the editing, each part of the production supports the director’s vision. And Thomas Newman — the first composer other than John Williams to write music for Spielberg since Quincy Jones’s for The Color Purple — creates a subtle and spare score that doesn’t detract from the tension.

Without overstating the obvious, Spielberg makes us hope we never face such tense days again. But he reminds us that, when countries fail to look beyond their own interests, conflict is inevitable. And it can frighten.

Bridge of Spies

  • Content: High. With the visual innovation and cinematic discipline Steven Spielberg is known for, the director creates a new classic with this tale of Cold War tension.
  • Entertainment: High. Thanks to a script that does not get caught in the weeds, and a director who lets the intensity naturally develop, the film grabs our attention from its opening moments and never lets go.
  • Message: High. As much as the film works as a thriller, it also succeeds in making us think of the danger that countries can create when they refuse to listen to each other.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older children about the delicate realities of global relationships is welcome.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Talk with your older children about what we can do to better understand the ways different people in different places may approach the same world.

(Bridge of Spies is rated PG-13 for “some violence and brief strong language.” The film runs 141 minutes.)

5 Popcorn Buckets

Let’s Talk Movies

If Steven Spielberg had made Bridge of Spies early in his career – when, as a director, he could be less willing to trust the subtleties of a story – he might have created a different film. The years, and the movies, have taught Spielberg how to use the camera to reveal how characters approach a situation, rather than stage the situation to frame the reaction. Here’s a look at moments in the director’s career that contribute to his approach to Bridge of Spies.

The Sugarland Express (1974)

In his first feature for the big screen, Spielberg focuses on character rather than action, intention instead of visual. Goldie Hawn stretches her screen persona to create a woman who believes she can hold her family together by committing a series of crimes. When the movie didn’t make any money, the director looked for a more bankable property for his next movie, that little film about a killer shark.

Jaws (1975)

While we remember this film for its big moments, the smaller ones reveal Spielberg’s command of subtlety and nuance. That sequence on the boat, late at night, when the pouring of drinks inspires the shark hunters to confess their fears, reveals how effectively the director can bring out an actor’s spontaneity. The characters interact in such a natural way that it’s easy to imagine the scene simply growing out of improvised conversation.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Surprisingly, Spielberg’s story of how a young boy stays alive through World War II failed to connect with audiences. Maybe the scope of the production overwhelmed the story, or the exaggerated interactions were too much for the characters. Today, as he does in Bridge of Spies, Spielberg might shrink the landscape to focus on the characters. And he would let Tom Stoppard’s cracking dialogue grab the attention much as does in Spies.

Amistad (1997)

This one failed to generate much excitement, either, despite the power of its story. But Spielberg makes the mistake of trusting his narrative – about the trial that follows a mutiny on a slave ship in 1839 – to a young Matthew McConaughey who isn’t yet able to capture the nuance. Despite strong moments in the film, primarily from Anthony Hopkins and Djimon Hounsou, Spielberg learns that he needs the right leading actor to bring his stories to life.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

In a film that should have been named the Best Picture of the Year, Tom Hanks makes an essential contribution as a member of the ensemble, refusing to let the movie become a star turn. With a performance is so internal, so subtle, Spielberg tightens the focus of the camera on what happens inside a citizen soldier who is haunted by his desire to return home. No matter the effectiveness of the set pieces – especially the dramatic recreation of the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach – the quiet, introspective moments give the film its power.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

This tale of a young man who doesn’t believe in playing by the rules seems to give Spielberg a refreshed energy to loosen up his filmmaking. Unlike some of his more serious pictures, this one brims with excitement as Leonardo DiCaprio leads Tom Hanks (in another strong performance) on an ultimate cat-and-mouse chase. Spielberg brings a sense of spontaneity to this breezy story that fills the Spies narrative, too.

Lincoln (2012)

Like Spies, this masterful look at the 16th President of the United States relies on the power of words to inspire the visual feel. Tony Kushner’s script dares to avoid the trap of the biopic to examine what could have been on a leader’s mind during the times when so many needed to follow. As in Spies, the words resonate with clarity and passion as Spielberg creates a memorable portrait of a man whose sense of principle inspires him to reach beyond convention.

In Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg reminds us how much he can do with a camera to focus on characters and situations. Looking at his career reveals how he continues to grow as an artist, more than 40 years after he started making movies.