Steven Spielberg: Compared to today's surveillance, the cold war was polite

Steven Spielberg

At a press conference for espionage thriller Bridge of Spies, set in 1960s East Berlin, the director expresses concerns over cyber-hacking, while star Tom Hanks says US should never torture terror suspects

Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies, is a historical thriller set during the cold war – but according to its director, the story it tells is more relevant than ever. Tom Hanks stars as James B Donovan, a Brooklyn lawyer who was recruited by the CIA to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and later arranged for his swap with Gary Powers, a captured U2 pilot in East Berlin. Donovan’s heroic efforts resulted in the release of Powers, as well as that of Frederic Pryor, an American college student also detained.

“The cyber-hacking that is going on today is just like the spying that went on then,” Spielberg said at a press conference for the film. He went further: compared to today, “the cold war was polite in terms of the way we were spying on each other. The way it is today, you just don’t know that when you’re watching television, is television actually watching you? There are just so many eyes on all of us.”

Hanks also spoke of the film’s timeliness, though for a different reason than his director. Asked if he consulted with lawyers who defend those detained in Guantanamo Bay for war crimes, Hanks recalled watching a video on YouTube in which Donovan stated the reason he took on the case and carried his cause all the way to the supreme court. “Donovan said, ‘You can’t accuse this man of treason. He’s not a traitor - he’s actually a patriot to his cause. Only an American can commit treason against their own country. He’s just a man doing his job, in the same way we have men doing our jobs over here.’”

“Let’s extrapolate,” continued Hanks. “As soon as you start torturing the people we have, then you give the other side permission and cause to do the exact same thing – and that’s not what America stands for. As soon as you start executing anybody you think is going after your country, then you’re not that far removed from the KGB and the Stasi, and that’s not what America was about.”

Spielberg revealed that he was not aware of Donovan’s efforts before coming across Matt Charman’s screenplay for the film, which was later revised by Joel and Ethan Coen. “I knew about Gary Powers,” said Spielberg, “because that was national news when he was shot down and taken prisoner in the Soviet Union, but I knew nothing about how he got out of the Soviet Union.

“It was simply a piece of history that was so compelling personally to me. That was to me a righteous reason to tell the story.”

Spielberg also revealed that, only hours before the press conference, Donovan’s son and daughter revealed that Gregory Peck had tried to bring the story to the big screen in 1965. “MGM at the time said no,” said Spielberg. “The Cuban missile crisis had been averted like a year and a half before, and the tensions were too fraught between the Soviets and the US for MGM to get into the politics of the story.”

• Bridge of Spies premiered at the New York film festival on 4 October. The film is released in the US on 16 October, Australia on 22 October and the UK on 27 November.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nigel M Smith, for theguardian.com on Monday 5th October 2015 17.20 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010