Portraits of America: Spielberg’s Norman Rockwell Influence


Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies opens with an image borrowed from another great American artist. Spielberg’s camera winds through the rundown New York apartment of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). He’s sat in silence, painting a picture of himself to indulge his artistic hobby. He’s flanked by two items: on his left, a mirror where he can see himself reflected; on his right, the canvas, on which he paints what he sees. It’s a clear nod to Norman Rockwell and his famous painting ‘Triple Self-Portrait’, a humorous, gently self-effacing piece that also touches on themes of identity (note how different the illustration is to the mirror reflection) and nationality (spot the American eagle on top of the mirror).

By drawing on the image of one of America’s most beloved artists (indeed one of its foremost chroniclers of what it means to be American), Spielberg introduces these issues (as well as a pervasive sense of paranoia) for the rest of Bridge of Spies explores. Here we find a dangerous spy integrated into American culture so fundamentally that he’s assimilating its icons. He’s a Commie ripping off a Rockwell! It’s almost a dark joke. But at the same time, he’s split, his identity fragmented both literally and metaphorically. In the privacy of his apartment, he hardly seems like a threat at all: nothing more than an old man with a hobby, just as Rockwell made himself seem in ‘Triple Self-Portrait’.

It’s a perfect Spielbergian piece of film-making: a single image that speaks volumes. Rockwell was no different. With just the single frame of the canvas to work within, he had to create images that conveyed (often very complex) meaning and story quickly and with maximum efficiency. No brushstroke could be wasted, no centimetre of space squandered. “I love to do a picture which shows a progression of action, a sequence of ideas at a glance,” Rockwell said. It’s a point echoed by Spielberg, who told Laurent Bouzereau in an interview dedicated to Rockwell’s work: “He did his storytelling in a flash; he did it with a single image. And he invites you to explore that image. He draws you into that image, and he invites you, once it makes an impression on you, to question why, simply question why.”

It’s this passion and deep appreciation for Rockwell’s work that inspired the Smithsonian American Art Museum to set up Tellin’ Stories, a 2010 exhibition of Rockwell paintings comprised primarily of works owned by Spielberg and friend, collaborator and fellow Rockwell enthusiast George Lucas. Their fascination in the painter, show curator Virginia Mecklenburg told the LA Times, offered a fresh perspective on his work. “There’s a different lens for looking at Rockwell because of how George and Steven see their pictures,” Mecklenburg explained. “They are both drawn to Rockwell’s stories – the way an entire narrative unfolds because of how he crafts a single frame.”

Lucas’s interest in Rockwell only truly manifests itself in American Graffiti, his melancholic, 50s set chronicle of the twilight point between youth and adulthood. For Spielberg, however, there are clearer parallels. Not only does he reference Rockwell in Bridge of Spies, he reconstructs another of his pieces in 1987’s overlooked masterpiece Empire of the Sun. The film, which tells the story of a young boy called Jim who’s separated from his family when the Japanese invade Shanghai in 1941, depicts a tender moment between Jim and his parents in which the adults are putting their child to bed. Lighting, blocking and framing are constructed specifically to homage Rockwell’s famous ‘Freedom from Fear’, but it’s no empty reference.

The image follows Jim through the film as he’s captured by the Japanese and held in an internment camp. It becomes his talisman, a representation of the safety he yearns for but which remains just out of his reach. It’s one of a number of American symbols that populate the film, including Hershey bars, issues of LIFE magazine, and a comic book about a daring flying ace. Like his reference in Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s nod in Empire of the Sun suggests an identity crisis and a desire for a simpler, more comforting world that may not even exist. Both are perfect encapsulations of the sense of darkness that lurks behind the seemingly cosy exterior so many attribute to Spielberg’s (and Rockwell’s) work.

Even when that coziness is entirely absent, Spielberg’s references to Rockwell are still very clear. One of the defining images from Schindler’s List is that of the girl in the red coat, who wanders through the streets as the Kraków ghetto is being liquidating by Nazi troops. It’s another key Spielbergian visual: a blend of darkness and innocence, the like of which he’d touched on many times prior to Schindler’s List and has tapped into many times since. But it also owes a debt to Rockwell’s famous 1964 painting ‘The Problem We All Live With’, which depicts young Ruby Bridges on her way to her all-white school, a racial slur daubed on a wall behind her.

Similar in composition and meaning, both images capture hatred in a single frame, and both act as an indictment of a society that’s failing to stop it. Indeed, with Rockwell putting the viewer in the same position as a crowd that hurls tomatoes and abuse at Bridges, his painting makes us complicit in this prejudice. Spielberg is no different, putting the viewer in the position of Oskar Schindler, riding on horseback and looking down at the streets below. The girl acts as a damning criticism of Schindler’s apathy, and also that of the audience. Just as he ignored the plight of the persecuted, so too had the American public who, by 1993, Spielberg believed were rapidly forgetting the lessons learned from the Holocaust.

Beyond the specifics of direct film/painting comparisons, Spielberg shares a common bond with Rockwell in the way they both use the human face to convey the emotion of a scene. The concept of ‘The Spielberg Face’ has become well-known now, with Kevin B. Lee’s 2011 video essay noting in detail how Spielberg uses off-screen space and awestruck reactions to build a sense of wonder, anticipation, or fear within the audience. Think of Alan Grant reacting to the brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park, and consider how immediately anxious you became to actually see the dinosaur. That’s The Spielberg Face, and its effect, in action.

To ensure his paintings made maximum impact in minimum time, Rockwell employed similar tactics. In his 1956 work ‘Happy Birthday Miss Jones’, the artist depicts a spinster school teacher receiving a birthday treat from her pupils. Rockwell’s ‘camera’ is placed within the desks and looks towards Miss Jones, who stands by the blackboard. A few students can be seen, along with a collection of presents left on her desk and the words ‘Happy Birthday’ scrawled on her blackboard. It’s a touching image that relies heavily on Rockwell’s portrayal of Miss Jones herself. Standing at the head of class, she’s stiff and unmoving, trying to maintain her professional decorum. But her bowed head and warm smile speak of a deep affection and gratitude that captures how dearly she loves her class.

1947’s ‘Boy On High Dive’ is another expression of Rockwell’s fascination with the human face. Here, we find a young boy crouched on the end of a high diving board, daring to peek over its precipice. The image is dominated by three things: the sky, the high dive, and the boy’s terrified face as he looks at the drop before him. Spielberg owns the painting and it hangs in his Amblin office as a reminder of the film-making process. “For me, that painting represents every motion picture just before I commit to directing it,” he has said of the piece. “That painting spoke to me the second I saw it… I said not only is that going in my collection, but it’s going in my office so I can look at it every day of my life.”

There’s more than simple affection for the piece, and the work of Rockwell as a whole, at play here though. Whether it’s young Barry opening the doors to the alien visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Elliott looking up at his friend’s departing ship at the end of E.T., or David peering through the eye holes of a mask of his own face in A.I., Spielberg’s infatuation with facial expressions and single image stories is as significant and enduring as Rockwell’s. It’s what’s made both men such indelible chroniclers of the American (and indeed human) experience, and why they’ll always maintain that position. Movies can fade over time, the plot blurring from our memories. But moments, scenes, images – they’re the residue that sticks. And when they’re as strong as Spielberg’s and Rockwell’s are, that’s little surprise.

This article first appeared on The Bearded Trio.

Essay: The BFG (Steven Spielberg, 2016)


For a director renowned for the wonders he puts on screen, Steven Spielberg’s greatest talent lies in what he doesn’t show us. Whether it’s the shark in Jaws, the Mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the brachiosaur in Jurassic Park, Spielberg delights in teasing his audience – not showing, or at least making us wait for, the spectacular, the wondrous, the evil, or the terrifying. It’s why the so-called ‘Spielberg Face’ has become such a well-known visual trope, and why his films, regardless of subject matter and tone, find a mass audience time and time again. We love anticipating the amazing.

This sense of absence isn’t just expressed aesthetically; it’s a deep-rooted part of the director’s thematic concerns too. Spielberg characters are rarely complete wholes. They’re all bereft: looking for something, longing for something, needing something in order to be complete. Part of the joy of a Spielberg film is following them on that journey as they (and we) seek their missing part, a quest they often have to take alone or by conquering the resistance of those around them. The nerdy Jewish boy who grew up a bullied outsider in largely Gentile neighbourhoods has spent his adult life reliving and restructuring that sense of alienation.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, of course, expresses this sense of longing and loneliness in its purest form, and it’s fitting that Spielberg has re-teamed with that film’s writer, the late, great Melissa Mathison, for this take on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The BFG, another two-hander about alienation and otherness. You wouldn’t think it from the effortless confidence shown here, but it’s been more than 30 years since the pair last worked together (and nearly 20 since Mathison’s last screenplay – for Martin Scorsese’s 1997 Dalai Lama biopic Kundun) and the passing years have helped create a film even more mellow and melancholic than their 1982 masterpiece.

As the sadly mixed reviews have noted, The BFG is not an eventful film. It’s a slow, patient picture that takes its time and enjoys the opportunity to breathe. Nor is it a particularly rambunctious film, in the way we’ve come to expect from a Dahl adaptation. The author’s warmth often radiated through a mischievous grin, especially in the likes of ‘The Twits’, ‘Matilda’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. ‘The BFG’ has always been a gentler offering, but even the darkness he did include (such as The BFG’s discussions with Sophie about the taste of human beings) is mostly blunted or removed entirely by Spielberg and Mathison. Critics are correct when they say the film misses this sense of threat – even the mean giants don’t seem particularly fearsome – but that’s not the story Spielberg is looking to tell.


“The secret whisperings of the world…”

Something seemed to shift in Spielberg’s approach during the making of Lincoln. The listlessness seen in parts of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn disappeared, and the next phase in his film-making career seemed to snap into focus. Long-gestating sci-fi blockbuster Robopocalypse slipped off the slate and was replaced by talk of dramas such as Bridge of Spies, Montezuma, and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (The BFG, of course, also joined those films). Spielberg has always been fascinated by character, dialogue, and the little grace notes that make those things come alive, but Lincolnpushed them to the forefront more than ever, and ushered in a new approach to tone and pacing.

Confident, stately, relaxed, Lincoln found its sister film in last year’s Bridge of Spies, which delighted in its slow-burn pace and the studied, deliberate turn of Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, and it again influences The BFG, in which the excellent Rylance exudes a similar silent nobility. This is very much a post-Lincoln Spielberg blockbuster, a film more concerned with words than explosions, eloquence than excitement. It’s arguably the first time Spielberg has seemed truly at ease at the helm of populist entertainment since 2002’s Minority Report (which he identified as “a gourmet popcorn movie”, suggesting he saw it, like The BFG, as no mere slice of summer escapism), and, though time will tell, that’s enabled him to craft a charming fantasy that can rival even E.T..

His ability to couch the fantastical effects and state of the art motion capture in a small story about a child gives Spielberg the confidence he’s perhaps lacked on similar films in recent years. With The BFG, he delights in turning Sophie into a typically Spielbergian child hero. She’s sprightly, inventive, heroic, and noble – played by Ruby Barnhill with a delightful spark and quiet vulnerability that’s not been heralded enough. Outraged by The BFG’s treatment at the hands of the other giants, she tries to inspire him to fight back. She concocts plans, demands rather than asks, and takes well-earned delight in describing herself as “an untrustworthy child”. True to the rebellious heart of Dahl’s book and their own work in depicting the necessity of childhood battles against adult conformity, Spielberg and Mathison have crafted a world where such descriptions are to be worn as badges of honour.

In some ways, Sophie is a stronger hero than her closest analogue Elliott, but she’s similarly lost. Wandering through the halls of her silent orphanage at the height of the Witching Hour, she casts a lonely figure – lost and so utterly anonymous that she can sneak through by without being spotted. The BFG’s entry into this world isn’t just an exciting and wondrous event (though the way Spielberg captures the giant’s snatching of the girl in a long held take is simple, dazzling, and beautifully nightmarish); it’s an utterly transformative one. Like E.T.’s arrival in Elliott’s world, The BFG offers Sophie a lifeline, an opportunity for more than just magic and mystery, but for companionship and camaraderie as well. Sophie essentially finds her soul mate.

Spielberg takes great joy in reflecting this visually. Released from the shackles of serious drama, he plays with imagery with an abandon we’ve not seen for a number of years. A standout moment finds The BFG and Sophie hiding on the streets of London by disguising themselves as trees, while in another The BFG’s dream orbs mimic Sophie’s excited jumping by bouncing up and down in their jars. Sophie describes herself as an insomniac who can’t fall asleep long enough to dream, but as the film progresses, it’s as if her inner life and imagination are so firmly awakened by her friendship with The BFG that she comes to have more of a connection with the dreams he catches than he himself does.

Moments such as these abound and they’re often played out in silence, or with minimal dialogue. Cutting back the chat, Spielberg lets his camerawork, John Williams’ playful score, Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg’s organic, tangible production design, and Janusz Kaminski’s radiant cinematography do the talking. One particularly impressive sequence comes when The BFG guides Sophie through his home, the camera lapping up each wonderful detail with every bit of the quiet grace we saw in Lincoln, while another comes during the Buckingham Palace sequences, where both our heroes are – perhaps for the first time – given luxurious feasts to devour for breakfast. Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn cut between The BFG and Sophie’s delighted faces in a scene that’s both humourous and heartening.

It’s a final seal on their friendship, a visual lock of a bond built not on words, but commonality and compassion. It should be little surprise then that it’s expressed not through narrative thrust but the secret whisperings of cinema: sound and visuals.


“I catch dreams…”

Of course, Spielberg’s the serial storyteller, a man who as a child would summon scary stories based on the trees outside his window and cracks in his bedroom window. He couldn’t make a film that forgoes storytelling altogether, and indeed he hasn’t. While The BFG may take a relaxed approach to telling its story, it makes significant statements about the art of storytelling itself, and stands as one of Spielberg’s most eloquent films about the topic (he’s touched on it in parts of Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, while the whole of Catch Me If You Can focuses on fiction and fabrication). Dahl wrote ‘The BFG’ as a bedtime story for his grand-daughter Sophie (even writing her into it as the main character), and Spielberg expands that idea by turning The BFG into one of his most eloquent and engaging storytellers. (1)

A catcher, creator, and deliverer of dreams though he may be, Spielberg’s BFG cuts a sad and lonely figure. He exists in solitude, far away from humanity and is bullied by his brother giants. Yet he quietly yearns for ‘human beans’ and Spielberg again lets us know with subtle clues. His home is littered with artefacts from the human world – a broken plane wing, old telephone boxes, wrecked ships – and though he feels he can’t come into contact with humans for fear they’d chop him up and experiment, he clearly takes great delight in connecting with them through his pendulous ears, which allow him to hear “all the secret whisperings of the world”. He is both a part of and entirely separate from the world he admires, grasping towards it through the fragments of adventures past.

His role as a dreamweaver and storyteller gives him the opportunity to silently venture into the human world each night, experiencing new adventures and concocting new stories. Though Spielberg shows us fewer of The BFG’s dreams than Dahl did in the book, the one we do see captures the spirit of storytelling beautifully. We find a young boy whose father receives a telephone call from the President. But the President doesn’t want to speak to the man; he needs the boy, who’s the only person in the world who can help him out of his predicament. The dream is short, played out in shadow on the boy’s bedroom wall, and leaves the child with a small, satisfied smile on his face. Like the film as a whole and like Sophie’s moments of delight with her oversized friend, it’s a fleeting incident that will live on somewhere on the edge of memory and emotion.

This, the film suggests, is what stories deliver, but they can cut deep as well as soothe wounds. One Spielberg/Mathison addition to Dahl’s text is the story of a boy who The BFG snatched years before taking Sophie. The pair enjoyed their time together, but it ended tragically when the child was eaten by lead nasty giant The Flushlumpeater (Jermaine Clement on delightfully villainous form). Though not macabre in the way Dahl was, it’s a surprisingly dark addition, and one that paints The BFG’s entire character in a new light. His desire to catch dreams and tell stories comes off not just as a charming frippery, but an absolute necessity. He does it to both remember and forget the story of the boy, to both recover from it and redeem himself for it. If indeed he can be redeemed.

The issue of redemption looms large over The BFG, with Spielberg and Mathison turning the struggle for forgiveness into the source of the ultimate nightmare. Spielberg depicts Dahl’s ultimate bad dream (a Trogglehumper) as a fearsome red orb that buzzes through Dream Country like an angry hornet. But this dream contains not monsters or demons, but a simple message: “Look at what you has done. And there be no forgiveness.” For the stubbornly optimistic Spielberg, who found light even in the darkness of the Holocaust, it’s notable that the ultimate nightmare isn’t some monstrous external force, but the absence of something from within – forgiveness, redemption, happiness, the ability to change and move on. Stories are dreams, Spielberg suggests, and in those dreams, anything can happen. But nightmares… nightmares are a lack of story, a place where transformation is impossible, and forgiveness can never arrive. Lack, loneliness, longing for something that is desperately needed but will always remain just out of reach. It’s a very Spielbergian kind of horror.

The only cure for such emptiness, the film suggests, is to spread the joy of storytelling, and The BFG’s role in the movie is not just to deliver dreams, but to turn others into dream-makers and storytellers. When Sophie hides in the alcove where the little boy slept, she sees drawings detailing his and the giant’s time together. They embarked on numerous adventures and there’s even the suggestion that it was the boy who named his friend the Big Friendly Giant, a monicker the giant seems delighted to accept. Again, the concept of storytelling as a way to control memory, ease the pain of the things we’ve lost in the past, while simultaneously remembering them to shape our future, emerges. By continuing to use the name, The BFG reminds himself of his lost friend and pays tribute to him at the same time.

Sophie becomes a storyteller too, turning the Big Friendly Giant into the more manageable BFG, and helping him concoct the nightmare that will form a critical part of their plan to defeat the mean giants. Having conceived of the idea, then formed the story, Sophie subsequently becomes the teller, delivering the nightmare to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. In this moment, Spielberg does something unexpected and rather brilliant by not showing how the Queen responds to the dream (beyond a few off-screen upset cries). Instead, his camera stays focused on Sophie as she delightedly watches the Royal experience the story she’s created. Thus Sophie’s journey from consumer to creator is complete. Her joy in seeing the dream play out, and knowledge of the positive effects it will bring, underlines how potent such stories can be, and why the film cares so passionately about them.

They are one of the few dependable things that can complete us and fill up the emptiness.


“Times’ll be hard, times’ll be soft. But she’ll remember the good deeds…“

And yet, it’s to absence that Spielberg returns as he and Mathison draw the story to a close. Two scenes stand out in the film’s finale, and both, fittingly for a film of moments rather than set pieces, are small grace notes.

The first comes as Sophie and The BFG are about to put their plan to beat the mean giants into action. They sit on the side of a mountain looking out across Giant Country and their sleeping foes. Having caught a dream earlier in the film, Sophie asks The BFG what it contains. He tells her that it’s her life – she grows up, finds love, finds fulfilment, and has kids of her own whose dreams she helps come true. However, he tells her, she can’t live that life in Giant Country. Just as Elliott needs to let E.T. go to mature, Sophie needs to wake up from her dream, rub her eyes, and join the real world again.

So in a dramatic divergence from the book, our heroes part. Whereas for Dahl, the BFG finished the story in England, living in a gigantic castle with Sophie next door in a small cottage, Spielberg puts Sophie in the care of Mary, the Queen’s maid, and suggests the beginnings of a family between her, Mary, and Rafe Spall’s Mr Tibbs. The BFG, meanwhile, remains in Giant Country. The mean giants have gone and much of the land is now taken up by fields filled with fruit and vegetables, but he’s still alone. It’s a surprising move – sentimental Spielberg providing a sadder ending than the mischievous, often dark Dahl – but it once again underlines Spielberg’s focus on longing and loneliness and what we can do to prevent them.

In the film’s final shots, Sophie leans out of the window of her new home after waking up from a dream in which she saw The BFG again, and quietly wishes her friend a good morning. Spielberg cuts to Giant Country, where The BFG’s huge ears twitch to pick up the sounds as he writes a book detailing his and Sophie’s adventures – the dream-maker literally becoming a storyteller. He smiles a smile that captures the film in one beautiful image – wistful, melancholic, but still undoubtedly happy. Like a promise made at a graveside, it’s the smile of a man who’s lost something but is perhaps happy to have had something to lose, the smile of a man who will look back on his time with Sophie with joy and fondness, even though the lack of contact with her aches. It’s a smile that captures Spielberg’s entire career, from David Mann’s alienation on those dusty roads in Duel to James Donovan’s persecution as he defends Abel, and would even act as the perfect fullstop for it.

Indeed, endings seem to weigh heavy on the film. Perhaps for Spielberg, former Movie Brat now turned one of cinema’s elder statesmen, and Mathison, who was ill while writing and shooting the film, The BFG, dreams, and stories are not just fantastical tales to help us escape the real world, but passages through to it (2), maybe even passages through to a form of immortality (3). Dreams remix past memories in creative ways, and stories do the same. The stories we tell keep our memories and emotions alive – bringing vivid reality to our fears, our joys, our hopes, and our longings. They’re the best way to keep the past strong in our minds, and the bonds between us firm – even when the physical distance is too great to be bridged. As long as we keep dreaming, keep telling stories and by doing those things, keep memory vital, then loneliness and longing somehow seem less painful.

It’s a beautiful idea. I hope it’s true.


(1) Whether Quint regaling Brody and Hooper with the tale of the USS Indianapolis, Jim in Empire of the Sun basing his vision of Basie off a character in a comic book, or John Hammond looking to give audiences “something real, something they can touch” in Jurassic Park, storytellers have often appeared in Spielberg films. The theme has moved into overdrive recently though. Joey acted as a bridge between disparate narratives in War Horse, Tintin’s very medium drew attention to its artificiality, Lincoln would repeatedly offer stories to help prove his points, and even Donovan became a storyteller in Bridge of Spies, offering the truth of Abel’s humanity in the face of paranoid scaremongering. The BFG continues the prominence of storytelling and storytellers in Spielberg’s recent fare, and it’ll be interesting to see where Ready Player One, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and Indiana Jones 5 take the concept.

(2) “I don’t want audiences to escape from reality,” Spielberg once said. “I want them to escape with reality.”

(3) “Dreams are so quick,” Sophie says after witnessing the boy’s short dream. “Yeah, on the outside, but long on the inside,” replies The BFG.

Spielberg’s Standing Man: Bridge of Spies

screen_shot_2015-10-12_at_10-38-22_pm“We call it the Constitution,” says Tom Hanks’ determined lawyer James Donovan in Bridge of Spies. “It’s what makes us Americans.” Such lines (and there are a few like it) threaten to give Steven Spielberg’s 29th film as director a chest-thumping jingoistic feel, and it’s little surprise that some have accused it of beating the patriotic drum. But like so much of Spielberg’s work, there’s an uncertain heart at the centre of this Capra-esque Cold War drama. Bridge of Spies certainly is proud of America, but it’s an America that exists on the peripheries of reality, an impressionistic portrait of what America could be, rather than what it was then or is now.

Fittingly then, the film opens with a painterly flourish: a nod to one of the era’s foremost artists, Norman Rockwell. Referencing Rockwell’s famous ‘Triple Self-Portrait’, Spielberg kicks things off with the sight of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) painting in the cluttered Brooklyn apartment he calls home. He’s split across three images: his real self in the middle, the self-portrait he’s painting to his right, and the mirror he’s using as reference to his left. It’s a neat way to introduce the character, conveying a number of things in a single captivating image.

Firstly, there’s the multi-faceted nature of Abel himself, a balding, middle aged man trading in a world often depicted as alluring and exciting. Abel, whom Rylance portrays with the perennial sniffle of a man on the verge of a cold, is neither. Secondly, it reflects the complex and treacherous world of Cold War spycraft, something explored in more depth later in this sequence, which builds to Abel’s hunt for a hollowed out coin that conceals Soviet microfilm. Finally, and most significantly of all, it zeroes in on the American image. At the height of the Cold War, Spielberg introduces us to this dangerously entrenched Soviet through the work of one of America’s most beloved sons.

“We don’t have a rulebook here…”

Spielberg maintains the concept throughout, highlighting the contradictions of America’s own self-portrait both visually and narratively. In the scene prior to Donovan’s Constitution speech, he’s pursued through rainy streets by a shadowy man. The music, editing, and cinematography all suggest this man is a Soviet agent and a threat to Donovan. In fact, it’s Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), a CIA official trying to bend the rules and get some intel on Abel. There’s certainly a threat here, but it’s not from who we’d expect. Further issues are faced in the shape of Abel’s trial judge Byers (Dakin Matthews), who refuses to hear Donovan’s legitimate complaints about the illegal search of his client’s apartment, and a police officer, who demands to know why Donovan’s protecting an obvious spy. In Bridge of Spies, little duty is paid to the law by the men who are supposed to uphold it.

This idea is expanded, and some episodes indirectly paralleled, later in the film when the action moves to Berlin and the swap of Abel and captured US spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Donovan is robbed of his coat by a street gang, he’s fed false information by three people who claim (in one of the funniest scenes from what is a surprisingly humorous film) to be Abel’s family, and when he attempts to broker a deal to return American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) as well as Powers, he’s tricked by East German lawyer Vogel (Sebastian Koch) and arrested by Soviet guards. Spielberg isn’t so much asking us to view both sides as the same by showing equal levels of corruption, rather he’s inviting us to question whether America is slowly losing its Rockwellian identity.

This is why he draws a clear line between his depictions of American and Soviet incarceration. We see a handful of scenes in the US prison where Abel is held and the Soviet and East German ones where Powers and Pryor are held. Abel is kept in relative comfort: allowed to see Donovan on a regular basis and even given art supplies so he can indulge his talents. Powers, on the other hand, is denied sleep, interrogated under harsh spotlight, and bombarded with ice-cold water to force answers. It’s a depiction that came in for some low-level criticism when the film was released in the US in October, with Slash Film in particular noting that it “really strikes a sour note”. Surely this is American revisionism?

It’s certainly true that in 2015 such a large distinction can seem wide of the mark and politically incorrect, but Spielberg’s vision is not too far from the truth. According to ‘Strangers on a Bridge’, Donovan’s account of the events the film depicts, Abel really did have a level of comfort in the States. He was moved around from prison to prison and, much to his frustration, denied the ability to write to his family, but he had very few inconveniences other than those. Berlin and Moscow, meanwhile, were crumbling in the grip of an autocratic rule that placed no value in human rights. While Bridge of Spies does play with history (Abel’s capture was instigated when the hollow coin we see at the start of the film was accidently spent by a bumbling partner who isn’t featured here), to portray Soviet rule as anything other than nightmarish would be to deny basic facts.

More significantly, Spielberg’s eye isn’t simply on the Cold War. It’s no coincidence that the primary torment we see Powers suffer is water-based, or that he and Pryor are given a show trial or no trial at all before being detained. Spielberg wants us to be engaged in a Cold War drama, but at the same time keep modern events, and Guantanamo Bay in particular, in mind. We’re outraged for Powers and Pryor as they suffer these injustices and the terror of being held in a foreign land in horrifying conditions, because it’s unequivocally wrong and, certainly in the Powers sequences, deeply unsettling. But, isn’t that what the United States has done? Haven’t countless foreign nationals suffered similar injustices at American hands? How can we condemn it when it’s done to ‘our boys’ but cast a blind eye when it’s done to ‘them’?

“Standing Man… Standing Man…”

Among these questions and corruptions, Donovan stands as a paragon of virtue fighting for what’s right even as those who should be supporting him fall away. But while he may be good, he’s not perfect. Just as he did in Lincoln, Spielberg shows us just how difficult it is to do the right thing, and how sometimes, doing the wrong thing in pursuit of an upstanding goal may be the best, or only, course of action. As Abel’s sentencing day looms, Donovan essentially breaks the law by visiting Judge Byers’ home. He knows he’s doing wrong – even freely admits to it – but proceeds anyway, covertly suggesting to Byers that it may be in America’s best interest to save Abel from the electric chair. You never know when a spare Soviet spy may come in handy…

Is this what America is? Two wrongs making a right? Is it the dubious deal Donovan makes later in the film, promising Abel to both German and Soviet officials for two different people (Powers and Pryor), ensuring he gets both men for a bargain price? Is it his absolute refusal to only conclude the Powers/Abel swap if Pryor is included, no matter how much that risks the main mission, and therefore national security at large? Like Hanks’ Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Donovan is purity lined with a necessary poison. Miller had to leave behind a child in need to do his job, Donovan must corrupt the legal system to do his. Right? Wrong? There are answers in Bridge of Spies, but few are as clear cut as we’d like.

Perhaps the most doubt is reserved for the film’s end, when Abel is finally swapped and Powers and Pryor brought home. Asked by Donovan if he’ll be safe when he returns to the Soviet Union, Abel replies that it’ll be clear by how he’s greeted: an embrace means he’s safe, but if he’s quietly ushered into the back of the car, there’s trouble afoot. The latter happens, and for all the euphoria at the success of Donovan’s daring gamble, the sequence (a bravura one teeming with menace, tension and a biting sense of cold that permeates all the Berlin scenes) ends on a low note. The spotlights go out, the people depart, and Donovan is left alone in the dark, a high angle shot taken through the frame of Gleniecke Bridge trapping our hero in doubt. He’s done his job, but potentially condemned a friend. What now?

“An old man at the end of his life for a young man at the beginning of his…”

If any question cuts through Bridge of Spies it’s just that: what now? Where do we go from here? This feeling of doubt and anxiety has been an unheralded ever-present in all Spielberg’s films (let’s not forget the nerve-jangling paranoia of Duel and Jaws, nor that even the wonders of Close Encounters and E.T. teem with a fear of uncontrollable powers), but since A.I. it’s taken on greater, wider meaning. If those early films were childhood fears manifested by an adult, and the late 80s/ 90s films the fears of an adult trying to find his place, then everything since A.I. has been a parent’s fear for the world they leave behind. What will it be? War torn (Munich, War of the Worlds)? Unjust (Lincoln)? Prejudiced (The Terminal)? A moral and technological nightmare (A.I., Minority Report)?

Spielberg the ageing father (now grandfather, in fact) is uneasily trying to navigate a world beyond his control while still feeling a moral obligation to do something to protect the rights he believes in. It’s in the actions of John Anderton, seeking to eradicate crime as a response to his failure to save his son; the guilt of Munich’s Avner as he struggles to connect with his wife and child on his return home; the plea from Monica to David that she’s “sorry I didn’t tell you about the world”; and Lincoln’s mix of sadness and pride as he takes the images of slaves from his son Tad, who’s been obsessively analysing them. For everything these characters achieve, there’s a sense that their missions are not complete and that the world is only slightly better for them being in it.

Bridge of Spies is no different. Returning home, Donovan travels to work on public transport. Echoing an earlier scene where his fellow commuters glared at him suspiciously, knowing he was defending the enemy, Donovan is now greeted with smiles from passengers proud of him for freeing an American. How easily public opinion shifts. He looks out the window as a beautiful Rockwell-esque Brooklyn passes by, peering into the backgardens to see America’s citizens go about their daily lives. Everything is perfect, except for one haunting, fleeting image of boys chasing each other through gardens and over fences.

A reference to an earlier scene that saw Berliners shot down as they tried to cross the Wall, the moment is a small pinprick of doubt, a seed that will grow as the audience file out of the cinema. How safe is the world? What, in the grand scheme of things, has Donovan really achieved? And do the Americans who now smile at him really understand why he’s worthy of those smiles, or are they just pleased to have got one over on the Commies?

Just prior to this closing segment, we see Powers enter the plane that will take him home. He looks for someone to thank, but all the officials ignore him. He’s the most hated man on the plane, the most hated man in America, despite not uttering a single American secret during his painful incarceration. He sits next to Donovan, and Spielberg frames the men in a two-shot as the lawyer insists that the opinions of others are irrelevant as long as you yourself know you’ve done right.

The shot lingers, the affirming thought lingers, but so too does the doubt. Donovan has already been hated at home, and that same hatred will soon be coming to Powers. For all Donovan’s stoic dedication to the right thing, for all his success, fear and uncertainty will still rule. Those such as Donovan and Powers who do the right but difficult and unpopular thing, will be hated, a hatred that will pass down to Brooklyn boys scaling fences and children watching Duck and Cover films in school. Donovan was a dying breed. Who’ll be around to remind us what makes an American when that breed has finally gone?