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.

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?