Midway through director Steven Spielberg’s new historical thriller Bridge of Spies, there’s a scene in which the movie’s protagonist, lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), explains to his young son why he’s chosen to defend a Soviet spy in American court.
Donovan’s decision to not only take the case but vigorously pursue the spy’s defense has caused him to face intense criticism from his community, and his family are among those who can’t seem to understand why he did it; even his wife has questioned why he’s so committed to the case. But Donovan explains to his son that in America, everyone deserves a fair hearing, one that follows the essential rules laid out in the Constitution.
What’s important to understand about the scene is that Donovan is not just explaining himself to his son. He’s explaining himself to the audience — justifying his actions to viewers who might themselves be skeptical.
No relationship is more important to Spielberg the relationship between parents and their children — specifically, the relationship between fathers and their sons. In some form or another, that relationship is at the core of nearly all of Spielberg’s films.
The gulf between parents and their children helps explain Spielberg’s relationship with his audience, too. In his early years, Spielberg tended to present his stories from a child’s vantage point — full of awe and excitement and terror at the unknown. But over time, he's shifted his perspective to that of the protective parent whose biggest fear is seeing his children harmed.
Spielberg the child is fueled by imagination and generalized terror
The most common way to divide up Spielberg’s movies is between his populist fantasy adventures — everything from E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds — and his more serious historical dramas—movies like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and Lincoln.
But that division between big, fun blockbusters and more serious work misses the shift in sensibility that’s occurred over the years.
Spielberg’s early work, from Jaws to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the Indiana Jones films, was characterized by a childlike naiveté about the world. His early films worked, and still work, in large part because they capture that sense of incredible possibility — of mysterious alien encounters, monstrous sharks, mystical relics, or some other yet-to-be-discovered wonder.
Even when their main characters were fathers, Spielberg’s early movies tended to maintain a child’s perspective, focusing on what the audience didn’t know rather than what they did. A big part of what makes both Jaws and Close Encounters so effective is how little Spielberg shows us throughout the films: The shark and the aliens, respectively, are suggested but barely seen until the final minutes, leaving viewers to fill in the gaps with their imaginations — essentially forcing them to act like little kids dreaming up killer sea monsters and invaders from outer space.
The same goes for Raiders, which doesn’t reveal the spectral power of its MacGuffin, the Ark of the Covenant, until the finale, leaving viewers to wonder (and worry) about what apocalyptic dangers it might hold. Even then, the movie pushed viewers to concentrate on fear of the unseen, as Indy and Marion both experience the Ark’s horrific power with their eyes closed.
That childlike sense of possibility infused Spielberg's early films with a deep sense of awe and wonder, one that’s gone largely unmatched in decades sense.
That approach also made his movies tense and, at times, almost irrationally terrifying: No special effect is as scary as the possibilities dredged up by an overactive imagination. Spielberg’s early films perfectly captured the fear of a child — the fear of a mysterious world that is too big, and too unknowable, to truly understand.
As his career progressed into the 1980s, Spielberg began to take on more serious projects — movies like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Based on Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel, The Color Purple traced the hardships of a young black woman in early 1900s America, starting with a childhood in which she is repeatedly beaten and raped by the older man she’s forced to marry. Empire of the Sun offers a kind of inverse tale of a wealthy British boy who ends up in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
Both are coming-of-age stories about the hardships adults inflict on children, and both stick with what is essentially a child’s viewpoint, telling stories of young people struggling to make their way in a difficult and often terrifying world.
Spielberg the parent has specific fears and a protective instinct
By the end of the 1980s, though, that started the change. The 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade introduced Indy's father, Dr. Henry Jones (Sean Connery), and Spielberg focused on the tug of war between their two personalities. Two years later, he made Hook, a revisionist take on J.M. Barrie’s story about an adult Peter Pan living a conventional middle-class life with a wife and kids who returns to Neverland and learns to use his imagination — and, finally, to be a better father to his son. You can practically see Spielberg, now mid-career with several children of his own, wrestling with the transition to adult- and parenthood.
By the time Jurassic Park hit theaters in 1993, the transition was complete. Although the film looks like another populist adventure with rousing action set pieces, there are distinct differences. For one thing, Spielberg, empowered by a sizable budget and advances in digital effects, shows the dinosaurs comparatively early and often. The movie draws its terror less from fear of what unknown monster might be out there and more from very specific fears about scientific innovation's capacity for violence and destruction.
In particular, Jurassic Park plays up the audience’s fears about threats to the movie’s two child characters, Lex and Tim. Much of the tension in the film’s second half comes from the near-constant threat to their lives and attempts by adults to rescue them. Spielberg’s perspective is now a parent’s perspective, fearful of all the real-world horrors that could befall his children. It’s a perspective he invites the audience to adopt as well.
At the same time, Spielberg’s movies developed an increasingly noticeable protective streak of their own. Think of the present-day coda to Saving Private Ryan, which offers an off-key sentimental reassurance to the audience following two and a half hours of unspeakable brutality and inhumanity. Or the final moments of War of the Worlds, in which the lost son — whose exit and presumed death midway through drives the film's emotional journey — is safe and sound in a nice, middle-class home. Or the end of Minority Report, in which the film’s Washington, DC, pre-crime program is safely dismantled and life returns to a placid, lakeside calm. (It’s long been rumored that the screenplay originally concluded with a bleak postscript noting that there were 116 murders in DC the following year, but the line was cut.)
Parent Spielberg has made some powerful films with searing images — but in the end, he just can’t let his movies leave any real scars. Everything always turns out okay. In this way, Spielberg isn’t just providing his audience with a parental perspective — he's acting as a parent to the audience, protecting them from any lasting scars his movies might otherwise inflict.
Of course, whether in child or parent mode, Spielberg doesn’t the write the scripts to most of his films. But as director, he’s the author of his films, and as one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful artists, he has considerable power to reshape the projects he takes on. Indeed, it’s clear from this 1999 New York Times Magazine profile that Spielberg is, above all, a fantastic idea generator whose influence in terms of story, style, and tone reaches well beyond the movies he makes himself.
Bridge of Spies finds Spielberg in full-on dad mode
Bridge of Spies is clearly the work of Spielberg the parent, the popular-history buff who loves Cold War intrigue and spy movies. (This is a director who spent years angling for a job directing a James Bond movie before directing Raiders of the Lost Ark instead.) The movie tells the story of James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who agrees to defend Communist spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in American court — and then, in the film’s second half, negotiates a complex, three-way prisoner exchange with two separate Communist factions as the Berlin Wall is being constructed around them.
The film's leading man isn’t just a father to his own children, he’s also a father figure to numerous other characters in the movie, from the enthusiastic young lawyer who assists him in his work to the two young men whose release he works to secure. Donovan speaks of the necessity of securing the world for future generations; he’s not just an everyman, he’s an everydad.
Thanks to a smartly crafted screenplay, co-written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, Bridge of Spies feels less overtly sentimental than some of Spielberg’s previous work. Like his last film, Lincoln, it is essentially the story of a tense, exceedingly complicated negotiation conducted by a man who is both ordinary and extraordinary — a hero of common decency.
What makes the movie so remarkable, though, is how deftly Spielberg handles the visuals and the action.
On a purely technical level, Spielberg may be the best cinematic craftsman working today: Every shot is as gorgeous as a painting, every edit carefully chosen and designed to provide perfect clarity. No one is better at succinctly delivering visual information than Spielberg, and no one has his gift for infusing historical dioramas with dramatic intensity.
Spielberg packs his films with telling visual symmetries. Bridge of Spies features haunting parallel shots of Donovan looking out the window while riding a train — first across the deadly no-man’s land that separates Germany’s East and West, and then, later, through a New York neighborhood as children climb freely over backyard fences.
His knack for arresting set pieces, meanwhile, is on display even in this relatively small-scale film: The movie opens with a masterfully constructed, nearly wordless chase as American agents hunt Abel through the streets of New York, and there’s a gripping mid-film sequence in which an American spy plane is shot down in foreign airspace. Spielberg constructs these extraordinarily complex, yet always perfectly clear, sequences with skill almost no other working filmmaker can match.
This sort of visual sophistication is the biggest reason that Spielberg has long been so successful, and that so many of his movies have become beloved over time. As a storyteller, he sometimes treats his audience like children. But as a filmmaker, he always treats us like adults.