In a directing career that’s stretched over more than four decades, Steven Spielberg has delivered his fair share of movies about heroes, some of them in stories based on fact, others coming from the imaginations of creative writers. For every real protagonist in a Spielberg film, say Oskar Schindler or Abe Lincoln, there’s a fictional one in another. Indiana Jones and Tintin come to mind. Spielberg’s newest film, “Bridge of Spies,” is a true story. In 1960, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and Russia, a combination of good work and bad luck resulted in America arresting Russian spy Rudolf Abel, and Russia shooting down American “spy plane” pilot Francs Gary Powers. The film chronicles the backdoor negotiations between the superpowers, headed up by the American lawyer James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), who represented the “bad guy” Abel in a courtroom scenario in which each side hoped they would get their own man back. Last week in New York, Spielberg talked about the film, its relevance today, and the contributions made to the script by Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Q: This story is relatively unknown by anyone under the age of 50. Were you familiar with is before taking it on?

A: I knew nothing about this story two years ago. I knew about Gary Powers because that was big 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, I knew nothing about Rudolph Abel or James Donovan. That all came to me, as I think all good stories come to us, in a surprise package. And it became so compelling for me to know about this man [Donovan] who stood on his principles, and defied everybody hating him and his family for what he thought he needed to do: equal protection under the law, even for an alien. Even for a soviet accused spy. That was to me a righteous reason to tell the story.

Q: You’ve done films about real heroes and fictional heroes. Which do you find more challenging?

A: I don’t really distinguish between a fictional hero and a real-life hero as a basis for any comparison. To me a hero’s a hero. I like making pictures about people who have a personal mission in life or at least in the life of a story, and who start out with certain low expectations and then overachieve our highest expectations for them. That’s the kind of character arc I love dabbling in as a filmmaker.

Q: This film has a distinct Coen brothers flair, with some dark humor added into the seriousness of the story. How did their script affect your direction?

A: They’re not here to speak for themselves, but I’m guessing that the Coen brothers looked upon this as a genre they were very compelled by. They heard about the story and they expressed their interest in this story. I think when they reached out to us they thought we just had a treatment, and didn’t have a script yet, and were wondering if I wanted to meet with them. I let them know that we did have a script, a wonderful script by Matt Charman. But I was going to go deeper with the characters and the story and the research, so they threw their hats in the ring. They stepped onboard because this was a genre that really piqued their interest. And we were very lucky to have them. They made a huge contribution while always acknowledging the heavy lifting that Matt did when he first found the story and put it all together in a taut drama.

Q: What lessons do you think “Bridge of Spies” has for us today and what impact would you hope the movie has on the national conversation?

A: The national conversation keeps changing every day. You make a movie that’s relevant to our times because the Cold War seems to be coming back. I wouldn’t call what’s going on today between Vladimir Putin and the Obama administration a cold war, but there’s certainly a frost in the air. And with the recent incursion into Crimea, and ambitions further into Ukraine, and what’s happening right now in Syria, it seems like history is repeating itself. That was NOT the case when we first set out to tell this story. Those headlines hadn’t yet been written, but there’s so much relevance between the story in 1960 and the story today – the whole idea that spying has reached a technological apogee. It’s almost open season for anybody that knows how to run an operating system, and get into somebody else’s operating system. The cyber-hacking that’s going on today is just like the spying that went on then. There are so many eyes on all of us, and we have eyes on all of them. The Cold War was polite in terms of the way we were spying on each other. But today you just don’t know. Like when you’re watching television, is television actually watching you? You don’t know that.

“Bridge of Spies” opens on Oct. 16.

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.