October 8, 2015 6:51 AM EDT

One of the most consequential partnerships in Hollywood began with casual neighborly chats between two dads. Steven Spielberg didn’t direct Tom Hanks in a film until 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, but the pair had spent years discussing their shared affinity for American stories. As Hanks puts it, “When we got to know each other as guys who live in the same part of town and had kids all about the same age, operating in the same nonprofessional circles, we developed a language that was all about how we read history for pleasure.”

In conversation hours before the New York City premiere of their new film, Bridge of Spies, the pair displays an easy camaraderie and a shared comfort with the broad themes of U.S. history–individualism, righteousness, exceptionalism. Spies, which opens Oct. 16 amid the Oscar chatter typical of a Spielberg film, stars Hanks as James Donovan, a real-life insurance lawyer tasked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). His defense is meant only to keep up an appearance of justice. But Donovan not only winds up delivering fair-minded advocacy in the face of violent threats but also becomes enmeshed in prisoner-exchange negotiations after an American U-2 pilot is downed over the USSR and, in Berlin, an American student is taken prisoner.

It’s a complicated situation Spielberg and Hanks approach in a manner both unfashionably devoid of irony and refreshingly suffused with moral clarity. Citing the heroes of his films Saving Private Ryan, Amistad and Schindler’s List, Spielberg says he prefers a protagonist who sees things in black and white. “I love characters who stand on their principles,” he says. “I have to go into almost ancient history. It just feels to me like those times were simpler and there was no media clutter to put too many areas of gray into a righteous decision.”

Though his quest is far narrower in scope, James Donovan’s pursuit of a fair trial in his cases–the one he’s been appointed to defend in court and the one he appoints himself to on the world stage–will bring to mind Oskar Schindler to some moviegoers. Schindler’s List came out more than 20 years ago, and Donovan’s plainspoken rectitude has precious few analogues in contemporary movies.

In a Hollywood that’s addicted to comic-book narratives, Spielberg and Hanks find superheroes elsewhere. Spielberg’s last two live-action films, the World War I drama War Horse and the majestic Lincoln, are both set firmly in the past (and both earned Best Picture nominations at the Oscars). Hanks has lately been returning to movies about ordinary men at extraordinary moments, from the pirate-abducted ship captain Richard Phillips to the “Miracle on the Hudson” airline captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (a part in an upcoming Clint Eastwood film, for which Hanks’ hair is dyed peroxide white).

While the two men usually work apart, they thrive together. Their shared portfolio encompasses Saving Private Ryan, an early draft of which both men read before approaching each other (“He cast me and I cast him,” Spielberg says), 2002’s period counterfeiting caper Catch Me If You Can and 2004’s wistful geopolitical-turmoil comedy The Terminal. It’s also brought the pair together as producers on large-scale TV projects such as HBO’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific, meant to inform Americans of history that’s not part of the nation’s collective memory. “It’s no surprise that the first thing we did was based on the history we never cease reading about,” says Hanks, “and it just goes on and on. Can’t quite get enough of it.”

The actor and director, who have 20 Oscar nominations and five wins between them, have developed a strong working shorthand over the years. “Tom gives me a tremendous amount of confidence,” says Spielberg. (Who knew he needed the boost?) Both men prefer spending time with their families to being on the set. “We hit the ground running. We know what we like, and we often come up, independent of each other, with the same ideas,” the director says, recalling that he’ll often ask Hanks to cut lines the actor has already decided his character wouldn’t say. “The second the bell rings and I get out of class, I go right home.”

“I equate it to back when Flint, Mich., was a General Motors town and everybody worked for General Motors,” says Hanks. “It’s a company town, and we still get together for Fourth of July barbecues.”

The stakes in Bridge of Spies are self-consciously small; the lawyer Hanks plays is no one’s idea of a high-achieving litigator, and the exchange centers on three prisoners, not the future of the Republic. But the actor’s voice rises as he describes his character: “If you can fight them to a draw, now, you can beat them on another day, and that is always about the promise of the future and the protection of the entire concept of peace and liberty. It’s highfalutin sh-t!”

But that’s only where the film ends up. Bridge of Spies insists on the primacy of one man’s decisions; it doesn’t freight the drama of individual events with perpetual reminders that Donovan might be making history. Donovan, who went on after the events of Bridge of Spies to negotiate the release of prisoners from the Bay of Pigs invasion and to run for Senate, feels less like Lincoln than like one of the vexed heroes of screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen–an everyman, in short. He’s at times a comic figure, getting his overcoat stolen on a sojourn in Berlin and spending much of the movie’s second half with a bad head cold.

It helps to be free of the burden of humanizing an iconic figure, whether an American soldier at Omaha Beach or the President on the $5 bill. In that sense, Bridge of Spies shares the accessible quality of Spielberg’s early films, in which latchkey kids and working-class men in nondescript American towns got to commune with other worlds. Hanks says he wanted to work with Spielberg after seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a college student and realizing he could relate to its hero. “Richard Dreyfuss was a guy who worked for the power company. We had never really seen a movie where a guy who worked for the power company met the aliens.”

Hanks’ character isn’t quite working for the power company, but he also wasn’t born to wield power. He’s someone most viewers won’t have heard of, and for those who have, his achievements are a mere footnote in the convoluted history of the Cold War. This freed Hanks and Spielberg to create something new, a work that commemorates Donovan’s moral sure-footedness while also giving a real sense of just how unhinged the period had become.

Spielberg shrugs off the issue of the story’s relative novelty. “Most movies are about things that no one had ever heard of before. It can either be Bridge of Spies or it can be Avatar,” he says. “Filmmakers try something new, whether they’re going back into history to find a truth that the filmmakers feel has relevance to the issues of today or whether it’s a pure flight of fantasy.”

By now, Spielberg’s shadow is so long that even films based on his aesthetic prosper; Jurassic World, director Colin Trevorrow’s sequel to Spielberg’s dinosaur thriller, opened in June and is now the third-highest-grossing film of all time. Says Spielberg: “It exceeded not only my expectations but the people whose job it is to prognosticate. It exceeded the studio’s expectations and Colin Trevorrow’s expectations. Who could have expected this megasuccess on his first non-Sundance film?”

“Now that guy’s got problems as far as his next job goes,” Hanks chimes in. “He’s gotta accept the fact that he ain’t gonna top it. All he has to do is turn in a good movie, and he’ll win. Talk about a sophomore jinx, man, his next gig.”

A Hollywood in which a young filmmaker gets handed the keys to an established franchise and makes a presold hit is a very different Hollywood from the one in which Hanks and Spielberg came up. Though the pair banter about just how long Jurassic World will keep its box-office “bronze medal”–Spielberg is convinced that The Force Awakens, the latest addition to his longtime friend George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, will outgross Jurassic World–the director denies any interest in the world of franchises, or in anything extraterrestrial. “I can’t live on an alien planet my entire career. I’ve got to find things that are earthbound that make me glad to be on this planet and experiences, when I’m making films, that have relevance and have kinship to actual events in history. That fills me up. That makes me actually happier in this stage of my life than even a success like Jurassic World.”

For his part, Hanks got his start in TV before taking on the sort of young-leading-man roles that would be played today by actors contractually bound to Marvel or DC Comics. (Had superhero films been a major part of Hanks’ early career, “I’d try to play the guy at the computer terminal with a headset on, the geek who makes wisecracks,” the actor says.) He is sympathetic to his younger colleagues, noting that his son Colin’s experience working in TV–currently as a lead on CBS’s Life in Pieces–has been more stressful than Hanks’ own Bosom Buddies days. “The measure for success is either you are an ultra-, absolute megahit or you’re an also-ran. I think there’s many more also-rans than there are mega-ultra-super hits.”

Like good history buffs, Hanks and Spielberg know the world only spins forward. They’re able to find progress amid seismic change. “I wish that it would have been so easy to make my own content when I was in high school and college,” Hanks says. “It wasn’t something you could just do. And now when anyone says to me, ‘How do you get started in Hollywood,’ I say, ‘If you’re not already creating, get out!'”

“There are stories to be told in every format,” adds Spielberg, whose Apple Watch is discreetly tucked beneath the cuff of his shirt. “There are stories to be told if you’ve only got five minutes between classes. You can look at your watch. You can pick up your phone. You can look at a five-minute story.”

That’s for future generations (including Spielberg’s daughter Sasha, an actor on a sitcom hosted by the app Snapchat) to hash out. Bridge of Spies is a 2015 film with a moral tone and craftsmanship that recall a bygone era. For his performance, Hanks has been widely compared to Jimmy Stewart; like Stewart, Hanks is a major star who tamps down his wattage at first, before revealing everything in his arsenal. “It takes a great actor to step into a role and instantly become anonymous and then show what he’s got as the story unfolds,” Spielberg puts it. Refusing to listen to the praise, Hanks has excused himself to procure a banana.

It’s another way in which the director and actor suit each other: Spielberg’s direction, while assured, calls little attention to itself here. Though there are certain Spielberg hallmarks–yes, including some fairly unrepentant sentimentality–the film is restrained enough to earn its interest from dialogue, not from technical mastery announcing itself.

The less flashy work, Spielberg says, is intentional. “When I can watch a movie and I can forget that I made the movie, that’s the first sign that I’m going to be pretty happy with it, that I’m going to be able to live with it.”

It’s a value that’s rooted in Hanks’ and Spielberg’s personal history. When the pair were preparing the projects that would earn each his first Oscar–Schindler’s List for Spielberg, the AIDS drama Philadelphia for Hanks, who shaved off his hair for it–they’d convene on weekends at Spielberg’s beach house. By the time he saw Philadelphia, Spielberg says, he “forgot that I even knew this man, and saw one of the most noble statements I had seen in film. The knowing of the actor didn’t knock down the fourth wall.”

Hanks can’t help being one of the most recognizable actors in the world at this point–“I’ve been babysitting kids on video since Bosom Buddies,” he says. And he’s no chameleon. (He cites Daniel Day-Lewis and Johnny Depp as this sort of performer.) What he brings, as his director does, is a willingness to stake his reputation on the idea that fame can serve larger ideas and historical messages rather than distract from them.

Certain themes may recur across American history, but Hanks and Spielberg haven’t run out of stories yet. “If you’re only giving the audience stuff they’re familiar with,” Hanks says, “they’re going to hate you. There has to be something new up there. And it’s beyond my pay grade to figure out what it is.”

This appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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