Tom Hanks
Credit: Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images

You're exploring the idea of courage. In the old Hollywood, it's almost a superhuman quality, something you're born with. In your movies, it's a normal person thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
Who has to make a choice.

And who makes heroic choices. There's no doubt that Miller makes heroic choices in 'Saving Private Ryan.' But he's not a superhero. He's a real person.
In fact, he's a shattered guy before the movie even begins.

After 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Band of Brothers,' do you feel any pressure to keep making more of the same? I find people want me to keep writing stories about battles.
It's true. But in my case, we are going back to the moon again. We're doing a 3-D movie for IMAX.

Really? 'Apollo 13' was amazing. Did 'From the Earth to the Moon' grow out of that the way 'Band of Brothers' grew out of 'Private Ryan'?
No, no. I'd been carrying this stuff around for years and years and years. My interest goes back to grade school, when we marched over to the auditorium to watch the Gemini launches, and then when Stanley Kubrick made '2001: A Space Odyssey.'

Are you still a fan of the space program?
I am. I know it costs truckloads of money, but I think there are a million good reasons for us to keep going into space. I think the international space program is especially important, because if we ever are going to explore other planets, we need to get the science going that will enable us to learn how to live in space for long periods. I know there's a debate about whether we should plan to explore with people or with robots, and to me the answer is easy: We have to do both. There are things robots can do that humans can't, and vice versa. To me the biggest surprise wasn't that we figured out how to get to the moon, but that we stopped going! The way things are heading, I wouldn't be surprised if the next man on the moon is Chinese, because as a nation they seem to have that sense of mission that we had 30 years ago.

'Apollo 13' was definitely the first movie that was realistic about the experience of being in space, in one of those capsules. You seem to be interested in the reality of the times, in the humanness of history, the actual experience of being a real person alive at that moment.
I've always had this huge thing for space stories and would always be extremely disappointed when I saw something that was fake, or that decided not to pay attention to the laws of physics. So if you're asking if there's something that we specifically try to do, that's exactly what it is. We've had that discussion on every one of these things. Even on 'Apollo 13,' I said, "Why bother doing this unless we're going to be as authentic as possible, because why try to make something up when what really happened was so full of serendipity, as well as being part of a great story?" You're not going to do better than what really happened. So just figure out a way to make it user friendly. That's all you have to do.

Plumb the drama from the reality.
Exactly. A different kind of example of where that drama is was on 'Cast Away,' which we also tried to make as authentic as possible. The whole point was that there's great drama to be had trying to figure out how to get enough water, how to eat, figuring out truly how to make a fire, because if you can't, man, you're screwed. We took a whole aspect of standard storytelling off the table because no one else was going to come to the island, be it pirates or a 'Sports Illustrated' swimsuit shoot!

I read that you've purchased the rights to David McCullough's biography of John Adams.

And what are you going to do with that?
We're on course now for it to be a 10-part miniseries for HBO. There is something in there that if someone had explained it to me, if a history teacher had taught this to me in the fifth grade or even in junior college, it would have blown my mind. It truly would have altered my understanding not only of our country, but also of why it started, the ideals behind it, and how it works even to this day. And that's this: The lawyer who defended the British soldiers who fired on a revolutionary mob in what became known as the Boston Massacre, and got them acquitted, was John Adams, the future president of the United States. Just thinking about that now makes the hairs stand up on the back of my head. We've all heard about Crispus Attucks. We've all heard about the Boston Massacre. We've all seen Paul Revere's engraving. But if somebody just said, "By the way, those guys got a fair trial, and they got off, except for a couple of privates who had their thumbs branded" – or something like that – " . . . and by the way, the lawyer who got them off? John Adams!" I'd say, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, we've got to get this out here somehow!"

Explain to me why that moves you so much.
Because what that says is . . .  It takes the myth and it busts it in two. The myth is, evil British soldiers in those tall hats fired on a poor defenseless mob of Americans who were, what? Trying to get the vote? Trying to get a tax repealed? Stand in line for bread? The truth is, these poor slobs, these 19-year-old kids from Manchester, and from Scotland, and from all over England, who had been conscripted into this army to go over to this piss-poor country that they couldn't stand – they'd get garbage and tomatoes and pig entrails thrown at them all the time – and they're standing guard in front of somebody's house, or in front of somebody's gate, and a bunch of toughs start picking on them, saying, "You're not so tough, you lobster-back." They're treated like an occupying power, and eventually more and more and more really scary thugs come up, and say, "Go ahead, use your bayonet! Hey, what's the matter, you afraid to point your bayonet at me?" And eventually a mob is threatening these guys from England, until they feel as though their lives are in such danger that they're scared shitless, and they end up firing their weapons to protect themselves. This is an important thing to learn about: number one, how hard it is to go out and occupy a country! And number two, how hard it is to be occupied. And number three, the powers of a mob. What the mob can do. How much life-and-death sway a mob can have. And this was Adams's whole point: You don't condemn these guys as vicious killers, when they were facing a mob that was an ugly monster.

His defense of those soldiers illustrates how his ideals transcended the hard feelings of the moment, even in the midst of a revolution where he played a leading part.
Exactly. You have a whole new way of doing things. I could go on and on and on about all the little things that are so exciting about John Adams. There is one other great thing in this. Then I'll shut up.

No! The whole point is for you to talk!
John Adams became the first American ambassador to the Court of St. James's. A few years earlier, if he'd even shown up in England, he would have been hanged for treason. But America now has this incredible, huge problem with the Barbary pirates along the North African coast. They are essentially terrorizing our navy and stealing goods that we're trying to trade. Britain has paid a tribute. Every British ship is safe. France has done the same thing. They don't have a problem. So we're the new kids on the block, and the Barbary pirates are having a field day with us. So John Adams has a meeting with the ambassador from one of the Barbary coast states. Adams is saying, "Look, we can't pay tribute. It's against every one of our principles, in the first place. We don't do this. But secondly, we're a poor country. We can't afford it." And the grand pooh-bah, or whatever, says, "Well, you're going to have to, because you just don't want to have a fight with us Muslims. When we fight, we fight to the death. So unless you really want to fight to the death with everybody in our country, you better think twice." I mean, how does this not come right out of today's headlines? All of the Adams story, the political campaigns, the backstabbing, the Machiavellian aspects, the twisting of the democratic process, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the possible war with France when he was president of the United States, it is all straight from today's headlines, except it just happened much, much slower. So, it's fascinating.

Is there a guiding philosophy about the American character that affects your approach to these stories?
There is this American sensibility that says, "Look, I don't like the way things are, so I'm either going to change it or I'm just going to pack up and start somewhere else."

There are no rules.
But at the same time, you carry the rules around in your pocket. That's what John Adams says that's so interesting. His belief that these things can be written down on paper – concepts of fairness, equality, the rule of law, respect for property and other people's beliefs – and carried in your head, so it doesn't matter so much where you live. You can be the same sort of American in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as you can in Walla Walla, Washington. You can have the same type of marriage if you're a lesbian woman or a born-again Christian. You can be the same kind of American.

A new history of early America, 'Freedom Just Around the Corner,' by Walter McDougall, suggests that the essence of the American character is to be a hustler, a kind of con artist.
That's interesting. I would describe it as the dissatisfied spouse. The husband or wife who says, "I can't stand this person I'm married to. I'm going to quit this, and I'll go off and be on my own for a while. And maybe I'll meet somebody else." My parents were married a great many times, so maybe I kind of see it like that. But in the process of doing that, you have that ability to put all your stuff in a car or a wagon or on the back of a horse or a train, move 2,000 miles away and start all over again. It explains an awful lot about the good and the bad in us. There is both freedom and expectation. There's no reason not to think, I have this idea in my head that I'm going to pursue. And then you pursue it. And sometimes it ends up you're Dr. Jonas Salk. And sometimes you're Hugh Hefner.

If I had to define a theme in much of your recent work, I would say that it's partly about demythologizing the past. Reducing legendary events to their true human dimension.
Okay, I'll tell you. You stumbled upon something about all the work that I've done, particularly historically: There are no bad guys. And this is the one thing that I've said over and over again. Talk to any of my team. I make this big deal about, "Let's not turn anybody into bad guys. Everybody has motivations that make sense. They're just wrong. That's it."

Does it surprise you that you've become the ambassador from the baby boom generation to the "greatest generation."

How do you feel about that?
I understand it to a degree. But look, I agree with Tom Brokaw: Every generation shows its greatness when the time comes.

Mark Bowden is the best-selling author of Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo, and Road Work.