Of foes and frenemies
To Americans of a certain age, the image of the 1962 exchange of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in the dead of night across the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin has a gut-level potency. The potency comes from the fact that it has to be imagined; there were no news photographers present at the exchange, and nobody was reckless enough to bring along their Kodaks. In Bridge of Spies Steven Spielberg imagines the moment for us, pretty much exactly as we picture it in our minds, like a scene from one of John le Carré’s chilly, ominous novels of Cold War espionage.
Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, Abel’s court-appointed attorney at his trial in 1957, who later negotiated the exchange after Powers’ 1960 conviction for espionage against the U.S.S.R. Spielberg and writers Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen cast the first half of Bridge of Spies as a sort of Cold War To Kill a Mockingbird, with Donovan as the Atticus Finch plucked from obscurity to defend Abel (a scene-stealing Mark Rylance), the hated defendant already tried and convicted in the press. Donovan was hardly obscure (he’d been a prosecutor at Nuremberg and a key player in the wartime Office of Strategic Services’ transition into the CIA), nor was his conscientious defense of Abel the lonely crusade the movie portrays. In fact, while the government’s evidence against Abel was overwhelming and conclusive, the idea of Abel’s right to a fair trial wasn’t as hard to grasp in 1957 as the movie suggests: no night riders shot up Donovan’s house during the trial, no cop said that he had it coming and there was no near-riot in the courtroom when Abel escaped the death penalty. Donovan’s wife (Amy Ryan) didn’t call the foreign citizen Abel a “traitor” (she wasn’t that dumb), nor did Donovan’s career at his law firm suffer after the trial, as the movie snidely implies. Abel was tried, convicted and sentenced to 30 years. End of story.
Except the story wasn’t over, of course, and once Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down on his (ahem) “reconnaissance mission” over Russian air space, Bridge of Spies leaves its ’50s-bashing behind in favor of a closer hewing to history, which anyhow fits better into the cloak-and-dagger mold than the trial did to the Red Scare-hysteria template of the movie’s first half.
The narrative presented in the movie is leaner, more tensely dramatic, and in its moments of wry comic relief, more amusing than the story told in Donovan’s 1964 book Strangers on a Bridge (which was surely an uncredited source for the script). In a nifty piece of dramatic license, the movie has Donovan’s covert trip to Berlin to negotiate the swap coincide almost exactly with the building of the Berlin Wall— a bit of a stretch, but only by a few months, and it neatly underscores the difference between the frank and open society Donovan enjoys back home and the bleak, shifting nest of foes and frenemies into which he has been thrust.
Here, Spielberg is in his element—for that matter, so is Hanks—and Bridge of Spies nicely captures the aura of frosty suspicion at the heart of the Cold War. This is likely to be the final version of the story in the public mind for some time. For all its liberties and little distortions, things could have been worse—the job might have gone to Oliver Stone.