19 January 2016

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Bridge of Spies’

Can the normal considerations about spoilers apply to this film? There may be some people who will read this but not know what happened at the Glienicke Bridge –so look away now!

Bridge of Spies’ plot is easy to describe. In 1957, Rudolf Abel, a Soviet agent in the USA is arrested by the FBI. He is defended by, apparently, a small-time New York insurance lawyer, James Donovan, who, in the absence of anyone else, is prepared to take the case on. By the time the appeal reaches the Supreme Court in Washington, Donovan has suggested not applying the death penalty in Abel’s case so that he could be exchanged for any American agent caught by the Soviets at some future time. Soon an American Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is shot down over the USSR and its pilot, Gary Powers, is captured. With the CIA looking over his shoulder, Donovan negotiates the exchange of Powers for Abel in Berlin and secures the release of an American student, Frederic Pryor, at the same time.

As might be expected of Spielberg, Bridge of Spies is handsomely filmed, the recreation of the Berlin Wall and the shooting-down of the U-2 particularly so, and is sure to make Americans feel good about themselves. And, of course, they should, for example the treatment in prison that Abel received would certainly have been far better than that meted out to Powers by the Russians. It was well acted with Tom Hanks as a stolid Donovan and a deservedly Oscar-nominated Mark Rylance as Abel.

But I came away feeling that the film was long enough to have carried a little more complexity and respect for historical accuracy and inferior in that regard to Spielberg’s Lincoln. Not so much the “that type of Buick only came out in 1966” or “Powers’ U-2 was too early to have that particular bulge” carping at details of authenticity, or even the fact that Donovan’s overcoat wasn’t actually stolen, nor was his home shot at - dramatic licence after all. More attention could have been paid to dates and the passage of time between Abel’s arrest and the exchange. But, although there was a mention of Donovan having been an assistant to the US prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials, his wartime service as General Counsel at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a key precursor to the CIA, was a major and misleading omission. After the war Donovan became a partner in his own New York law firm.  He was hardly the small time hero the film implies him to be. If he had not died in 1970 at the age of 53, he would surely have served his country and his government again after his work in Cuba.

Probably less significant is the fact that Powers had left the USAF and as a U-2 pilot was a civilian employee of the CIA. As for Pryor, now an emeritus professor, he recently commented “Well, I enjoyed the movie. “It was good. But they took a lot of liberties with it.” And his exchange “… didn’t happen like it did in the movie at all.” As an aside to Pryor’s article and the game between the Russians and the East Germans to which he refers, as does the film, the map below of occupied Berlin and its four sectors might be of interest. The Glienecke Bridge was between the US sector of Berlin and the surrounding East Germany, Checkpoint Charlie between the US and Soviet sectors.
There are some particular points for a British audience to note, apart from Rylance’s performance:

  • Abel was born William Fisher in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1903 and moved to post-revolutionary Russia in 1921.
  • The U-2 was flown from UK bases at home and overseas and in the past was piloted by RAF personnel. A U-2 aircraft can be seen in the Imperial War Museum’s American Air Museum collection at Duxford. Late models have flown into RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire (SW England) as recently as 2015.
  • A Briton, Matt Charman, co-wrote the screenplay for Bridge of Spies with the Coen brothers. He previously worked with Saul Dibb on Suite Française, a film which also put dramatic development ahead of historical particularities.
  • And finally, pandering to the odd interests of this blog and a previous post here, it’s just possible that James Donovan is shown in Laura Knight’s The Nuremberg Trial, (below) worked up in situ in 1946 and, coincidentally, held by the Imperial War Museum (in London). He would be in one of the two left-hand rows or on the far side of the court.

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