Bridge of Spies
I spoke to my eldest son on Sunday morning – he was born exactly half-way between the period when the film takes place – to check whether he had returned safely from Paris, where he had been for a few weeks. As it turned out, he had left Paris just before the IS terrorist attacks and knew nothing of them until he arrived back at Newark Airport. Obviously we discussed Paris and its significance, but he also urged me to see this film. I saw it Sunday evening.
Bridge of Spies is touted as part courtroom drama and part spy movie. It is neither. There is no drama in the court case when Rudolf Abel (played absolutely brilliantly by Mark Rylance) is tried in 1957, though there is some interesting negotiations between James Donavan (Tom Hanks), Abel’s defence attorney, and the presiding judge in his chambers and home. This is also no spy movie, though the movie is about the events leading to the exchange of two spies, Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy for the Soviet Union, and Francis Gary Powers, who flew the U-2 spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union when it was flying at 70,000 feet in the air in 1960.
That was the most exciting action scene in the whole film, a scene that is used to suggest why Powers has no time to take the poison that the CIA gave him. However, the movie is overwhelmingly about James Donavan who first defended Abel in his trial and then negotiated the exchange with the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1962. The movie is a negotiation film; that is what the film is about and where the real drama takes place.
The movie opens in the spring of 1957. Dwight Eisenhower, who would denounce the military-industrial complex, had just begun his second term as President of the United States with the Eisenhower Doctrine promising aid to countries that resisted the entreaties of the Communist Bloc. Mike Pearson’s innovation in creating peacekeepers to help end the Suez crisis was an integral part of that history and time. Pearson would become Prime Minister after the Diefenbaker government imploded when it cancelled the Avro Arrow and disintegrated in internal wrangling.
After completing my second pre-meds year and waiting to enter my first year of medical school, I had just been hired by the Campus Cooperative Residences, a student-owned and run low-cost residence at the University of Toronto. I was its first outside general manager. I was nineteen and I was reading Alan Ginsberg’s poem Howl that had been suppressed in the U.S. It was also the year I began to read Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and discovered how even more extensive my ignorance was than I thought it had been.
It was also a year when I had begun to feel some real traction as I exercised my political walking legs. On 23 October 1956, when I was still eighteen, student demonstrations in Budapest in Hungary escalated to a demand for the communist government to ease up on its repressive policies. Though Prime Minister Imre Nagy conceded to the student demands under the slogan “a new course for socialism,” precisely because of that, on 4 November, Soviet Union tanks and 150,000 soldiers rolled into Budapest and crushed the rebellion even before we could prove our worth as volunteers to fight the repressive order in Hungary in imitation of the students who had volunteered to fight in Spain in the thirties.
My first job as General Manager was to house about 30 of the 37,000 Hungarian refugees who had fled the re-imposition of repression and had been taken in by Canada. Had I heard of Rudolf Abel at the time? Yes. He had been linked to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, whom the United States had executed in 1953 and 1955 respectively for transferring atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. In that year, I was still under the illusion that the Rosenbergs had been railroaded and found guilty in an American kangaroo court and, although I was neither a communist supporter or even sympathizer, in high school I had joined the marches protesting against the scheduled executions.
The film opens with Rudolf Abel painting a self-portrait. We see him in the mirror then the painting itself and finally his face. It is an example of realist art – the representation looks just as much like the original as the mirror image. Yes, this is a man of many aliases. But he was never disguised. He always looked the same. I knew or, at least believed, at the time that Rudolf Abel was Jewish, as the Rosenbergs had been, but I knew little else beside that. And perhaps even that was a construction of my imagination. Abel in the film looks nondescript. He does not look Jewish. Nor are we ever told that he was. Then I thought that Abel had been caught because he was alleged to belong to the same nest of spies and that he was possibly persecuted and prosecuted because he was Jewish.
At that time as well, when I finished my exams, I began my twice-yearly ritual of hitchhiking down to New York City, leaving in the evening and getting to New York sometime the next morning, in time to buy a snack and wait outside one of the theatres to sneak in at the first intermission. When someone three years later asked why I had written a two-act rather than a three-act play, the norm at the time, I explained that I had never seen a first act and found the play got along well without one.
I usually saw two-thirds of two plays the first day, slept at the Y, and then saw two-thirds of two plays the second day. I then got on the highway to hitch a ride home. I usually could do the whole trip for about $12. I remember that before I started my summer job at the Co-op, I had gone to New York and saw my first Eugene O’Neill play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, that would set the tone for all the O’Neill plays I saw afterwards – about alcoholics, domineering women and dissolute men, though I cannot recall the plot at all. I also saw my first Tennessee Williams play, Orpheus Descending, about the conflict between dogmatism and narrow-minded beliefs versus freedom of thought and the free flight of the imagination. I also saw Hotel Paradiso, but I cannot remember the play at all; it was replaced in my memory by the film with Alec Guinness. I have no idea of the name of the fourth play.
I describe all this because, in the opening scenes when the FBI agents, like Keystone Cops, are chasing Rudolf Abel through the streets and subway of that great city, the million dollar scene of the streets of New York and Brooklyn transported me vividly back to that period full of memories and inspiration, and my first love – theatre. My second love – movies – would blossom in 1962 when I first saw François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, truly bracketing the period covered in the movie.
The scene in the movie is so exact, so fulsome, so rich in the texture and colour of the times, even though the male colour was predominantly gray. If the film does not receive an award, or, at the very least, a nomination for set design, and perhaps costume design as well, I would be very surprised. The film is worth seeing for the sets alone. The film is so true to the period. It proceeds in three major acts – the courtroom act, the Powers flight in the U2 and the prisoner exchange.
We are introduced to Rudolf Abel as a spy through all the apparatus of the spy – hollowed out quarters with encrypted messages, hollowed out legs of furniture, and what initially appears to be a hollow man with no emotion whatsoever, an automaton as it were. But Rudolf grows on you as his wit and stoical manner succeed in transforming him from a non-entity to, as Donavan learns to see him, a brave, courageous and principled man, even if he served an unprincipled cause.
I would later learn a great deal about Abel when I was into my spy-reading phase, both fiction and books about spies. My greatest dreams at the time were about being a spy. You would never know from watching Rudolf Abel, played as a nebbish, as a man who would go totally unnoticed in a crowd, that he was one of the greatest spies the Soviet Union had ever produced. In WW II, he had been responsible for the most brilliant and imaginative deceptions against the Nazis that probably allowed the Soviet Union to win the battle over Stalingrad.
Rylance plays Abel with quiet, stoical, understated wit; he only pretends to be nondescript. Abel responds to Donovan’s (Tom Hank’s) question about whether he is not perturbed by what was happening. Abel looks up to Donavan, with barely a touch of a smile (and even that may have been a product of my imagination), but with eyes sparkling with humour, and asks, “Would it help?” Abel remains inscrutable in the film and you would never know in watching the movie that Abel had been responsible for Operation Berezino during WWII and then Operation Scherhorn, or that he had run the biggest and most important string of Soviet spies in the USA. In the film, we are simply told he was important to the Soviet Union because he could be turned and reveal secrets.
At the end of the film, just before Abel is returned to the Soviets, Donavan turns to him and asks, “Aren’t you afraid of what could happen to you upon your return?” Rudolf quips, now with still a slight but at least noticeable ironic smile, “Would it help?” He then tells Donavan that if they embrace me when I return, I will be alright. We watch him cross, get into the back seat without any warm homecoming at all. We are left to fear that he will be executed, even though Stalin is now dead. In reality, Rudolf Abel returned to the Soviet Union to receive its highest accolades and honours. He continued to serve his ideological homeland.
In the first courtroom part of the film, Donovan, cannot save Abel from being convicted, and too little of the case is shown to indicate how Abel excelled as a spy. We do not even learn that he was captured because he had an alcoholic careless subordinate, who defected rather than follow orders and return home, presumably because of the fate that awaited him there. He cut a deal and turned Abel in.
Donovan is portrayed by Tom Hanks as a man of both principle deeply rooted in the religion of America, the constitution, while most or many Americans had given way to the Satanic force of McCarthyism. He is also very compassionate and certainly never simply an insurance lawyer. He was just too politically astute. Though there is one mention of his role in working for the American OSS (later the CIA) in WWII and serving on the legal team at Nuremberg (he was general counsel I believe), he is overwhelmingly portrayed as a simple insurance lawyer. One would never know he was a founding partner in the firm; as one source of suspense, we are left to wonder whether he will be fired because he had become an embarrassment for the firm for defending a Soviet spy.
There is another trait he had that made him a superb negotiator that is barely hinted at in the film. The real Donavan was reputedly a terrific listener. In the words of his daughter, he “used the art of negotiation as his weapon of choice. He felt that a person simply wants to be respectfully heard, and that it is only when you listen well that you can reach the most just results.”
However, the simplification of character and the distortion of history should be no surprise for a Steven Spielberg film which readily sacrifices historical truth for a dramatic trick, except when it comes to scenery – see Oscar Schindler. But why not learn about Abel as a spy and how he was betrayed by his alcoholic incompetent assistant? His life is left as spare as his acting so that we only have sympathy for him through the eyes and heart of Donovan.
Francis Gary Powers is another matter. He is a hunk, an empty cipher in comparison to the mild-mannered but evidently very deep Abel. But we learn nothing more. We are given no reason to believe that he has any knowledge that would be at all useful to the Soviet Union. We are led to believe that Americans hated Donovan for defending a communist spy – the cliché scene in the subway where all the passengers are reading about the case and looking with scorn at Donovan whom they recognize from his picture in the newspaper. Later, true to the cynical neo-nihilist perceptions of Ethan and Joel Coen who co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, the fickle American public will look on him with admiration for being the hero who gets Gary Powers and another American student returned. (He actually got two; the second was returned a year later.) Though the cynical view of FBI and CIA agents can be expected in a Coen film, this jaundiced view is offset by the heroic qualities Spielberg lends to Donovan. Blending heroic idealism with political cynicism is a specialty of Spielberg’s – see Lincoln. In fact, this movie is a tour de force in creating such a paradoxical synergy.
The film is dominated by contrasts, between the pastel shades and happy family life of Donovan – though his wife is portrayed as a stereotypical fearful partner – and the shabby deterioration of East Germany and the lonely life of Rudolf Abel. Donovan’s principled character and determination to get the student as well as Powers in exchange for Abel stands in stark contrast with the CIA agents who are eager to conclude the deal without getting the student in return. The Western and Eastern systems in the Cold War are portrayed as equally full of venal and opportunistic men and judges who are political advocates, but America has the constitution to prevent Americans from betraying themselves. In contrast, the Soviet Union is bereft. Except, even the U.S. constitution in which Donovan so ardently believes does not work. The Supreme Court votes 5 to 4 to deny Abel the right to be protected from a search without a proper warrant.
That is why, at the end of the film, when the prisoners are exchanged, the two sides of the Glienicke Bridge where the exchange takes place mirror each other just as Abel’s face and portrait so precisely mirror one another. What saves the world in the end are honourable men; Donovan and Abel are both honourable men. The difference is that Abel serves his country blindly; Donavan has his conscience intact to save the country from its own weaknesses. He is a Western lawman who has traveled in the other direction to Berlin and East Germany. Instead of carrying a gun, instead of being the quickest on the draw, he carries words rather than weapons. He carries the art of persuasion rather than the art of intimidation.
So does the film. The film uses artifice so well, particularly the artifice of realism, so that one loses any sense of historical reality.
The movie takes place in four time slots – 1957, 1960 when the U2 is launched, 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built and Frederic Pryor, a young American graduate student, was arrested inadvertently as a spy by Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, and February of 1962 when the exchange takes place. But the time is condensed. The events could be taking place both simultaneously and one after the other. There is no historical development. The world had, however, radically changed in the five years between 1957 and 1962, the period when Nikita Khrushchev first visited America and then the year when he agreed to withdraw his missiles from Cuba and avoid the nuclear clock striking midnight.
In the summer of 1957, American gangsters were still machine gunning one another in barber’s chairs, but Eisenhower had ordered a cessation of nuclear testing. But other events were ominous. The first American had been killed in Vietnam. By 1962, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had resumed the nuclear arms race with an acceleration in testing making all our work in the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCNF) – I was a founder of the University of Toronto chapter – seem wasted. In 1957, Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas, as the latest iteration of Governor Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi who we had sang about as kids in camp, used his national guard in Little Rock to prevent the integration of a high school. By 1962, the civil rights movement had found its legs.
1962 was so different in many ways. Fidel Castro was portrayed as a heroic rebel in The New York Times in 1957. In 1962, he was the supreme ruler of Cuba and had been ex-communicated by the Pope for suppressing the Catholic Church. Much later, I would also learn in my study of the Rwanda genocide, that the initial pattern of the genocide had been set that year when Rwanda had acquired its independence from Belgium.
The movie misses the opportunity to present that development and to show why what seemed impossible in 1957 was feasible in 1962, how the period of total paranoia morphed into the first real openings between East and West even as it approached the most devastating crisis in history for all humankind. One would never know the Bay of Pigs was just around the corner when Donovan would once again bring his negotiation skills to repatriate the 1,100 captured invaders in exchange for badly needed food and medicines. The film is too much of a comedy caper to anticipate an apocalyptic moment – the Cuban Missile Crisis – and the step back from the breach that then took place.
History does not just march on because Tom Hanks has a doozie of a cold and is impatient to get the spy exchange over. In that sense, the film is very different than the book by Giles Whittell, on which the script was based, which uses the exchange of spies to track changes and developments in the Cold War. After all, 1962 was also the year in which the Soviet spy in Britain, Kim Philby, escaped to the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the film does highlight the superiority of jaw, jaw, jaw over war, war and war symbolized by Donavan surrendering his Cold War warm coat or cloak to a gang of hoods organized by the KGB. But one would never suspect that the everyman Tom Hanks plays would go on to run for Senate and lose to Jacob Javits.