“Bridge of Spies: A Commentary”
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
November 2, 2015
Even though the previews indicated that the movie “Bridges of Spies” was going to be a rollicking good spy-exchange story, and even though I remember the “U-2 Incident” on which it is based pretty well, I had been planning not to see it. I figured that it would be part of the gradual build-up underway in this country of anti-Russian sentiment that has been going on in the context of the current decline in U.S.-Russian relations. Many U.S. persons have a very hazy knowledge of history and certainly some of them confuse modern-day Russia with the Soviet Union.
Indeed, I noted in a previous column that even a TV news correspondent, commenting on the recent Russian build-up in Syria, twice referred to the country as the “Soviet Union” before, on the third reference, naming it correctly. So, a historical drama that concerns the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. could easily be confused by some viewers at least as representing what is currently going on between the U.S. and Russia. (That at its base, quite unlike the U.S./U.S.S.R. conflict, it is what I have termed a “clash of capitalisms” is a matter that I have dealt with elsewhere.)
But, presently, Russia is increasingly described anywhere on a scale from “enemy” to “dangerous rival” to “a nation sticking its nose in where it doesn’t belong.” (Those references never seem to mention the U.S.’ 750 or so bases around the world nor the U.S. policies that have stimulated violence throughout the Muslim, especially Arab world. But that is another story). Russian President Putin generally receives bad media coverage here. And there seems to be a general build-up of “Russia-is-bad” reporting. And so, I thought to myself “this one has to be nothing more than a revival of Cold War propaganda, and I do not have to subject myself to that.”
Well. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I went to see the movie because my wife, who usually doesn’t like movies with such subjects, was intrigued by it. What a pleasant surprise of a film. First of all, there are the Spielberg settings. So authentic, whether in Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, Berlin (East and West), or European cities standing in for Berlin. Then there is the acting, starring that grand actor-with-great-range, Tom Hanks. Terrific as an insurance lawyer — the movie doesn’t tell you that he was a counsel to the Office of Strategic Services during World War II (same name, but no relation to “Wild Bill” Donovan, the war-time commander of the O.S.S.), although it does mention that he was part of the prosecution team for the Nuremberg Trials — gradually drawn into becoming a spy-exchange negotiator. Then there is Mark Rylance, last seen here as King Henry VIII’s hatchet man (literally) Thomas Cromwell in the TV series based on the Wolf Hall novels. Whether or not the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel was actually as Rylance portrayed him, he certainly could have been. A superb job.
Most important is the story and the way it is presented, focusing on Donovan, Abel, Francis Gary Powers (the U-2 pilot whose plane was shot down by the Soviet air defense system and who did not, contrary to orders, commit suicide before he could be captured), and the process of the exchange. Although one knows, even without having any familiarity with the real story, what the outcome is going to be (what big budget film-maker is going to do a movie about a potential spy exchange that fails) the film still keeps you on the edge of your seat.
It is interesting note (at least it is for students of history like me) that several very important political-historical elements/events were left out. First it is made to appear that the spy plane flight by Francis Gary Powers was the first or one of the first of its kind. Actually, the program had been underway off and on for several years. The Soviets knew about it but had no weapon that could reach the very high-flying U-2s until they had the one that brought down Powers. Second, no mention was made of the Four Power Summit Peace Conference between the United States, Great Britain, France and the U.S.S.R. that was to have taken place in Paris in May, 1960.
That Summit was intended by both sides to attempt to continue and broaden the first post-World War II opening to “détente” between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers that had been made by Vice-President Richard Nixon’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1959 and the mutual national shows that took place that summer in New York City and Moscow. (I was lucky enough to have attended the opening of the U.S. show in Moscow and although not knowing it at the time, I was on the other side of a wall in the U.S. model house when the famous “kitchen debate” took place between Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.) The U-2 incident took place just before the Summit was to start and that start quickly become its end.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower did take public responsibility for the very embarrassing series of events. However, it is thought in some quarters that the CIA spy-master Allen Dulles purposely arranged the Powers flight, without Eisenhower’s knowledge of that specific one and its timing, with the hope that it would be discovered or even brought down (and the U.S. knew that Soviet air defenses were steadily improving) so that the Summit would be sabotaged. Dulles, along with his brother John Foster, who had been Eisenhower’s Secretary of State until his death in 1959, from the end of the World War II had at the top of his agenda the eventual destruction of the Soviet Union. Four Power peace summits were not his cup of tea. And the “peaceful co-existence” that Khrushchev was aiming for (as was John F. Kennedy before he was murdered — see his not-so-famous “American University” speech of June, 1963) was viewed by the likes of Allen Dulles as poison.
But this movie did not require a full treatment of the history in order to make its primary point, which was not, much to my surprise, to paint the Soviet Union in a bad light. (The German Democratic Republic — East Germany — not so good, but that’s another matter.) Rather, in my view it had two major points to make. First, that in the 1950s and 60s in this country there were honorable men, like James B. Donovan the real-life attorney portrayed by Tom Hanks, who firmly believed in the Constitution and the rule of law, even for foreign spies. (And Donovan’s law firm was what was called a “white shoe” firm, generally conservative and generally Republican. But there were plenty of Republicans in those days, like the ones who brought down the rabidly red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, who the Tea Party/so-called “Freedom Caucus” in the House of Representatives today would be calling “Reds.”)
Second, the movie makes a very John le Carre-like point. Secret service agents on both sides are generally not nice people (unless, of course, they are Jimmy Cagney in “13 Rue Madeline”). Spying corrupts (although the Russian spy, “Rudolf Abel,” is portrayed as someone just doing his job), whether they are “ours” or “theirs.” Neither the CIA guys, nor the KGB guys, nor the Stasi (East German secret police) come across particularly well. And so while it does have plenty of greater or lesser villains, on both sides, it does have one hero, and that is a classic Honorable Man, James B. Donovan. He fought the Nazis, and then, before he got involved in the spy-exchange drama, he fought for the U.S. Constitution and the rights it, on paper at least, provides for everyone within the borders of the United States. What a difference between Republicans like Donovan and Republicans like Cheney and the ilk he has so successfully fostered within his party.