“Bridge of Spies” and Teachable Moments

By Kathy Winings

kathy-winings-2I was just a small child when the Berlin Wall and Cold War took center stage in the news. Though my parents did not speak of such things while I was growing up, my father did talk about the “Red Scare” and “those Communists.” Of course, I would not understand what that meant until I was much older. I could not even imagine the level of fear that many people must have felt during this period of American history with its talk of spies and counterespionage.

I do remember hearing about a pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down and captured by the Russians. But I did not know the full story and had no idea of the maelstrom that surrounded this episode in history – at least not until I saw “Bridge of Spies.”

Director Steven Spielberg, together with writers Matt Charman, Ethan and Joel Coen, has captured the intense feelings of the Cold War era and the issues surrounding the trial of a real-life Russian spy, an American U2 spy plane pilot, and an American student caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall in his latest movie.

This excellent film tells the story of a successful Brooklyn, NY, insurance attorney, James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), who is asked by the U.S. government to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who was tried for espionage in 1957. In the minds of many Americans, Abel is the personification of all that was evil in the Soviet regime. In this post-atomic bomb era of fear, the average American citizen is certain their government will do the right thing and simply sentence Abel to death, teaching the Russians a lesson they would never forget.

However, the American government sees it differently. As a potential powder keg, it is believed Abel should receive the best defense possible, or at least have the appearance of a strong defense to guard against any retaliation from Russia. What the government does not account for is Donovan’s strong sense of right and wrong. Though it is a foregone conclusion Abel will be found guilty, Donovan has the foresight to convince the presiding judge to sentence Abel to prison rather than condemn him to death.

As fate would have it, this is prescient of Donovan. In suggesting that Abel not be condemned to death, Donovan argues it might just be possible that in the future, the U.S. government may need leverage in dealing with the Soviets should they capture an American spy.

Of course, this is exactly what happens. Not long after Abel begins his prison term, the CIA receives word that their worst fear has been realized. American U-2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is shot down over Russia during his first reconnaissance flight. Soon after, Donovan is contacted through backchannels about negotiating a possible exchange: Powers for Abel.

The real power of the film, though, is the amazing insight and strength of character of Donovan. Not only does he demonstrate his sense of righteousness during Abel’s trial, but it is visible in his commitment to doing what is right during his handling of the prisoner exchange between Russia, East Germany and the United States. His defense of Abel at a time when Americans fear the Soviet empire the most does not make him a popular man. Yet he defends Abel regardless of the cost to him or his family because it is the right thing to do.

These same principles are visible when he goes to East Berlin, at the same time that the Berlin Wall is being erected. Initially, Donovan is there to arrange for the exchange of Abel and Powers. But while in Berlin, he is also contacted about a backchannel exchange for a young doctoral student, Frederic Pryor, who had recently been caught by the East German Stasi (secret police) behind the Berlin Wall while visiting his girlfriend and is subsequently imprisoned as a spy.

Spielberg captures the extreme sensitivity of the period through the film. Here is a simple American attorney plucked from the day-to-day legalities of the insurance world and thrown into the world of espionage and counter-espionage, subterfuge and innuendos, where nothing is what it seems. Welcome to the Cold War era!

The official trailer for “Bridge of Spies” (courtesy 20th Century Fox).

Though he is naïve when it comes to spycraft 101, Donovan exhibits an ability to motivate people to do the right thing. This means the release of both Powers and Pryor. His task is made all the more difficult because Donovan’s CIA liaisons are only focused on Powers and not willing to see the negotiations collapse for this unknown American student who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Donovan is determined to negotiate for Pryor as well.

The other challenge for Donovan highlighted by the film is the intricacy of negotiating with the then-fledgling East German government while also negotiating with the more sophisticated Soviet government. The film does a good job of capturing the East German government’s need to become a legitimate power in its own right in the eyes of the world, distinct from the Soviet Union. The heartache of Berliners while watching the Wall being erected, dividing families and loved ones, is palpable in the film, along with the lengths they go to trying to cross over to the West; people are willing to risk death for freedom.

Whether it is Donovan’s naiveté, his strength of character, or there is some great cosmic alignment, it works. On the night of February 10, 1962, Powers walks to the American side and freedom while Abel walks to the East German side of Glienicke Bridge, and eventually back to the Soviet Union; at the same time, Pryor walks through Checkpoint Charlie, another crossing point in the Berlin Wall that became prominent over time. I like to think the exchange is successful because Donovan is a genuine individual, a righteous man with a clear heart, committed to doing what is right. His clarity of thought and purpose and lack of traditional statecraft knowledge allows him to negotiate with a clear conscience and without subterfuge and guile.

Donovan would go on to distinguish himself further after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Asked by President John F. Kennedy to negotiate the release of over 1,000 prisoners, Donovan eventually secures the release of over 9,000 men, women and children being held as Cuban exile prisoners.

“Bridge of Spies” is one of those movies that accomplishes what films could and should so. It teaches us about moments in history and memorable individuals who are worthy of study and praise. One leaves the theater thinking, “Why don’t we have more people like that in the world?” Such men and women leave the world a better place and motivate us to follow through on our God-given character – our imago dei – that part of the divine image we carry in our DNA. At the very least, stories like this push us to ask the question, “What is possible?”♦

“Bridge of Spies” is now playing in theaters, rated PG-13; running time: 141 minutes; director: Steven Spielberg; screenplay: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen; main cast: Tom Hanks (James Donovan); Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan); Alan Alda (Thomas Watters, Jr.), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel); see IMDB for full film details.

Dr. Kathy Winings is Vice President for Academic Affairs; Director, Doctor of Ministry Program; and, Professor of Religious Education and Ministry at UTS. She is also Vice President of the Board of Directors for the International Relief Friendship Foundation.

Photo at top: Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks (right) in a courtroom scene from “Bridge of Spies” (courtesy Touchstone Pictures/DreamWorks).

4 thoughts on ““Bridge of Spies” and Teachable Moments

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  1. I loved the movie for many of the same reasons you so well express here. It was a story of courage and standing up for what one believes is right and important even when others were against it. The historical context captured the anguish and despair of this tumultuous period in European history. This movie is another Spielberg masterpiece and, for Tom Hanks, another brilliant performance.

  2. I saw the movie last night in its original English in (the former West) Germany. Many interesting ethical issues are raised. One could argue that the spies of the Cold War era were the “soft” version of terrorism. After all, our understanding in the West was that Soviet spies were gleaning information that could eventually lead to mass destruction in the West; is this just not a more acceptable face of terrorism? The spy, Rudolf Abel, does appear to be a man of steadfast principles and no coward. And James Donovan is considered righteous by us because he goes all the way to the Supreme Court to argue the case that certain evidence is inadmissable because it was obtained without a search warrant. But could it not be that Donovan had a misplaced sense of justice and fair play? Is all fair in war? I think these are issues for discussion.

    1. As it turns out, Donovan’s skill of negotiation had long term positive effects, the main one being that thousands of prisoners were able to return home. However, one never knows the consequences certain moves or decisions will have. They could have easily had disastrous effects. I believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach here. Each situation is very complex, so complex that it seems almost beyond the capabilities of human wisdom.

  3. Kathy,

    This is the second excellent movie you have introduced. Both “Concussion” as well as “Bridge of Spies” speak of heroes.

    In times when we try to see a way for America to fulfill the role of Abel, it is these movies with a documentary commitment character that show us what America is capable of. What most impressed me was Donovan’s comment in the airplane, after the American pilot had been exchanged successfully with the Soviet spy. He tried to assure that he had not revealed any secrets during the interrogations. Donovan’s reply: “It does not matter what they think, you know what you did!”

    Last week I visited my relatives in East Berlin and remembered the scenes of the movie. Many times I went to the other side during the Cold War and following the breakdown my family moved to this part of the city in 1990. I never felt fear being there, but felt some kind of irresistible evil power that tried to tell me the wall is made for eternity. At that time, America was the only hope for us, besides True Parents ideology. This has changed so dramatically after the disaster of the Gulf wars and the subsequent flood of refugees in Europe that it is difficult to see America in this role of Abel nowadays.

    I want to see hope that through reviving the true American spirit with such films will become a reality.

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