Bridge of Spies


Now this is a feel-good movie, based on actual events. Tom Hanks plays American lawyer James Donovan during the height of the Cold War with Russia. Schoolchildren are being shown films instructing them to “duck and cover” during a nuclear holocaust (yeah, right). The Red Menace would affect national politics for years to come (see Korea, The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam). Alleged Communists were ferreted out in Hollywood, and banned. In fact, the Kremlin was spending spies over here, and, in fact, we were sending spies over there. Our government is frantically developing a U-2 spy plane that could take photographs behind “enemy” lines at 70,000 feet, supposedly safe from any anti-aircraft ordinance. (Except that we feared their nuclear missiles, which were designed to rocket over the oceans at our major cities, so why didn't we suspect they had better air defense technology?)
What did James Donovan have to do with all this? Nothing. He mostly worked insurance cases for his New York law firm. But when local painter Rudolf Abel was arrested as a Russian spy, and had no attorney, Donovan's firm was asked by the court to supply competent counsel. His senior partners figured that Donovan was just smart enough to fulfill their legal obligation (though probably not qualified enough to actually win). They knew they risked the public's ire for even providing representation in such a case. Donovan himself became something of a pariah, even among his own social circles. Nobody cared about any legal rights for Rudolf Abel. Everybody wanted to just hang him from the nearest oak tree, including the judge presiding over the case, who allowed evidence from an illegal search and seizure to be admitted in court.
Donovan lost the case, of course, from a judge clearly biased against his defense, so the grounds for appeal were self-evident (though he lost that, too). Donovan had had the good sense to speak to the judge privately, once the guilty verdict was delivered, about the importance of sentencing to life instead of execution, because it might be important later to have a convicted spy to trade, should one of ours be captured.
That turned out to be prophetic. Any of us who were around at the time, even as children, remember the capture of Francis Gary Powers by the Russians, who shot down his U-2 spy plane. Now the real shadow work begins, as the CIA contacts Donovan, and asks him to be the one to negotiate the spy exchange. It seems that our government didn't officially want to acknowledge that Powers was, in fact, a spy, any more than the Russians wanted to acknowlege Rudolf Abel. To complicate things, The Russians wanted to negotiate through an intermediary, their ally East Germany, which was just now building The Berlin Wall, sealing off the East Sector, the Russian sector, from the rest of the city. The ticklish part there was that the United States still didn't officially recognize East Germany as a separate country.
Donovan finds himself in a precarious situation: he' s supposed to travel to East Berlin, negotiate with someone he doesn't know, and somehow bring back Powers, safe and sound. He has nothing with him but his wits. But it proves just enough. On a remote snowy bridge one early morning, the Russians indeed come up with Powers, and Donovan is able to deliver Abel, whom he'd come to respect as a good soldier; one who didn't break under pressure. In addition, Donovan was able to negotiate the simultaneous release, from East Germany, of an American economics student who'd been at the wrong place at the wrong time while the Berlin Wall was being contructed.
We all love to see the triumph of can-do, pragmatic Americanism. We also love to see a man like Donovan, an otherwise ordinary American, display his personal patriotism by standing up for the Constitution (and Bill of Rights) which defines our particular brand of democracy. And Tom Hanks is the perfect popular actor for this unsung American hero.

Questions for Discussion:
  1. What do you remember about The Cold War? Is Russia still America's enemy?
  2. Should we instruct our spies to self-destruct rather than be captured?
  3. Should we even have spies? And where should they operate?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Kaufman, Texas