4 Stars – Powerful
The true story of James B. Donovan’s negotiation skills during the Cold War is powerfully presented by Steven Spielberg in his film Bridge of Spies. A masterpiece of cinematic story telling, Spielberg partners with the excellent writing of Ethan and Joel Conan along with the newcomer Matt Charman. If that partnership was not enough for a great film, the acting of Tom Hanks in the lead role lifts the film even more as he demonstrates his ability to represent the strength of one man willing to stand against injustice.
Using the freedom of artistic license allowed by the opening statements that the story is inspired by true events, we walk through the fears of a nuclear war as threatened by the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the 1950s. This story begins in 1957 when Russian spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested for espionage in Brooklyn. His stoic nature protects him from the questioning of the CIA and it is decided that he will stand trial not as a soldier but a criminal.
Through a series of decisions, insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to provide a defense for Abel. Reluctant, but a man of deep integrity, conviction and faith in the justice of our legal system, Donovan agrees and they begin a fascinating and moving journey through the courts ending with the United States Supreme Court.
Although the film does not explain that Donovan’s integrity is founded on his devout faith as a Christian who always carried the prayer of St. Francis with him, it is clear that he lives by a higher standard than most of those who surround him. It is this contrast that makes the film so powerful.
This contrast is seen in at least two direct ways. The judge directing the trial, Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews), denies Donovan’s petitions to protect Abel’s rights claiming he is not an American and he does not have constitutional rights. At great personal and professional risk, Donovan fights for Abel’s rights, appealing the case to the highest level as well as arguing to protect Abel’s life.
This contrast is also seen when the CIA agents have no compassion or concern for a young PhD student, Frederick Pryor (Will Rogers), who has inadvertently gotten in difficulty with the East German government when the Berlin Wall was being constructed. Donovan, based on his own compassion, cares for him and works for his release even when ordered not to by the CIA agents.
Prophetically arguing to Judge Byers to spare Abel’s life for the possibility of exchanging him for an American captured by the Russian government, the opportunity comes three years later when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Soviet airspace in 1960. Recognizing the political difficulty of this situation the CIA turns to Donovan in 1962 and asks him to go to Berlin, without their protection and with little assistance, to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers. It is this exchange that brings us to a snow-covered bridge in the early morning of February 10, 1962 as Donovan stands on both a literal and symbolic bridge between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The powerful statements describing of the actual lives of Donovan, Abel, Powers and Pryor during the final credits reminds us that one person, standing alone, acting with courage, demonstrating both skill and integrity, can build a bridge that is necessary for peace. That is a powerful reality we need to remember in the days in which we live.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
- If you were asked to mount a defense for a person who is spying against our nation, would you use your abilities to do so? Why do you answer as you do?
- Throughout his secondary career as an international negotiator, Donovan is credited with the release of thousands of people as he served our nation. What do you think made him so effective at this?
- The almost humorous calm with which Rudolph Abel accepted his fate revealed a strength that is most often lacking during times of crisis. Do you think this was training or did Abel get his strength from some other source? Why do you answer as you do?
- The film does not reveal that Donovan was a Navy Commander schooled in both spies and spycraft. He was also a specialist in war-crimes as a prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials. Why do you think this information was left out, or only hinted at, in the film?
- A man of deep faith with a Jesuit undergrad education and a Harvard law degree, Donovan was buried in St. Agnes Cemetery in Lake Placid, where his tombstone bears the opening line of the Prayer of Saint Francis: Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace. For more information on the true life accomplishments including a twenty minute video interview go to: