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James Donovan and the Bridge of Spies

And that's where New York lawyer James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies, gets involved.  Because he had defended Russian 'master spy' Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) who was doing 30 years in the US for his part in shipping Atomic secrets out of Los Alamos to Russia. 

The deal will be to swap talkative Powers for the recalcitrant, tight-lipped, Russian on the 'Bridge of Spies' (Glienicke Bridge) between West Berlin and Potsdam in East Germany.

Powers and Abel
The real Gary Powers & Rudolf Abel (pseudonym)
                                                 source: Awesome Stories

The movie spends a lot more time with Abel (not his real name) than with Powers.  Donovan and Abel develop a real friendship despite Abel refusing to say anything in his own defence.  "What good would it do?" he keeps asking. 

He too had been 'interrogated' before being given access to legal counsel but unlike Powers who was a simple pilot from Jenkins Kentucky, he was a trained professional spy, more or less immune to interrogation techniques.  He would later become known as 'the spy who wouldn't crack'. 

Of collateral interest for me was that the movie spends some time in Berlin and some scenes, particularly those around the bridge, were shot there.  Donovan turns out to be the hero of the story.  Not only did he get Powers back but also a young American student, Frederic Pryor, who had been in the Soviet sector when the Berlin Wall went up and unadvisedly attempted to crash through the last gap (according to the movie) with his east German girlfriend.  We get the impression that Donovan is more interested in freeing Pryor than Powers.

The movie spends some time demonstrating that the CIA had no interest in getting a young American student out of jail and became alarmed that Donovan might fail to get Powers if he continued to demand two for one.

As we later see, the trains continued to run between the sectors and rather than try to cross the Wall, Pryor would have been better advised to have trusted in his US passport at a station and simply caught the S-Bahn or the U-Bahn to the American sector.

Like any historical movie many of us, particularly of my vintage, know the broad details before the movie begins and so the interest lies in the journey.  For example, prior to the movie I was unaware of Pryor (OK, a dreadful pun).  I have written about Berlin elsewhere (click here).  So I found the journey that Bridge of Spies takes us on very interesting. 

But I couldn't help feeling that I was being preached to.  Berlin was dark and blasted.  New York's upper middle class suburbs were leafy.  This is very true but somehow in this movie it seems to be a political statement.

From his S-Bahn train Tom (as Donovan) sees a family of East Berliners shot-down attempting to cross The Wall.  Out the windows of his New York commuter train he sees kids climbing a high fence and not a shot is fired. 

The New York train has obviously travelled beyond the South Bronx on its way out of town.  But then, it would not be for a decade or so later that areas of the South Bronx would turn into a replica of bombed out Berlin and sightseers (fact finders), like NSW politicians visiting our New York office, would need an armed guard, 'Smithy' and special car, to take them there.

Ok, I know that citizens of the West enjoyed a lot more freedom and were generally better off, despite areas of crippling poverty and disadvantage.  After all, that's why people wanted to cross the border.  But I don't believe in black and white, but rather in shades of grey, and I'm suspicious when someone is trying to sell me some 'ism' without admitting that it too has its seedy underbelly.

But to be fair the movie is not all 'them bad, we good'.  When Donovan is defending Abel his house is dramatically shot-up, bullets narrowly missing his children and wife.  I can't imagine the good people of Westchester doing such a thing. Probably the KKK from 'down south'? 

Obviously when telling a story in a couple of hours a lot of the complexities need to be skipped over but I found that there were some confusing elements.  Just what was the stuff about the East Berliners and the Russians? 

Well it's not all that confusing. 

After the German surrender the allies, the four powers, jointly occupied Berlin.  Berlin is deeply embedded in what was then the DDR (Deutsche Democratic Republic - also GDR), a Communist State and part of the Eastern Block.  Berlin was divided into four sectors: US; British; French and Soviet.  Under this four powers treaty the three other powers only recognised the Russians.  

But from a DDR point of view the city was a capitalist cell in the middle of their country.  They tried a number of ploys to remove it, including a siege, but the Western powers famously kept West Berlin alive with a huge airlift. Berlin had become a virtual puncture in the fabric of the DDR through which citizens, many of them high value professionals, could desert the East for the West.  When negotiations to stem this flow broke down they built the Wall.  In the meantime the DDR had no legal standing in Berlin.  This was a bit disingenuous as Germans in the Western Sector had been given local government.  But somehow Germans in the East were an illegal DDR presence and unrecognised. 

That's what the Eastern guys in the movie, at times sinister and at others comic, are complaining about and struggling against.

Before the end credits we get a quick synopsis of subsequent events in the lives of the major participants. 

We learn that James Donovan went on to negotiate the release of 1,113 prisoners with Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Confirming his reputation for getting 'a bit more', he simultaneously negotiated safe-passage for around 8,500 Cubans wanting to leave the country and the release of a number of CIA 'advisors' to the failed invasion.  He too died young, of heart failure in 1970, a month short of his 54th birthday.

Although sacked as a test pilot after the release of his self-serving book Powers was eventually raised to hero status and showered in medals and accolades. These included the: Prisoner of War Medal; the Distinguished Flying Cross; the National Defense Service Medal; the CIA's Director's Medal for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty; and the Silver Star.  

Unfortunately for Powers' mental health, self-esteem and marriage these were all awarded posthumously, after this unreliable man was safely dead in a helicopter crash at the age of 47.  The crash was said to be due to pilot error but above all he was an exceptional pilot so maybe depression played a part?  Like so many others not recognised until after their death, he never got to know of his redemption or new exalted status.

Despite the strong impression given in the movie that Abel is going to some unpleasant outcome he received a hero's welcome.  His face even appears on a Russian stamp as Rudolf Abel.  He was reunited with his family and became popular as a lecturer on espionage before contracting lung cancer and dying at 68 years of age.  

When he returned to Russia he was awarded with the Order of the Red Banner.  The US promptly awarded Powers with the CIA's Intelligence Star, the only medal he received during his lifetime.

No movie is perfect, particularly when it has to tell a true story in an interesting way but this one is well worth seeing.  After all, it is Spielberg and the Cohen Brothers.



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