The History Place - Movie Review

Bridge of Spies

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

Steven Spielberg has a knack for finding the forgotten hero. The leading case on point is Schindler’s List, the great director’s magnum opus that finally won him the Oscar he had long deserved. Saving Private Ryan, his first collaboration with Tom Hanks, another of Hollywood’s genuine ‘greats,’ is another example.

Now, in Bridge of Spies, he resurrects the exploits of James B. Donovan (Hanks), a Brooklyn attorney, who got tapped to represent Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) at the height of the Cold War. Meanwhile, on a parallel story line, we see Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) recruited and trained by the CIA for its super-secret U-2 program.


The U-2 flights, conducted at 70,000 feet above Soviet Russia, were so melodramatically secret that the “drivers” (pilots) were equipped with silver dollars containing cyanide pins intended to prevent capture and interrogation. The idea was that, if a driver’s plane was hit, he should set the timer on the bomb that would incinerate the craft, then either blow himself up with his plane or opt for the cyanide solution.

Powers, his jet disabled by Russian missiles, did neither. Instead, he ejected and parachuted into the USSR, where he promptly was captured and incarcerated.

Meanwhile, Donovan’s client is tried and convicted of espionage in a federal district court in New York. But the now wildly unpopular lawyer persuades the judge to spare Abel’s life, presciently suggesting the Russian may be needed for an exchange for “one of our guys” someday.

Of course, this is where the two story lines converge. As Spielberg and the Coen brothers (who co-authored the script) tell it, Donovan receives a mysterious airmail letter from East Germany. The writer claims to be Abel’s wife. Donovan approaches CIA master spy Allen Dulles, who correctly interprets the missive as a subtle invitation to commence negotiation of a prisoner exchange.

The Spielberg/Coen story line is complicated by yet a third thread, that of a Yale graduate student with the bright idea of doing his doctoral dissertation on the East German economy. As the Berlin Wall goes up, the Yaley finds himself on the wrong side and, worse yet, in the STACI’s custody. When Donovan learns of the grad student’s plight, he determines to free him, as well.

To go any further would be to spoil the story. Suffice to say that, when three master storytellers collaborate, and then bring Tom Hanks into the mix, we are assured of a great yarn that holds us in our seats to the predictably tense climax.

As for John Donovan, largely forgotten to history until now, we are told by Spielberg that he went on to negotiate the release of thousands of Cuban freedom fighters captured at the Bay of Pigs debacle.

Indeed, according to Wikipedia, in 1962 Donovan was contacted by Cuban exile-leader Pedro Cisneros. Donovan proffered his pro bono services to the Cuban Families Committee. He managed to meet Castro and ultimately to build a trusting relationship with the Communist dictator. Enter the CIA, which tried to recruit the attorney into its goofy schemes to assassinate Fidel. Donovan wisely refused to play along. In December of ’62 Castro and Donovan signed the agreement that released some 1100 prisoners in return for $53 million in American food and medicine gathered through private donations.

Donovan received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, ran unsuccessfully against Jacob Javits for a Senate seat, and ended his career as the president of New York’s Pratt Institute. In 1964 he published his memoir of the Abel case, Strangers on a Bridge, which was re-released by Simon and Schuster in August of this year in anticipation of the film’s debut. He died of a heart attack in 1970, just short of his 54th birthday.

Spielberg and Hanks are at their best in this cinematic recounting of Donovan’s first Cold War exploit. Like Schindler, this New York lawyer deserved to be rediscovered. Bridge of Spies does him justice.

Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.
Oscar is a registered trademark of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is  His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).

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