By Dan Rankin
James B. Donovan, a New York City lawyer in the mid-20th Century, is not in the pantheon of great American war heroes; in fact, you could be forgiven for never having heard his name until now – I certainly hadn’t heard of him before I saw the latest Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as Donovan.
The movie tells a portion of Donovan’s remarkable life, picking up over a decade after he had served on the prosecuting side of the Nuremburg Trials for Nazi war criminals. In the late 1950s, the Nazis are in the past and America’s new foes are the Soviets. Donovan lives a plain life as an insurance lawyer in Brooklyn, New York while, in school, his children watch news reels that instruct them to “Duck and Cover” in the event of a nuclear attack. But when Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (played expertly by Mark Rylance), is captured by the FBI, Donovan is volunteered by the partners in his law office to act as the defence for Abel, a thankless job that, nevertheless, someone must do. He’s told that they expect him to do the bare minimum to show to international observers that the United States’ criminal justice system applies to everyone.
“Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose,” jokes Hanks as Donovan.
Instead, Donovan gives it all he has and defends Abel right up to the Supreme Court, ensuring that he is given life in prison rather than be executed; the insurance lawyer side of Donovan sees the value of holding onto a Soviet asset in the event Russia ever captures an American. This is all just First Act set up, as, just as Donovan predicted, in 1960 American U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers crash lands in Russia. Washington covers up the crash but immediately gets to work trying to recover Powers before he can turn over any military secrets.
Donovan heeds the call once again, this time instructed to negotiate a hostage transfer: Abel for Powers. He is sent to East Berlin, where a new wall is being built by the German Democratic Republic, officially, to keep western influence out, but also to stem a mass exodus of people to the West. What follows is a twisting and turning series of high-stakes meetings between Donovan, CIA operatives, and representatives from Moscow and Berlin, each trying to come out on top in the deal. Meanwhile, the imprisonment of an American economics student who finds himself on the wrong side of the newly-constructed wall only serves to complicate things for Donovan. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg vividly depicted the Normandy invasion at Omaha Beach; this time, he shows us the fate of a small group of desperate people attempting, and failing, to scale the Berlin Wall in order to cross into the West. For this and the other gritty images it provides of life in East Berlin, combined with the heightening Cold War-era paranoia it illustrates back in the U.S.A., Bridge of Spies is valuable not just for the thrilling dramatic story it tells, but also for the snapshot it takes of a defining moment of 20th Century History.