Bridge of Spies is an Academy Award nominated film that celebrates the patriarchal authority of a decent, liberal, middle-aged, white American male in a world full of right-wing extremists, thuggish German communists, bitchy women, and hysterical, brainwashed children. Naturally it stars Tom Hanks. Don’t get me wrong. There a lot to admire about Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama. Spielberg knows how to make a watchable movie. Mark Rylance won a Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel. The screenplay by Ethan and Joel Coen argues for diplomacy over war. It champions democracy and the rule of law over the kind of unquestioning nationalism inspired by fear. As the film goes on, however, and on – it’s a long movie – you begin to realize you’re being told a story you’ve heard 100 times before. It’s still okay. It’s not that the man who’s sitting next to you at the pub is necessarily a bore. He knows how to tug at your heart strings, but you also wonder if that lump in your throat is genuine emotion, or if you’ve just had one too many shots of 11-year-old malt Spielberg.
I don’t know how many people these days are familiar with the Francis Gary Powers affair – it was way before my time – but it was a big deal in 1960, in the last year of the Eisenhower Administration and at the height of the Cold War. After Powers, a pilot flying a CIA U2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union, Eisenhower denied that U2, which flew at altitudes over 70,000 feet, even existed. In the event of getting hit by anti-aircraft fire, Powers was supposed to have blown up the plane in mid-air. Failing that, he was supposed to have taken a cyanide capsule to avoid capture. In any event, Francis Gary Powers chose to live, the Soviet government paraded him through the newsreels, and Eisenhower came away looking like a big, fat liar.
Three years before, a minor Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel had been arrested in Brooklyn, tried, and convicted of espionage. Having avoided the death penalty thanks to his lawyer James B. Donovan, and a courageous decision by an otherwise conservative judge, Abel is now a valuable commodity. Since the Russians don’t want Abel to tell the Americans what he knows and the Americans don’t want Powers to tell the Russians what he knows, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles decides that a prisoner exchange might be in the interests of both governments. He calls Donovan into his office and sends him on a secret mission to East Berlin to negotiate with the Soviets, who have Powers, and the East Germans, who have snatched a young man named Frederic Pryor, an American graduate student who got stuck on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall, as a bit of extra leverage. The CIA wants Powers. They don’t much care about Pryor, but Donovan, being a liberal and a humanitarian, strongly believes that “every life counts,” and pushes hard for both. In reality, neither Powers nor Abel was very important. The Russians would never have let Powers go if he had anything left to tell them. They had the fragments of the U2, and they had made a fool out of Eisenhower. Releasing Powers was actually to their advantage since it would keep the whole incident in the news. Rudolf Abel, in turn, was a nobody who, during his stay in the United States, had not managed to get a single piece of useful information or recruit even one American to the Communist Party. If the Soviet government got a propaganda victory by parading Powers in front of the cameras, the United States government got a propaganda victory by giving Abel a lawyer, and not sentencing him to death after the rigged trial.
Bridge of Spies, to its credit, is aware of how Abel was basically just a harmless old man who liked to sit in the park and paint. Donovan did in fact make a courageous decision agreeing to defend him in court. The film is also full of historical errors, some harmless, and added for dramatic effect, others not only laughable, but evidence of a somewhat suspect ideological agenda.
While it’s quite possible, for example, that Donovan didn’t tell his wife why he was going to East Berlin, let’s not kid ourselves. She probably figured it out. What’s more, since he has no trouble disobeying the orders of his CIA handlers when it comes to Frederic Pryor, his choice to keep his wife in the dark about his mission to the Warsaw Pact during the height of the Cold War sends a clear message. Women are not to be trusted. Spying and diplomacy is game for men, not women and children. Some of this is obviously poetic license in the service of telling a good story. While in reality nobody shot at James Donovan’s house in Brooklyn in retaliation for his agreeing to defend a Russian spy, it makes for good drama. Donovan was a hero, trying to save the life of Rudolf Abel, an honorable adversary to the United States, even as his son was getting brainwashed in school by useless duck and cover drills, his daughter is dodging bullets, and his wife is giving him the cold shoulder. It also sets the stage for a wonderfully patriarchal moment at the end. Donovan has returned home after successfully negotiating the release of Pryor and Powers. His wife gives him a hard time. Where were you? Why did you take so long? And why did you pick up the wrong can of cherry preserves from the supermarket? His kids are beginning to see him as a curious and eccentric “dad” you night love, but not necessarily respect. Then the evening news flashes on their television set announcing that Francis Gary Powers was free and it was none other than James. B. Donovan who arranged his release. Patriarchal authority has been restored. Why was the old man in Berlin? Well he was doing important stuff you kids wouldn’t understand.
The real Frederic Pryor, who’s very much alive, and is currently a professor emeritus at Swarthmore College, has pointed out that Bridge of Spies gives us a distorted picture of the East German government. Wolfgang Vogel, played by the German actor Sebastian Koch as a surly pissed off, stereotypical Kraut, was actually a nice guy. Pryor had not been captured during the construction of the Berlin Wall. He was detained after his landlady in East Berlin defected to the west. Whether or not he was kept in a cell half flooded with freezing water is probably Spielberg’s invention. People certainly did got shot trying to get over the wall to West Berlin. Donovan never witnessed it. I’m perfectly willing to believe that Francis Gary Powers was water boarded and subjected to sleep deprivation – torture is what governments do – but there’s no question that Spielberg goes out of his way to portray the East Germans as Nazis.
Indeed, while it’s the Russians not the East Germans who torture Powers, Bridge of Spies is a tale of good commie – the Russians – and bad commie – the Germans. For Spielberg, Russians, especially Abel, are basically decent folk who just happen to be on the other side. Germans, on the other hand – even German Americans like Donovan’s CIA handler Hoffman – are, well, Germans. The whole movie makes me wonder just how much mileage Hollywood has left in the idea of the snarling, heel clicking Teutonic villain. The Second World War has been over for 70 years now and the Germans are our friends. They’re nice to Middle Eastern refugees and they have a woman president. They’re not going to invade Poland.
It’s not that Spielberg has anything against Germans per se. He just wants to portray Abel, who has a sympathetic, if somewhat neurotic wife in Russia, as an East Bloc version of James Donovan. Abel likes to paint. He appreciates good music. He’s a cultured civilized man, exactly the kind of communist John F. Kennedy was talking about in his American University speech. He’s the kind of guy someone like Donovan could meet at the club after work while they both have a drink and talk about their family and their jobs. Unlike the Germans, who are thoroughly otherized, Abel is one of us. In fact, by the time the Russians and Americans meet at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin to arrange the exchange, we’re beginning to wonder why Abel just doesn’t stay in the United States. Donovan is worried that Abel might just get shot. When the East Germans balk at returning Pryor along with Powers, Abel disobeys his own government to side with the Americans. If the East Germans don’t return Pryor, he’ll stay in the United States and do his 30 years in prison. Abel is not only a Russian spy. He and James Donovan are soul mates. It’s easy too see why Mark Rylance won Best Supporting Actor. Tom Hanks is playing Tom Hanks, but Rylance manages to give depth to a man who, facing the next 30 years in jail, takes solace in painting and the music of Shostakovich. Good men, both Russian and American, disobey their own governments for the sake of their humanitarian principles.
The biggest “what the fuck moment” in Bridge of Spies comes with Spielberg’s resurrection of John Forster Dulles, who actually died in 1959, to serve as the United States Secretary of State during the Francis Gary Powers Affair. The real Secretary of State in 1960, Christian Herter, has been forgotten by history. He seems to have been a relatively inoffensive figure, as far as American Secretaries of State go. Dulles, on the other hand, was a flat out villain, a snarling anti-communist fanatic who organized the coups in Guatemala and Iran and repeatedly brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. I’m not exactly sure why Spielberg went with Dulles instead of Herter – who as a Harvard graduate would have served nicely as a figure of the liberal WASP patriarchy– but the ideological intention is clear. Spielberg wants to rescue American history from itself, to white wash its sins on the big screen, to portray even irredeemably evil figures like the Dulles brothers as fundamentally benevolent. It’s nothing new. Spielberg has always been a syrupy American nationalist. Indeed, when Dulles summons Donovan to the State Department, it’s a remake of a very similar scene in his earlier film Saving Private Ryan. Back in the 1990s, George Marshall summoned Captain Miller, also Tom Hanks, to his headquarters, then sent him on a mission to rescue Private First Class James Francis Ryan behind German lines. In the 2010s, it’s John Foster Dulles and James B. Donovan. Indeed, if you wanted to, you could probably rename Bridge of Spies as “Saving Graduate Student Pryor.”
Matt Damon, thank God, was probably too old for the role.