When I was a kid, maybe ten or so, I got a book at the school book fair called Is James Bond Dead? Great Spy Stories. It was a little 64-page book with an illustration at the start of each chapter, about various true spy tales, such as the story of Mata Hari, and Operation Mincemeat, where the allies planted a body of a dead “spy” with false information on the D-Day invasion for the Axis to “capture.” But one of the stories that stuck in my head was that of Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy during the Cold War, who hid microdots in hollow nickels and planted them in dead drops all over Manhattan, while posing as a painter and ham radio enthusiast. He was captured, prosecuted, and later exchanged for Frances Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the USSR.
I’ve fallen down the Abel k-hole a few times, as well as all things black-op spy plane related, and apparently so has Hollywood. Bridge of Spies is a Spielberg-produced Tom Hanks film, written by British relative newcomer Matt Charman, and punched up by the Coen brothers. The movie ties together three (or four) stories with one pivotal event.
First, there’s the Abel story, told in a vintage late-50s New York (which was partly filmed in my old hood of Astoria, which doubles for nearly everything these days.) The other leg is Francis Gary Powers, the secret overflights with spy planes, and his capture. It’s joined together by lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) who was first asked to defend Abel in his espionage case, but who later brokered the hostage exchange, which took place in East/West Germany. A side story involves Frederic Pryor, an American economics student who was captured by East Berlin and held on suspicion of espionage, who was also released with Powers.
The movie itself is a predictable and lukewarm meander through the usual tropes of spy stuff and “let’s be like Mad Men” throwback nostalgia. The Donovan kids are shown duck and cover films in school and cry accordingly; everyone reacts to those goddamn reds who want to nuke us, and so on. There are attempts at chuckles thrown in, making the film something your mother-in-law will enjoy, but ultimately making it a whitewashed PG-13 maybe-historical drama, and not a dark thriller. The Germany sets look like a Hollywood backlot that was used for a Band of Brothers shoot, with the Nazi flags hastily replaced with GDR black, red, and gold. It’s not badly done, but it’s not excellent, either.
The history isn’t horribly mangled, although it is very compressed. There’s great on-ground footage of the U-2 in the hanger, ala a training/introduction montage that teach us all about the high-altitude spy plane, but the film squishes the timeline so it appears Powers is shot down on the plane’s maiden flight. In reality, there was a long test period at Groom Lake (aka Area 51) with three pilot deaths, and 23 missions over five years prior to Powers and the May 1960 shootdown. Abel’s timeline is similarly compressed; no facts are greatly changed or even omitted, but Abel was arrested in 1957 and didn’t get released until 1962. The film makes the five-year saga seem like a couple of months of time.
I didn’t know anything about Donovan prior to seeing the film, so it’s interesting to read about him. The Pryor thing is also an odd footnote that I knew almost nothing about. It’s also difficult to find anything describing his involvement or arrest. Pretty much any mention of him is the same single sentence wedged into discussion of the exchange, and I can’t tell what he really did to get arrested, if there was any backstory at all. Maybe there’s some Stasi paperwork on this (that got shredded, probably.) Given the situation, it would not be unfathomable that someone from the CIA pulled him aside in a cafe and told him to snap a few pictures of a building for a few bucks. Or it was a wrong place/wrong time thing. Who knows.
I liked the film in that it was an endless stream of things I later read about. It’s very easy for me to take off from the various points on this and read about the Stasi, the Prior situation, East Berlin, the Glienicke Bridge, U-2 planes, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Area 51 — the list is endless.
(An interesting sidenote: the movie mostly wrote out the involvement of Milan Miskovsky, the CIA agent who was largely instrumental to the exchange. After retirement, Miskovsky was appointed to lead an investigation about the 1967 Detroit riot for the Kerner Commission. He interviewed MLK and other leaders, and wrote a report concluding the US was transitioning into two societies that were greatly unequal, which is an interesting deep-dive if you’re up for reading about civil liberties in the sixties.)
I didn’t like the Spielberg-ization of the movie, though. The film was agonizingly long (141 minutes) and meandered and shuffled through the plot slowly. There were places where he chose to smash-cut between the subplots at a fast clip, but too many other places where he vegetated and made the movie an hour too long. Hanks had a weird Bosom Buddies comedy slant to his character, which didn’t help. And the general sterility of the experience soured it for me. If the Schindler’s List Spielberg, or even the Munich Spielberg direct this, it would have held my interest a bit more. Instead, we got Catch Me If You Can Spielberg, which was meh for me.