Sunday, 15 May 2016 19:47

Bridge of Spies: Spielberg and the Coen Brothers Punch Up History

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Bridge of Spies is a well-made film.  I just wish it had dispensed with a lot of the dramatic license, which I do not think was really necessary. It would also be nice to see these two men do something a little gutsy concerning American history, opines Jim DiEugenio.


The mythology about Rudolf Abel survived for decades on end.  It began when he was captured and then tried as a Russian espionage agent in a New York City court in 1957. The legend was furthered by not one, but two hearings before the Supreme Court concerning whether or not the arrest of Abel was done within the boundaries of a legal search and seizure.  It reached its apogee when President Kennedy approved an exchange of Abel for captured U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962.  Abel’s American lawyer, a man named James B. Donovan, carried out that exchange in Germany.  In 1964, Donovan wrote a book on the Abel case and the later prisoner exchange.  Strangers on a Bridge became a national best seller. Now even more people were exposed to the Abel myth.

What do I mean by the “Abel mythology?"  First off, there was no such Russian spy born with that name.  He borrowed that name from a deceased Russian colonel.  Abel’s real name was Willie Fisher.  And as one can guess by that moniker, he wasn’t Russian.  He was born in 1903 in Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, in the north of England.  When his family moved to Russia in the twenties, Fisher became a translator since he had an aptitude for language acquisition.  He later developed an affinity for electronics and radio operation.  And this was what the NKVD, precursor to the KGB, used him for during World War II.

Another myth is that the FBI uncovered Fisher and then cracked the case. This is not at all accurate. Fisher was caught through the betrayal of his assistant. That assistant was named Reino Hayhanen.  Moscow had sent Hayhanen to help Fisher.  But Reino turned out to be a very bad assistant.  He was both a drunkard and a womanizer—he squandered some of the money given to him by Fisher on prostitutes.  When Fisher had had his fill of him, he sent Reino back to Russia.  Sensing that he would be disciplined upon his return, Hayhanen stopped at the American Embassy in Paris.  There he turned himself in as a Soviet spy.   And this is how Fisher was uncovered.

A third myth is that he was a master spy, somewhat on the level of Kim Philby.  As several latter day commentators who have studied the Fisher case have concluded, there is simply nothing to even approximate such a lofty comparison. To use just one example: there is no evidence that, in the entire nine year period that Fisher was in America, he even recruited one agent, or source, on his own.  But further, once the KGB got the news of Hayhanen’s betrayal, Fisher had an opportunity to dispose of much of the incriminating evidence in his flat.  He did not.  But further, although he had used a false name with Hayhanen, he had taken him to his home. By casing the building, by following some of the residents who fit Reino’s description, and then snapping a picture of the man Hayhanen knew as “Mark," this is how Fisher was caught.  Through his own carelessness and errors in tradecraft.

Fisher’s cover while in the United States was that of a painter/photographer.  Steven Spielberg begins his film Bridge of Spies with a clever and adroit composition. The spy is painting a self-portrait in his studio.  Shooting from behind, we see then a dual image of the man: one in a mirror, and the other on the canvas--with the real subject in between, his back to us.  This makes not just for an interesting composition, but it’s a nice symbolic précis of who the man is.  We then watch as the FBI begins to follow Fisher around New York as he paints and takes photos.  They then break into his hotel room.  Fisher asks for permission to secure his palette of colors, and as he does he hides a coded message he had just secured from a drop point.

From here, the film now cuts to the man who will be the main character, attorney James Donovan. Once Fisher was caught, the FBI had planned on deporting him, since he was in the country illegally under various aliases, and had not registered as a foreign national. Which is why the INS was in on the raid. They shipped him to a detention center in Texas.  There, they tried to turn him into a double agent.  (Donovan, Strangers on a Bridge, pgs. 16, 45)  Fisher turned down the offer.  Since the Bureau discovered so much incriminating material in both his hotel room and his apartment, they switched strategies.  Instead of deporting him, they now decided to place him on trial.  Which was a rather unusual decision.  Because, as Donovan wrote, there was no case he could find of a foreign spy being convicted of peacetime espionage. (Donovan, p. 19) The actual indictment contained three charges: 1.) Conspiracy to transmit atomic and military secrets to Russia; 2.) Conspiracy to gather classified government information; and 3.) Illegal residency in the U.S. as a foreign agent. (ibid, p. 20)

The Brooklyn BAR association decided to ask Donovan to represent the defendant. (ibid, p. 9) Donovan was at this time, 1957, mainly an insurance lawyer. But he had worked for the OSS during the war, and was one of the lawyers at the Nuremburg trials.  Although the film only shows Donovan with one assistant, he actually had two. (Donovan, pgs. 34, 54) Some affluent law firms through the BAR furnished these.  To his and their credit, the local legal establishment was determined to give the spy a decent defense team.  (In a rather odd departure, the film does not portray Reino Hayhanen on screen.)

Rather early in the case, Donovan discovered that his best hope in defending Fisher were problems with the original search and seizure.  Donovan concluded that this process was legally faulty due to the fact that the original strategy was to use the threat of deportation to turn Fisher.  In other words, the FBI wanted to keep the profile of the raid low, so that the KGB would not understand that they had turned Fisher into a double agent.  Therefore, they had not secured the properly designated warrants. But once they failed to turn the man, they now wished to prosecute him as if they had the proper warrants.   (Donovan, pgs. 109-110)

The original trial judge would not accept Donovan’s motion to suppress evidence based on this issue.  If he had, the prosecution’s case would have been gravely weakened.  So once Fisher was convicted, Donovan raised the motion in an appeals court hearing. Once it was denied there, he went to the U.S. Supreme Court.   That court heard the case twice.  They eventually denied the appeal on a 5-4 vote.  The film does not include the original appeals court case. It then collapses the two Supreme Court hearings into one.

Spielberg apparently wanted to cut down on these legal procedures to add more about Donovan’s family life, specifically under the pressures applied during the case; and also to make more screen time for the Gary Powers aspect of the story.  The assumptions being that the former will add more human interest for the audience; the latter more action and opportunity for visual imagery. But there ends up being a problem here.  For me, it’s at about these points that the film starts to slide off the rails as far as dramatic license goes.  For example, in his book, Donovan does note that he got some crank calls because of his defense of Fisher.  He then changed his phone number.  (Donovan, p. 50)  That wasn’t enough for Spielberg.  This gets changed to an actual shooting attempt on Donovan’s daughter as she is quietly watching television alone in the living room.  Now, I am sure if this had actually happened, Donovan would have written about it.  It probably would have been front-page news in New York. 

This is paralleled by what Spielberg does with the shoot down of Powers over Russia in the U-2.  As Philip Kaufman proved  so memorably in his fine film, The Right Stuff, high altitude aviation can be viscerally exciting; it’s an excellent subject for cinematography.  But again, that in and of itself was apparently not enough for Spielberg.  After Powers ejects from his plane, we actually see him hanging onto the tail and working himself around to try and push the “Destruct” button on the front control panel. Which, of course, he fails to do.  Then as he parachutes downward, we watch as the plane actually brushes alongside his chute.  In no account I have read of this incident have I seen any of this mentioned.  Why was it necessary?  Powers had serious trouble ejecting anyway because he couldn’t separate from his oxygen tank. Secondly, one of the pursuing planes was shot down by friendly fire.

I was kind of taken aback—again.  First, the CIA director does not represent the “highest levels” of government, at least not overtly.  But second, Dulles had left the CIA in November of 1961.  The new director was John McCone.

But beyond that, there are two other aspects that the director and writers could have used for dramatic effect.  First, Lee Harvey Oswald was in the USSR at the time of the Powers shoot down. There are even some writers who think he may have been in the gallery during Powers's trial.  Secondly, it was this incident that scuttled the Paris summit conference scheduled for just two weeks later. President Eisenhower tried to deny it happened.  But the Russians kept Powers confined and hid the wreckage that they found of the plane.  So Eisenhower was blindsided.

From what I have been able to garner about the screenplay, it was originally written by Matt Charman.  Spielberg then brought in the Coen brothers  (Joel and Ethan) to, as they say, “punch it up." To put it mildly, if I was doing an historical film, about the last writers I would bring in to “punch it up” would be the Coen brothers. 

Because what I have mentioned above is just the beginning of the pushing the limits of dramatic license.  After the Supreme Court ruling went against Donovan, and Fisher started serving his sentence, the White House decided to seriously move for a prisoner exchange between the Russian spy and Powers.  Donovan writes about it in his book’s last chapter.  But he prefaces it with a warning that it was secret and he cannot reveal all of its elements.  (Donovan, p. 371)  But he does reveal two important things about the mission.  First, it began on January 11, 1962 when he attended a meeting in Washington with several other persons, including a Justice Department lawyer. (ibid, pgs. 373-75) Secondly, at this meeting, he was told that this prisoner exchange had been approved at the highest levels of the government.  Is that not kind of unambiguous?  The highest level of the government would be the White House, right?

Again, this was not enough for Spielberg and the Coen brothers.  In the film, Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) goes to Washington to meet CIA Director Allen Dulles.  I was kind of taken aback—again.  First, the CIA director does not represent the “highest levels” of government, at least not overtly.  But second, Dulles had left the CIA in November of 1961.  The new director was John McCone.  As I said, Donovan’s book places this meeting two months after Kennedy had forced Dulles to resign.  Again, I don’t see what was gained by this.

But during this meeting, Dulles tries to tell Donovan that he will be getting very little support on this mission.  He will be largely on his own.  This is not true even in the film’s terms.  But it is certainly not true according to Donovan’s book.  In the film, we watch as Hanks is escorted around West Germany by various American agents.  They give him a safe house and a phone number to call.  (The film actually has Donovan memorize this phone number when, in reality, he kept it on a card as he went to East Germany.) 

In fact, in every step of Donovan’s trip—including the flight over on a MATS plane—he was escorted and assisted by American agents. The only part of his mission where he was alone was when he crossed over into East Germany. And that, of course, was pretty much unavoidable.  Again, in this aspect, we see Donovan spending  time in a holding cell at the hands of those brutal East Germans.  Not only did that not occur, but also the incident that causes it did not happen either (e.g., the Abel family lawyer Wolfgang Vogel, speeding at over a hundred miles per hour in his sports car).

Let us close with three more points of divergence. The film makes much of the dealings between Donovan and the Russian Embassy official Ivan Schischkin, and the family lawyer, Vogel.  This is because Donovan wants to release both Abel and an American economics student imprisoned in East Germany, Frederic Pryor.  This led to a much longer mission than planned.  Two days stretched into over a week.   But this is not really accurate either.  For Donovan actually was trying to release three prisoners.  In addition to Pryor and Abel, he tried to release a man named Marvin Makinen.  At this he did not succeed.  But he did extract a promise that the Soviets would let him go later if super power relations improved.  They did, and in October of 1963, Makinen was freed.

The film shows Donovan having his coat stolen from him under threat from a small gang of East German thugs.  Again, this is not in Donovan’s book.   The arrest of Frederic Pryor is made while the Berlin Wall is being constructed.  As Pryor later revealed, he was not even in Berlin when the wall was going up. (Click here for more from Pryor).

I could go on further, but here is my question: Where are the history defiler zealots?  You know, those screaming  fanatics who come out of the woodwork whenever Oliver Stone makes a history film and uses elements of dramatic license?  This highly praised film got very little of that kind of criticism as far as I could see.  The Washington Post did allow David Talbot a brief column pointing out the Dulles fallacy and the actual primacy of President Kennedy over the mission. (See 10/28/15) But that was about it as far as I could tell.  I made this same distinction in my review of Clint Eastwood’s poor film J. Edgar. There really does seem to be a double standard for people in the club, and those not in the club—that is the Washington/Hollywood nexus.  It is a slice of pernicious hypocrisy that seems ingrained into our society.

But let me add something here. In Oliver Stone’s case, he is working in fields in which there are many unknowns (e.g., the JFK assassination, Nixon and Watergate). In other words, he is pushing the envelope. I don’t think that applies in this case.

As per the aesthetic elements of the film, Spielberg had a very long apprentice period as a director.  It was over ten years from when he began making his amateur films in Arizona until he made his first really well directed feature film, Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Since then, his films have generally been quite well made.  As noted above, he has a good pictorial eye, knows what he wants lighting wise, and his films are acutely edited.  As he himself has said, he doesn’t really have a directorial style.  He tries to serve the material at hand as well  as possible. And, most of the time, he does.  (Who can forget the disasters of Hook and 1941?)

I have always thought Tom Hanks was a gifted comic actor. He proved that on television in Bosom Buddies, and then furthered that reputation in Splash. In comedy he has energy, timing, and technical command.  I have never been very much enamored of him outside of comedy.  And when he tried to really stretch himself in Road to Perdition, playing a heavy, he fell on his face. (Whereas Michael Caine, who also is good in comedy, pulled off a similar role quite well in Get Carter.)  Hanks is passable here.  He doesn’t really act.  He flexes certain aspects of his personality to fit the moment.  Sort of what someone like Gary Cooper would have done in the fifties, before the Actor’s Studio revolution took hold.

On the other hand, British actor Mark Rylance as Fisher/Abel really does act.  It’s a subtle, understated performance.  One that is full of delicate secrets untold hidden inside the character.  From the start, Rylance is in that very low emotional register and he not only sustains it throughout, he manages to articulate the character without ever breaking out of that key.  It’s a union of both the British tradition of technical surety, combined with the American revolution of method acting.

As I noted in my book Reclaiming Parkland, Hanks and Spielberg have definite ambitions in doing historical subjects.  They both fancy themselves amateur historians.  Their idol in the field was the late Stephen Ambrose.  Bridge of Spies is a well-made film.  I just wish it had dispensed with a lot of the dramatic license, which I do not think was really necessary. It would also be nice to see these two men do something a little gutsy concerning American history. Like what Jeremy Renner did with his film about Gary Webb, Kill the Messenger. But as I also showed in my book, because of personal reasons, that doesn’t seem possible. At least not right now.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 02:30
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and Reclaiming Parkland (2013/2016), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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