The story of a negotiated exchange of a Russian spy for a captured US fighter pilot doesn’t sound like a promising topic for a movie, but this is an excellent film. Spielberg at his best is an outstanding storyteller, and he’s found a good one here.
When Rudolf Abel was arrested for espionage in Brooklyn in 1957, the local Bar Association decided to assign him a lawyer (not a given, pre-Gideon) to demonstrate the moral superiority of The American Way. They pick a local insurance defense lawyer, James Donovan, whose only criminal experience was at the Nuremberg trials. Of course, this is all a bit disingenuous — the Bar wants the appearance of a defense, not a real one. But Donovan doesn’t see it that way — he takes the case all the way to the Supreme Court. And doing so doesn’t make him very popular, with the public or his law firm.
He loses, of course. But along the way, he convinces the judge to give Abel a long prison sentence instead of the death penalty. What if, suggests Donovan, they capture one of out guys — wouldn’t we like to have one of theirs “on the shelf” to trade?
Four years later, Francis Gary Powers is shot down in a U-2 spying over Russia, and the Russians do indeed seek a trade. Donovan is tapped for the job of negotiating the exchange, on an “unofficial” basis. Donovan decides to negotiate not just for Powers, but also for an American grad student, Frederick Pryor, who had recently been picked up by the East Germans. The CIA is apopleptic — they don’t care about Pryor– but Donovan, a sort of genius negotiator, understands that his lack of official status actually gives him a lot of bargaining power.
The exchange on the bridge, shot on the actual bridge where the real-life exchange took place, is unexpectedly moving.
James Donovan is a stand-up guy, and nobody does stand-up guy better than Tom Hanks. But the truly outstanding performance, in my mind, is that of Mark Rylance as Abel. Most actors are larger-than-life individuals, and are at their best portraying larger-than-life characters. But to be a successful spy like Abel, you have to be the kind of individual who totally blends into the scenery, whom nobody notices. How Rylance accomplishes that feat I don’t know, but there are moments when he seems to totally disappear from the screen — even in courtroom scenes where you know he has to be there. When he is part of a scene, of course, you can’t take your eyes off him.
The Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay — their slice of wry is a good balance to Spielberg’s sometimes schmaltzy tendencies. And the movie-makers are alert to the ways certain parts of this story resonate with modern concerns, without hitting you over the head with them.
Historical note 1: The movie begins with the dread “inspired by true events” tagline, which sometimes means they’ve made a total FUBAR out of the facts. Not here though — after a little research, it appears that the movie sticks pretty close to the facts, and most of the changes (like the circumstances of Pryor’s capture) are peripheral to the main story. But many of the movie’s most surprising facts, like the comically inept FBI search of Abel’s apartment, and the fact the Donovan later negotiated a prisoner exchange following the Bay of Pigs debacle, are absolutely true.
The historical inaccuracies, such as they are, tend to be those are of omission. Donovan was at Nuremberg in part because of the 3 years he spent at the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) during WWII — he wasn’t a total newcomer to the spy business. And the historically accurate hollowed-out nickels that the Russians used to transmit messages, shown at the beginning of the film, actually contributed to Abel’s capture. One of Abel’s associates, less careful, accidentally used one of these hollow nickels to buy a newspaper, which led to his arrest; he ultimately ratted out Abel.
Historical note 2: After Donovan wrote a book about the incident, in 1965, there was some thought about making it into a movie, with Gregory Peck (a previous generation’s stand-up guy) in the lead role. The studios deemed it not commercially viable, however — Cold War tensions still ran too high.
Fun fact: The rock band U2 was named after the high-altitude spy plane that figures in this movie. Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson, has a small part in this movie as Donovan’s daughter.