• Marc Johnson

The Rules Matter…

Director Steven Spielberg’s latest offering – Bridge of Spies – works on several levels as his best films tend to. In fact, it may be one of his very best films.

Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as his attorney James B. Donovan


The movie is a classic big screen thriller with adequate action and suspense. It’s a finely tuned period piece (mid-century modern) complete with old cars, vintage billboards, and “duck and cover” filmstrips.

Bridge of Spies is also an actor’s movie with superb performances by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, perhaps the world’s most acclaimed stage actor, and a talent that will be new to many movie goers.

And since this is Spielberg, the film is also an American history lesson.

When the Cold War Was Really Cold…

Hanks, who seems to hit his stride when working with Spielberg, plays New York attorney, James B. Donovan, who improbably becomes the key player in arranging a celebrated Cold War prisoner swap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The action is set at the end of the Eisenhower Administration and continues on into the Kennedy years – days of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and spy versus spy.

The key figures in the prisoner swap – again all true – were the young American Air Force lieutenant Francis Gary Powers, who is appropriated to fly spy planes for the CIA, and the notorious Soviet spy, Colonel Rudolf Abel.

Francis Gary Powers with a model U-2 spy plane after his release from a Soviet jail in 1962


Powers became a Soviet prisoner in May 1960 when his U-2 spy plane was shot down in the Ural Mountain region of the Soviet Union during a photography run. Powers survived the crash – great scene in the movie – and was captured by the KGB.

The Eisenhower Administration originally tried to pass off the incident as a wayward weather aircraft, but the Soviets produced wreckage of the super-secret U-2 and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reaped an international propaganda windfall. A summit meeting in Berlin was cancelled and efforts to improve U.S.-Soviet relations were temporarily derailed. It was a major international incident that also had the human dimension of a young American with a head full of secrets about U.S. spy activities sitting in a Russian jail.

Earlier, in 1957, after a long string of events that read, appropriately enough, like something out of John Le Carre, the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service identified Colonel Abel as a Soviet spy who had been operating in the United States for some time. Abel was arrested in Brooklyn, tried, and convicted of espionage. The New York lawyer, Donovan, was appointed by the federal court in New York to defend him.

The film mangles some of the timeline and a few things are invented out of whole cloth – this is Hollywood after all – but the real power of the story and its great relevance today is in the courtroom scenes where Abel is first convicted and then loses an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

After seeing and completely enjoying the film, I got to wondering what really happened in the U.S. justice system during the height of the Cold War when the government tried a man thought to be a Soviet spy.

Does a Soviet Spy Deserve Due Process…

The film understandably compresses a good deal of the story, which played out over several years, but makes some powerful and important points in the telling.

A basic question is raised early on when attorney Donovan (played by Hanks) has to confront the dilemma of an upstanding attorney, a pillar of the New York Bar, signing on to do his best to defend a Russian spy. What are the implications for his career, his law firm, his family? I immediately thought about the private attorneys who continue to represent Guantanamo detained terror suspects.

The real Rudolf Abel


The film makes us confront whether it is merely enough to give Abel a defense that goes through the motions of due process or whether he deserves a no-holds-barred defense, including appeals on grounds that his hotel room and apartment were improperly searched.

At one point a CIA operative shadows Donovan in order to question him about what his client has been saying. Donovan, in one of the film’s best moments, tells the CIA fellow that he won’t – indeed can’t – talk about what his client is telling him since it is protected by attorney-client privilege. There are rules, Donovan says, most importantly the Constitution that make our system different than the system that is detaining Gary Powers.

Abel’s case, both in the film and real life, eventually reaches the Supreme Court over the question of the lack of a proper warrant that specifically authorizes a search the defendant’s rooms. Give Spielberg credit, he even gets the Supreme Court courtroom correct. Abel’s case was argued, actually twice, in 1959 and the courtroom has since been remodeled.

The case turned on a complex question about whether a warrant for an “administrative arrest” – Abel was actually arrested by the immigration service after being detained and questioned by the FBI – allowed the subsequent FBI search of his rooms. The celebrated Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the rather technical 5-4-majority opinion upholding the legality of the search and Abel’s conviction stood.

This is a notorious case, with a notorious defendant…

As is often the case, the dissents in such cases make for better reading and offer more insight into the workings of our justice system. Justice William O. Douglas wrote one of the dissents in the Abel case and Justice William J. Brennan another.

Mr. Justice Douglas


“Cases of notorious criminals—like cases of small, miserable ones—are apt to make bad law,” Douglas wrote in his dissent, which was joined by Justice Hugo Black.

“When guilt permeates a record, even judges sometimes relax and let the police take shortcuts not sanctioned by constitutional procedures. That practice, in certain periods of our history and in certain courts, has lowered our standards of law administration. The harm in the given case may seem excusable. But the practices generated by the precedent have far-reaching consequences that are harmful and injurious beyond measurement. The present decision is an excellent example.”

Douglas was saying sure this Abel is a Soviet spy – a notorious criminal – but the rules apply to him just as they apply to “small, miserable” law breakers.

“If the F.B.I. agents had gone to a magistrate, any search warrant issued would by terms of the Fourth Amendment have to ‘particularly’ describe ‘the place to be searched’ and the ‘things to be seized,’” Douglas wrote. “How much more convenient it is for the police to find a way around those specific requirements of the Fourth Amendment! What a hindrance it is to work laboriously through constitutional procedures! How much easier to go to another official in the same department! The administrative officer can give a warrant good for unlimited search. No more showing of probable cause to a magistrate! No more limitations on what may be searched and when!”

Brennan was just as pointed: “This is a notorious case, with a notorious defendant. Yet we must take care to enforce the Constitution without regard to the nature of the crime or the nature of the criminal. The Fourth Amendment protects ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ This right is a basic one of all the people, without exception…”

Real American Exceptionalism…

The court case and the film also make the fundamental point that Abel, not a U.S. citizen, still enjoyed the full protections of the country’s justice system, a point worth pondering as the terror suspects sit year after year in Cuba.

President Kennedy with James B. Donovan who also negotiated the return of Bay of Pigs captives


Rudolf Abel languished in U.S. prisons until early 1962 when the Donovan-brokered exchange took place on a bridge dividing East and West Berlin. That bridge gives the film its title. The New York attorney was publicly acknowledge by the Kennedy Administration as having helped make the arrangements.

The negotiations over the swap are some of the best moments of the film and, intentionally or not, Spielberg shows that the New York insurance lawyer who became an Cold War negotiator turned out to be a lot better high stakes deal maker than his CIA minders.

The film is already getting some Oscar buzz – it is certainly worthy – if only for its deft storytelling and the great performances. Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Rudolf Abel is nothing short of brilliant. And the script by the Cohen Brothers is first rate. A typical Cohen touch is the reoccurrence of Abel’s response when his lawyer asks him if he’s worried or afraid: “Would it help?” That has become my new mantra.

As good as the movie is as entertainment here’s hoping a few enterprising high school (or college) teachers use the film in class to make the more important points about our justice system and our history.

The hero in the film is, of course, attorney Donovan, a man mostly lost to history whose role in Abel’s trial and in the spy swap may now finally enjoy some long overdue recognition. Donovan, who died in 1970, spent years working on the Russian spy’s defense and appeals and donated half his $10,000 fee to Fordham University and split the rest between Harvard and Columbia. Setting aside the Abel case and the spy swap, the rest of Donovan’s career – naval officer, Nuremberg prosecutor, New York board of education member, U.S. Senate candidate – was truly incredible. A great American story.

Even though he lost at every level Donovan said after the Supreme Court ruling, “The very fact that Abel has been receiving due process of law in the United States is far more significant, both here and behind the Iron Curtain, than the particular outcome of the case.”

That one sentence says a lot about why we won the Cold War.

 

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson