Bridge of Spies

I will establish, in what I am about to say, that I am a movie illiterate. Would that be an standing man 5invidiot? I like movies a lot, but I have no training and so, no depth of understanding. However. I would see nearly anything Steven Spielberg directs and nearly anything in which Tom Hanks stars and I have just seen Bridge of Spies twice in two days.

Spielberg moves from one scene to another in a way that just captivates me. Tom Hanks projects an affable man with a core of steel as well as anyone I know.

Bridge of Spies captures the very nice duality of Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing Gust Avrokotos, in Charlie Wilson’s War. Hoffman plays a ready to rumble CIA operative and Hanks a congressman. The two don’t hit it off right away. Wilson says, “So…you’re no James Bond,” to which Avrokotos replies, “…and you’re no Thomas Jefferson so let’s call it even.” [1]

In Bridge of Spies, Hanks is given the Avrokotos part. He meets with official East German diplomats and official Soviet diplomats and is dumped into East Berlin on his own.  He has no power and no authority, but he knows how to put a case when it matters and he has the guts of a burglar.

standing man 3Everybody knows that Rudolf Abel was a spy for the USSR. He was captured and exchanged for U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Jim Donovan was a lawyer specializing in insurance cases. He was asked to defend Abel, which he did, and then appealed Abel’s conviction to the Supreme Court. In the movie, he did that against the wishes of his law partner (Alan Alda) and his family. He lost at the Supreme Court as well, 5-4. [2]  That’s Mark Rylance in the middle, to Hanks’s right.

I point all that out just to say the nothing I am going to write here ought to be thought of as a spoiler. Besides, Donovan wrote about the whole affair himself in
Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers. So all I really want to do is froth a little about what I liked.

I liked Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Very quiet; very slow; very methodical. A marvelous wry sense of humor. He assures Donovan that he is not afraid to die. Then, after the perfect pause, he adds that it would not be his first choice. When Donovan marvels that Abel is not nervous, Abel asks, “Would it help?” They repeat that response several times and when I saw it the first time, the audience burst into laughter the third time the line showed up. “Hm,” I said to myself, “Radio humor.” You just keep using the line and the more often you hear it the funnier it gets.

standing man 2Abel also provides a wonderful metaphor for Donovan’s character and he does by telling a fairly long story about an event that happened in his home town when he was a small boy. He saw a man beaten, but then the man stood up again. They hit him harder, but he stood up again. Finally, the leader called the beating off and called the man, “Stoyashchego,” which, Abel says, is something like “standing man.” [3] I thought the story took too long to tell when I heard it first. It seemed an idle memory; just filling in Abel’s character.

But at the crucial moment at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Donovan risks it all. When he is supposed to let Abel go across the bridge, he just stands there, waiting. And Abel stands with him, waiting. And Abel says, “Stoyashchego.”

He doesn’t translate it. But now we know why that story he told took so long and why Abel gave us the Russian expression and also the English translation. Donovan, we now see, keeps getting back up.

And Spielberg makes his own commentary. After Powers, the American spy has come west and Abel, the Soviet spy has gone east, Donovan just stands there like this. I might be invidiot, but I’m not blind.

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

I liked Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan. He’s not hard to like, but because we like him, it is hard to remember to see his skills. I once had a mentor is state government who would reprove people tangled in needless conflict. “You are confronting a policy space the size of a football field,” he would say, “and you insist on fighting for space in a policy area the size of a phone booth.” That’s what Donovan did. He presented the situation in a way that allowed everyone to win something.

But that’s not all he did. Donovan was a nice guy, but if he had been only a nice guy, he would have lost this one. When he had been decisively defeated by the Soviet diplomat (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and then the East German diplomat (the German Democratic Republic) [4] and then arrested by the Volkspolizei, he stood back up and reframed the issue.

Here’s how he did that. He delivered this message to an underling who might or might not have understood what Donovan was saying. [5] The message he gave the underling was to ask his boss how he is going to feel explaining to the Soviets why they did not get their spy back because the East German was more interested in fending off a diplomatic snub by the United States. “Ask him,” said Donovan, in effect, “to picture himself delivering this message to people who will be angry and who have the means to punish him. Forget the law and what is fair and what will serve all parties and focus on whether you want to have to deliver that message.”

I remember these events from newspapers and TV. We do get to hear, it a brief clip, the voice of David Brinkley talking about the story. But I never understood the story this way. And now, if you will excuse me, Donovan’s account of what happened has arrived on my Kindle and I want to go read it.

[1] That’s not the way has the quotes, but that’s the way I remember them and they flow better the way I remember them.
[2] Frankfurter wrote the decision. He was joined by Harlan, Whittaker, Stewart, and Jackson. Brennan wrote the dissent, joined by Warren, Black, and Douglas.
[3] Erdem Gündüz is a Turkish dancer, actor, performance artist, choreographer, and teacher, a man I had never heard of until today. In 2013 he stood quietly in Istanbul’s Taksim Square as a protest against the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He became “internationally known,” according to a Wikipedia article as “The Standing Man.”
[4] Donovan quips at this point that the real difficulty is that the names are too long.
[5] We think, watching the movie, that he might have really understood because all his English prior to this was very correct and formal. But when Donovan asks if he understands the complicated message he has been asked to deliver, the kid replies in an amazingly colloquial way, “Got it.” And that was not, by the way, what anyone would have said in 1962. Spielberg knows he is addressing a 2015 audience and he “translates” the line from what would have been said in 1962 to what would carry the same tone today. Nice job.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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3 Responses to Bridge of Spies

  1. Cyberholmes says:

    Abel doesn’t say “Stoyashchego,” but rather “Stoykiy muzhik.”

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