Apr. 24th, 2016

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Bridge of Spies isn't a legal drama in the usual sense; there are a few courtroom scenes in the first part of the film, but the trial of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played in a quiet but captivating performance by Mark Rylance) is hardly shown. Rather, this is very much a film about Abel's lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), and his experiences both of representing - reluctantly at first - a very unpopular client, and then negotiating a swap of Abel for downed U-2 pilot Gary Powers.

I thought I'd like the film as someone interested in Cold War politics, but ended up enjoying it more as a lawyer. In particular, Bridge of Spies highlights two key aspects of being a lawyer: the fundamental ethical issues of duty to your client, and the importance of carefully planning, and resolutely adhering to, a negotiating strategy when seeking a compromise. We see the former as Donovan is subject to pressure from the CIA to divulge privileged discussions with Abel and to public and professional disdain for representing an enemy of the state, and the latter as Donovan seeks to broker a deal swapping Abel for both Powers and Frederic Pryor, an American student held by East Germany.

If I have a criticism it’s that Bridge of Spies rather compresses the timeline of events without really making this clear. From the film, you might think that Abel’s trial was followed not long after by the downing of Powers’ U-2, and that the idea of a swap of Powers for Abel arose very soon after that. In fact, Abel’s trial was in the latter part of 1957, Powers was shot down in May 1960, and the exchange on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin took place in February 1962. That said, the film is apparently fairly accurate, although one scene that seemed unlikely to me (Donovan, against all legal protocol, lobbying a judge in private and without the other side being represented) turns out in fact to have been created for the film (Donovan did make the argument about the value of keeping Abel alive rather than executing him, but in open court, as part of his submissions on sentence.) All in all, highly recommended.

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Simon Bradshaw

June 2017

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