November 21st 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Gender variety has no basis in science

CANBERRA OBSERVED PM's political capital may be tax-reform casualty

EDITORIAL IPCC and the media: Last Tango in Paris

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Poland's election sends shock waves through EU

THE ELECTRONICS REVOLUTION Create infrastructure to bridge coming robo gap

LIFE ISSUES Keeping a straight face with Andrew Denton on euthanasia

LIFE ISSUES With Nitschke out of death industry, Exit must go next

EUROPEAN AFFAIRS Euro banks were lending like there's no tomorrow

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Polls show conservative resurgence at grassroots

RELIGION IN RUSSIA State control, Slavophiles prepare way for apostasy

CULTURE Mankind needs to work; and mankind needs work

PUBLIC POLICY Drug substitutes used as treatment are lethal

CINEMA The man who stands back up: Bridge of Spies

BOOK REVIEW We're getting better all the time


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The man who stands back up: Bridge of Spies

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, November 21, 2015

In Bridge of Spies, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) calls James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) “standing man” – the man who gets beaten and stands back up, who stands up to injustice. This idea, that of the upstanding man, the man who believes in justice and fair treatment for all, lies at the heart of the American way – at least as mythologised by Hollywood.

Family Court Chief Justice Diana Bryant,

left, and Federal Circuit Court Chief

Judge John Pascoe.

The movie takes its lead from the true story of James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who represented accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, and then went on to negotiate the exchange of Abel for American prisoners held by the Russians and the East Germans. It is a story that brings out the best in human nature and the American way, while not shying away from the nastier undercurrents of political expedience and the potential for mob anger.

The FBI is tracking Rudolf Abel. They believe him to be a spy, not just the intense solitary perfectionist artist he appears to be. The thing is, they’re right; and when they swoop in and raid his home and studio, they find extensive evidence of his involvement in espionage. Abel denies the charges and refuses to cooperate with the intelligence services, so his case goes to court.

James B. Donovan is an insurance lawyer and he is good at what he does. He’s a smooth talker and a canny advocate, but he is also a decent man dedicated to truth, justice and the American way. He is nominated to represent Abel, despite his protests that he has not practised criminal law since the Nuremberg trials. To the surprise of his friends, colleagues and the public, Donovan takes his brief seriously, leading to hate mail and even attacks on his family home.

All the prosecution want is a fair trial. They are willing to ignore any procedural issues due to the weight of evidence, and the enormity of the crime. Instead, Donovan takes the case all the way to Supreme Court, fighting all the time for Abel. He successfully argues against the death penalty on two grounds: one, that Abel is a soldier, even if in service of another power; and two, that it is only a matter of time before the Russians catch an American agent. If that happened, then it would be useful to have an insurance policy in the form of a Russian operative to trade.

On top of this, the paranoid East German security forces accuse a young American economics student who is studying in East Germany, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), of espionage and hold him without charge.Meanwhile, the CIA is training pilots for their top secret U-2 aerial surveillance program. Among the pilots is Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). A few years after Abel’s imprisonment, the Soviets shoot down a U-2 piloted by Powers. Unable to activate the plane’s self-destruct mechanism, he is easily convicted in a Russian court of espionage and sentenced to hard labour.

It is now that Donovan’s “insurance policy” proves useful and the CIA under Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) approaches him to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers. On hearing of Pryor’s case, Donovan decides to try to free him too, whether the CIA likes it or not. And so Donovan secretly goes to East Germany to orchestrate the swap, all the while navigating the friction between the East Germans and the Russians and the CIA’s single-minded focus on Powers.

Bridge of Spies is an elegantly and expertly crafted film, that harks back to the classical values, in both senses of the term, of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography draws on film noir and Frank Capra, while the ideals are the sort that Jimmy Stewart embodied.

The script by the Coen brothers and Matt Charman emphasises the humanity of the protagonists in the face of the growing threat of nuclear war. Intriguingly, in their desire to portray Donovan as an Everyman, they gloss over his wartime experience with the precursor of the CIA, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and his role as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, where he assembled the video footage of the death camps.

A fascinating aside is that it is suspected that one of the models for Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird was Donovan, and Gregory Peck, who played Finch in the film, also sought to portray Donovan in an earlier film version of this story.

The ideal of the honourable man who sticks by his principles, even when it would be expedient to act otherwise, is inspiring, especially in an age when heroes tend to be anti-heroes and when darkness is “realistic”. James B. Donovan lived in dark times, and yet he managed to stand against them. Bridge of Spies makes the case that we need not succumb, and that good may triumph.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCE).

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