Review: “Bridge of Spies” and Strangers On A Bridge

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Posted March 31, 2016

“Bridge of Spies,” a Stephen Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, is a thriller about the arrest, trial, and conviction of Colonel Rudolph Abel, a Russian spy, for espionage in 1957 in Brooklyn, New York, and the subsequent swap of Colonel Abel for Captain Francis Gary Powers of the U.S. Air Force. Captain Powers had been shot down while flying a classified U-2 spy plane in 1960 over the Soviet Union. After Powers’ capture, the Soviets found the U-2 and after meticulously examining the plane, publicly displayed it in the Kremlin in Moscow. A three-judge Soviet military court found Captain Power guilty of espionage although the U.S never received any military intelligence from the flight, which was his only mission. The events remained on the front pages of international newspapers for months.

Tom Hanks gives a masterful performance as James Donovan, a local civil trial lawyer appointed by the federal court at the recommendation of the local Brooklyn Bar Association to defend Colonel Abel. From the outset it is clear that the court, the prosecution, and Donovan’s colleagues (who initially encourage Donovan to accept the appointment) believe that the case against Abel is iron clad and that Colonel Abel’s trial will be a mere formality leading to a conviction and possible death sentence – – all as a result of the detailed information that the FBI had released to the press for several weeks before Colonel Abel first appeared in court for his formal arraignment. Donovan, who had been a U.S. Naval commander and general counsel to the OSS during World War II, and an associate prosecutor for the United States during the Nuremburg trials, makes it clear to everyone that he believes that under the U.S. Constitution every defendant, no matter how vilified, is entitled to a proper defense and a fair trial. At his first press conference about the case, Donovan compares Abel to Nathan Hale, the spy for the American colonies during the Revolutionary War, and Donovan says that he hopes that the U.S. has citizens abroad who are acting as spies for the United States. Donovan explains to those present at the press conference that he wants to see that Abel receives a fair trial so that if our spies are captured in a foreign country they will receive a fair trial abroad. Following the press conference, editorials are written across the country praising Donovan for accepting the case and defending Colonel Abel.

Colonel Abel is a pragmatic stoic with no illusions about the likely outcome of his trial. He is vividly portrayed by Mark Rylance, one of Great Britain’s finest Shakespearean actors, who has also won three Tony awards. Until “Bridge of Spies,” Rylance was best known in this country for his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Cardinal Woolsey and King Henry VIII, in the BBC’s mini-series “Wolf Hall.” Rylance, even when silent and motionless, is impossible to ignore, his presence is so compelling. The Cohen Brothers helped co-write the screen play, which is punctuated with a fresh, surprisingly good-natured sense of humor that repeatedly rises to the surface during the exchanges between Donovan and Colonel Abel as they come to know one another during the five years of Donovan’s representation of Abel.

After meeting with Colonel Abel to obtain his consent to be his attorney, Donovan provides a vigorous defense, not only at trial but through the ensuing appeal in the Second Circuit and the United States Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court hears argument in the case twice before affirming Abel’s conviction. In a 5–4 decision, Mr. Justice Frankfurter writing for the majority, the Supreme Court rejects Donovan’s contention that the FBI’s arrest and search of Colonel Abel and his apartment violated Abel’s Fourth Amendment rights. Incredibly, Donovan later successfully negotiates the exchange of Abel for Powers in Berlin, Germany, in 1962, the swap taking place in the early morning on a bridge in East Berlin with only the principals present.

The film is based on the 1964 bestselling book, Strangers On A Bridge, written by Donovan, who kept a daily journal about the case. Scribner has recently reissued the book in paperback with an informative introduction by Jason Matthews which places the book in historical perspective in connection with the October 2015 release of the Spielberg film. James B. Donovan, Strangers On A Bridge pp. 443 (Scribner August 2015).

Many years ago at a local fundraiser held where John Grisham was the featured guest, Grisham told everyone there that between a book and a film based on the book, they should “always buy the book.” The audience either took his comment as some good natured humor at his own expense, or they took it to heart (as I did). Between the film and the book, follow Grisham’s advice here and buy the book.

Strangers On A Bridge is one of the most inspiring books that I have ever read about our profession, which Donovan plainly regards as a calling, and our judicial system. Before Donovan ended his legal career, he tried civil cases to verdict in 30 different states. His book is one of the most revealing and insightful books that I ever read about accepting legal representation, working with a client, marshaling a trial theme, collecting evidence, preparing for and trying a case, and handling an appeal. An entire trial practice course could be built around the text, including the “lessons learned” or self-critique that Donovan gives of the jury’s guilty verdict against Colonel Abel. If you read any one book about the legal profession this year or for that matter any year, let this be the one.

  1. * John C. Henegan is a member of Butler Snow LLP and works in its offices in Ridgeland, Mississippi.