bridge of spies
© Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesMore Hollywood propaganda
In this new Cold War hit, set in the 1950's, a home-town lawyer is chosen to defend a captured Soviet spy, as anti-communist hysteria sweeps the US. Later, the lawyer, Donovan is recruited by the CIA to negotiate the release of captured American spies, including U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, captured by the Soviets after his spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace, in exchange for the Russian Colonel Abel.

The tortured tagline of the film sums up the propaganda point to be driven home: "In the shadow of war, one man showed the world what we stand for." What we (the US) stand for is supposedly a just and humane society where even a communist spy is entitled to a fair trial, compared to the supposed tyranny and cruelty of communist regimes.

However, the version of events presented in this film and the case it attempts to make in favor of America's system of "fair play" can easily be disproved. Many important details have been distorted or conveniently left out, while facts are presented out of historical context. Unfortunately, most Americans will accept this movie as a true recounting of historical events without question or further study.

I could discuss every single propaganda element in the film, such as the dark and gloomy atmosphere in East Berlin; the scowling faces of the East German border guards; the menacing and hostile demeanor of various communist officials, or scenes of torture. Instead, I will provide that facts that this film is supposedly based on, using the memoirs of the two primary American participants in these events - James Donovan and Francis Powers.

We can start by comparing the details and outcomes of the Abel trial in the US with the Powers' trial in the Soviet Union. Both spies were caught red-handed, so was no doubt as to their guilt. The purpose of the trials should have been to gather all available facts in order to arrive at punishments that fit the crime.

Powers stated in his autobiography, written a decade after his return to the US, that he suffered no abuse during his captivity in the Soviet Union. Abel, however, said that during his interrogation he was struck in the face by an FBI agent for refusing to cooperate.

Powers was told by the Soviets that execution for espionage was rare in the USSR, but Abel was informed that he would very likely get the death penalty. In fact, only a few years before Abel's trial in 1957, the Rosenbergs had been sent to the electric chair for activities on behalf of the Soviet Union. Finally, Powers received a relatively light 10 years imprisonment while Abel was given 30 years.

The Soviets were accused of subjecting Powers to a "show trial," but this is exactly what the Americans did with Rudolf Abel. As it turns out, despite all the blather about the high ideals of the American legal system, Donovan and his co-conspirators were mainly interested in promoting the idea of the so-called superior values of American "fair play". The real reason why Donovan wanted to save Abel's life was to hold him as a bargaining chip in the inevitable event of a spy swap with the Soviets.

It turns out that Donovan had been head legal counsel in the OSS, helping to organize its successor, the CIA, after WWII! He admitted in his memoirs that at the time he was defending Abel, he "still held a commission as a commander in Naval Intelligence."

All this makes sense in terms of American exceptionalism, but if the film had been shot from the Soviet perspective (taking into account the undeniable facts), it might go something like this:
The US repeatedly violates Soviet airspace until one of their spy planes is shot down. Despite the pilot's refusal to denounce the criminal activity of his government, he receives a very light sentence in comparison to America's treatment of captured Soviet agents.

Some time later, a CIA spymaster shows up in East Berlin demanding the release of three American spies in exchange for one Soviet spy. Although this naturally strikes the Soviets as unfair, they decide to cooperate. Colonel Abel returns home to a hero's welcome, while Francis Powers is held incommunicado by the CIA for "debriefing" for nearly a month, then is denounced by the media and received by much of the American public as a traitor (all true)!
  • Donovan, James B. Strangers on a Bridge. New York: Atheneum, 1967.
  • Powers, Francis Gary (with Curt Gentry). Operation Overflight. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.a