Bridging the Gaps

October 21, 2015

Multiple Pages
Bridging the Gaps

Almost three years ago, the Academy Awards gave the Best Picture Oscar to Ben Affleck’s Iranian hostage drama Argo to encourage making more medium-budget movies for grown-ups. Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s Cold War film about the negotiations to exchange Soviet spymaster Rudolf Abel for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, is very much in the Argo tradition.

With Spielberg’s eye for re-creating the physical environment of his childhood years, a screenplay rewritten by the Coen brothers, and Tom Hanks as master negotiator James B. Donovan, Bridge of Spies might well be better than Argo. Yet, while the liberties taken with history didn’t much hurt Argo’s impact (unless you are a Canadian annoyed by the diminishment of the heroic Canadian role), the rewriting of Bridge of Spies’ leading man to make the role more suitable for Hanks’ famous regular-guy routine has left Spielberg and the Coens seeming a little furtive.

Spielberg should focus upon period pieces set during his youth, in the manner of his sunny soufflé Catch Me if You Can. So I can’t complain that Bridge of Spies takes place in Spielberg’s wheelhouse years of 1957–1962.

The new film appears intended to serve as the minor-key complement to that 2002 comedy. Hanks, who played the FBI agent chasing Leonardo DiCaprio in the earlier film, now is lawyer James B. Donovan, who first defended Abel in court.

It’s not clear what Abel did to earn his pay from Moscow in 1950s New York except hang around with various leftist portrait artists such as Jules Feiffer and Burton Silverman (who later painted the cover of Aqualung for Jethro Tull) while they moaned about the dominance of abstract expressionism (which was backed by the CIA). Spielberg is of course a big fan of Norman Rockwell, so in Bridge of Spies he seems to view Abel’s amateur socialist realist paintings during the Jackson Pollock era as a major factor in the spy’s favor.

This is a darkly lit film, much of it taking place in frigid, devastated East Berlin, with multiple characters coming down with the sniffles. Most of the supporting actors appear to have been chosen for how they can be lit to look grotesque. Spielberg doesn’t do things by accident, so the ugliness of the minor characters is likely intentional, but I don’t really know why Spielberg did this.

“The biggest historical integrity problem with Bridge of Spies is that James B. Donovan is rewritten to be an average American nobody.”

Scott Shepherd is cast as the main CIA man, and he is made up to look like a stereotypical Yale Man to the point of congenital deformity. That’s standard practice in movies—you can almost always recognize the CIA’s inbred WASP goblin from the moment he comes on screen. For reasons of ethnic resentment, when casting their thin, balding CIA agents, filmmakers tend to take the CIA’s traditional connection to Yale’s Skull and Bones Society a little too literally.

But why is the actor who plays pilot Powers made up to look like the Unfrozen Caveman Cast Member of The Right Stuff? My main memory of Powers from when I was a kid is as the nervous but amiable eye-in-the-sky traffic reporter on local radio station KGIL. He was much criticized in 1960 for not using his suicide device, which may be why when his sky-watch helicopter was heading for a crash landing on a baseball field in 1977, he dove it into the ground rather than risk wiping out a Little League team. Powers seems like an interestingly tragic figure, one that Spielberg could do justice to, so I don’t get the film’s off-kilter portrayal of him.

Maybe there’s a bit of Dick Tracy in Spielberg’s conception for Bridge of Spies? Chester Gould’s cartoon strip was hugely popular when the director was a kid; J. Edgar Hoover was a big fan of Dick Tracy; the villains were grotesque; and it featured lots of cool gadgets like those Abel was equipped with, such as his infamous Hollow Nickel that a 14-year-old newsboy discovered, setting the FBI off on a four-year-quest for its owner. (This made-for-Spielberg scene is omitted from the movie.)

Or perhaps Spielberg’s efforts to make serious, thoughtful movies for adults impede his genius for making movies about 14-year-old boys who discover Hollow Nickels?

Hanks plays Donovan as his usual American Everyman, an obscure outer-boroughs insurance lawyer, a junior partner who deals with traffic accidents. When the deep-cover Soviet spymaster is arrested in New York City in 1957, the Brooklyn Bar Association assigns the unlucky Donovan the job of defending the mole to show the world that the American Way provides even an obviously guilty Commie rat with a lawyer.

The plucky outsider puts up a whale of a defense, making him hated by the reactionary Establishment, who fire bullets into his house. Donovan courageously takes his motion to have the Hollow Nickel and other physical evidence thrown out on some ridiculous technicality all the way to the Warren Supreme Court, where he loses, but only by 5–4.

The underdog attorney does save Abel’s life by pointing out to the trial judge that he would be more valuable to the U.S. alive as trade bait for a captured American spy. This proves prescient, because on the CIA’s first-ever overflight of the Soviet Union, Power’s U-2 is shot down.

Donovan receives a letter from Abel’s wife, which he interprets as a Kremlin offer to trade Powers for Abel. He takes the letter to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who dispatches him to East Berlin to close the deal. Various complications arise, but Donovan ultimately brings home not only Powers but also an American grad student kidnapped by the East German Stasi.

By Hollywood standards, the history in the movie isn’t particularly fictitious, although nobody ever shot at Donovan’s house. (He actually lived in a 14-room condo in Prospect Park.)

More strangely, the movie gives the impression that Power’s doomed flight on May 1, 1960, was the U-2’s first ever over the Soviet Union. It was actually the 24th since 1956.

I’m biased about the U-2 because friends of my parents helped Kelly Johnson design the U-2 at the Lockheed Skunk Works. In contrast to the national disgrace that is Lockheed’s protracted development of its F-35 fighter, the U-2 project was a masterpiece of getting-the-job-done. Only 20 months after the contract was signed, this jet-powered sailplane was violating Soviet airspace. These flights photographed 15 percent of the huge territory of the Soviet Union, and may have helped head off World War III. At the peak of Khrushchev’s bellicose boasting after the 1957 Sputnik launch, Eisenhower had photographic evidence that the Soviet military was less formidable than claimed.

Perhaps that sounds like too much historical background to get across in a movie, but talents like Spielberg and the Coens could no doubt do it in under 60 seconds. Without this big-picture perspective, however, it’s hard for viewers to figure out why we’re being asked to watch a long, slow-paced movie about lawyers talking.

The biggest historical integrity problem with Bridge of Spies is more comprehensible: James B. Donovan is rewritten to be an average American nobody. Tom Hanks, with his generic Western-third-of-the-U.S. accent and nondescript middle-class mannerisms, has made a tremendous career out of playing median American men with surprising reserves of heroism. It’s perfectly understandable that Spielberg would want to tailor the role for the strong suit of his old friend Hanks—after all, these guys made Saving Private Ryan together—but the needed disingenuousness subtly saps the entire movie.

A half century ago, MGM bought the rights to Donovan’s memoir to let Gregory Peck play another brave lawyer after To Kill a Mockingbird. The Gregory Peck version never got made, but the Tom Hanks rendition doesn’t advance much over that moldy conception.

In reality, James B. Donovan (1916–1970) wasn’t a little liberal battling the mighty conservative Establishment. Instead, he was a star member of the ruling Northeastern liberal Establishment. He was an insider, an upper-class Irish Catholic Ivy Leaguer just one notch down the charisma curve from the Kennedys and the Buckleys. The true Donovan could have been portrayed better by Alec Baldwin, who got extensive practice playing überexecutive Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock.
Donovan was the son of a wealthy surgeon. After graduating from Fordham, he asked his dad to help him get started on his journalism career by buying him a small-town newspaper to own. Dear old Dad said, sure, but first you have to go to Harvard Law School.

As a twentysomething lawyer, he enjoyed a wonderful war, starting out as associate general counsel of the government agency in charge of the atomic-bomb project. In 1943, Donovan became the general counsel of the swashbuckling Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA, which was founded by Wild Bill Donovan, the Irish Catholic head of a major Wall Street white-shoe law firm.

The younger Donovan doesn’t appear to have been closely related to Wild Bill, but he did fit in perfectly with the debonair old-boys’ network at OSS, which critics said stood for “Oh So Social.”

The movie fails to mention that Hanks’ character had been the head lawyer for America’s spy service, but it does admit that the younger Donovan had been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders, while implying he must have had some dull clerical role.

In truth, Donovan had the most glamorous job among the prosecutors, producing the OSS’ documentary movies about Nazi crimes using the talents of Hollywood filmmakers like John Ford (Stagecoach) and George Stevens (Gunga Din, the inspiration for Spielberg’s spectacular Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). This no doubt helps explains why Spielberg was drawn to Donovan’s obscure story, but the lawyer’s connection to legendary directors never comes up in the movie.

Donovan came back to New York and became a name partner in Watters & Donovan. Eventually he was the 1962 Democratic candidate in New York for the U.S. Senate, but lost to the liberal Republican incumbent, Jacob Javits, probably because Donovan was more centrist, especially about civil rights, than his Republican opponent.

In other words, James B. Donovan was, like his boss Wild Bill Donovan, a representative example of the New York law/business insiders who played a huge role in the American foreign-policy and intelligence establishment. These were typically partners at Eastern Seaboard law and investment banking firms, men senior enough to take time out from busy Wall Street or Midtown careers to serve in Washington or in foreign capitals.

The movie presents Donovan being assigned the Soviet spy’s defense as a fluke, but I suspect there was little that was random about it. The former head lawyer of the OSS could be counted upon to protect intelligently the interests of American foreign policy, including saving Abel from the death penalty.

An interesting movie could might someday be made about how the American liberal ruling class operated, but first it would be necessary to admit the existence of rule by liberals, a step Spielberg doesn’t seem ready to take.

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