Steven Spielberg’s powerful film, Bridge of Spies, asks some compelling psychological questions. Could there be two more different men than a Brooklyn lawyer in 1957 at the height of the Cold War and an alleged Russian spy – or are they different at all? And, if they aren’t, what is it exactly that forms an unexpected human bond in the face of hostile forces trying to bring them down? With James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) and Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) that connection boils down to one complex thing: being A Standing Man. What it means to be A Standing Man is at the heart of this film.
Threat Of Hostile Forces
The Cold War was a time of fear. Some caved in to fear and others, like Jim Donovan, stood up to it. Bridge of Spies tells the story of Donovan’s courageous defense of Rudolf Abel and his negotiation of the prisoner exchange of Abel for U.S. CIA operative Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). The Russians captured Powers when his U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in Soviet Union airspace in 1960.
The senior partner of his prestigious law firm saddles lawyer Jim Donovan with a near-impossible task: take on the defense of a Russian spy in order to defend the American Justice system at a time of anti-Communist hysteria. However, Abel’s defense is to be only pro forma, as far as Donovan’s partners and Judge Mortimer Byers (Dakin Matthews) are concerned: He’s Russian. A spy. Already guilty.
Jim Donovan isn’t a sell-out. He won’t give up his professional and personal values even though followed, threatened, and interrogated by the CIA. When CIA agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) asks: “Do we need to worry about you,” Donovan replies: “Not if I’m left alone to do my job.” He isn’t.
Fear overrides law and sanity. There is no due process. Abel is quickly found guilty on all three counts. Donovan’s request to set aside the verdict against the weight of the evidence, collected without a search warrant, is denied.
A Standing Man
Donovan refuses to give in to discouragement and he also observes Abel’s seemingly emotionless state. Abel begins to talk: “You remind me of a man who visited our house when I was a child. My father said to watch him closely. But he never did anything remarkable until one day our house was surrounded by border guards. They beat my father. Beat my mother. And they beat this man. Each time they beat him, he stood up. They beat him harder. Each time, he got back on his feet. I think, because of this, they stopped beating him and let him live. A Standing Man. That is what he was. A Standing Man.”
This sad story of a traumatic childhood is the story of respect for Jim Donovan. Donovan is A Standing Man. He artfully argues with the obstructive Judge Byers against the death penalty: “If we send this guy to death, we leave ourselves wide open with no (insurance) policy in our back pockets in case the U.S. needs to negotiate a prisoner exchange.” The U.S. did.
Although there’s pandemonium and outrage at the trial when the death sentence isn’t imposed (“why aren’t we hanging him?”) and hateful stares on the subway – none of that gets Donovan down. Neither does losing his case to the Supreme Court on grounds of a breach of Abel’s 4th Amendment rights to a search warrant. He pleads: “Rudolf Abel was a good soldier. He hasn’t fled to save himself. Hasn’t betrayed his country. The coward must abandon his dignity before he abandons the field of battle. That Rudolf Abel will never do.” Neither will Jim Donovan.
Never Taking No For An Answer
What does it take to stand up to your convictions? Courage is a necessary ingredient – in the face of antagonistic forces opposing you if you don’t do what they want. For Jim Donovan standing strong means traveling to Berlin, at Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ request, to negotiate the trade of Abel for Powers. It also means, at a time of great upheaval and building of the Berlin Wall, facing gang bullies, being threatened and coerced, and grave uncertainties about whether he’d be detained as a prisoner or end up dead.
Donovan is tricked. He’s tested. The subject of suspicion, he’s alone and in the dangerous secretive territory. He watches young people shot trying to jump the wall to escape. The Berlin negotiators want their way; Donovan wants his. Does he cave? Or does he stand strong – even in his insistence that Frederic Pryor, an innocent 25-year-old American Economics student, be part of the trade-in addition to Powers?
Jim Donovan doesn’t cave. He’s a tough negotiator, lays out his conditions, and won’t back down: “No deal for Abel unless we get Powers and Pryor . . . So far Abel’s been a good soldier, but if we have to tell him the Russians don’t want him and he’s never going home, I imagine his behavior might change and who will be responsible for that? Oh and also – there’s no deal unless we hear by the end of business today.” Donovan is playing hardball. He’s calling their bluff. It’s risky business, but he stands up to the bullies.
Confident And Unafraid
Some can be A Standing Man and some cannot. It takes impenetrable skin. Donovan may put up some internal walls against fear. Yet, being A Standing Man demands well-established confidence. You can’t be prey to self-doubt or self-criticism. These create a vulnerability to breaking down under intimidation or pressure. You can’t choose self-sacrifice in order not to make enemies. You certainly can’t be driven by fear.
Donovan has that confidence. So does Rudolf Abel. Fear never gets the best of either man. Fear can impel people to forfeit their principles, their ability to care, and their respect for others’ rights and humanity. Shying away from conflict, disagreement, hostility, and opposition undermines integrity. Jim Donovan stands by his convictions and his honor. He accomplishes the release of both Powers and Pryor.
The film ends, on the Bridge, with the prisoners being exchanged. Standing side-by-side, Abel tells Donovan: “What will I do when I get home? Will they shoot me? Am I worried? Would it help? I acted honorably. But, sometimes people think wrong. People are people.” People are afraid.
As Bridge of Spies comes to a close, Donovan and Abel look at each other knowingly, with warmth and respect. They are different men, from different countries, in different ways. But, they are the same. As they say, goodbye and Abel prepares to walk across the Bridge to meet Russian authorities that will take him home, he says quietly in Russian: “Standing Man.” Donovan and Abel are both Standing Men to the end.