Hello everyone! Today’s post is on the 2015 film Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks. The film focuses on one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War: the 1962 spy swap of spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers and PhD student Frederic Pryor for “Rudolf Abel”, a high-ranking Soviet spy in the United States. The film was quite good, and Hanks in particular played his role to a tee; Mark Rylance, who played Abel, also did an excellent job. Overall, the film was also fairly accurate. It took its title and its inspiration from Giles Whittell’s Bridge of Spies, a book chronicling the events leading up to and comprising the spy swap. The film began its narration later than did the book; while the book, for example, devoted more than a chapter to Abel’s mission in the United States, the film began with his capture.
Abel’s mission was left out of the film for good reason, however; it is uncertain what, if anything, he accomplished during his time in the United States. Whittell states that he played an extremely minor role in the Soviet theft of atomic secrets, and speculates that he may have taken pictures of American shipments headed for Chiang Kai-Shek’s China, as well as possibly spying on the progress of the American space program; however, due to the fact that he maintained a studious silence while in prison, and his relatively leisurely existence as a painter while in the United States, little more than speculation is available. Abel, for that matter, was not Abel at all; though the film does not go into it, his real name was William Fisher. Having used various aliases while in the United States, Fisher chose the name Abel while in prison because he had been arrested by Citizenship and Immigration (on the grounds of being an illegal alien, which was technically true), and he hoped that by posing as an illegal immigrant named Rudolf Abel he would be deported to East Germany. Besides these details, however, the depiction of Abel in the film was more or less accurate. He was as taciturn in real life as in the film, his relationship with James Donovan (Hanks in the film) was as warm in history as on screen. While the film did not mention how long Abel spent in prison, it did seem to speed through the four years he was imprisoned, compressing them into something closer to one. While Abel himself may not have emerged from his imprisonment better off, his reputation certainly did; both the United States (because they had captured him) and the Soviet Union (to make their intelligence services seem more impressive) had motivation to transform Abel into a master spy, and this is how he has gone down in history (though interestingly enough, the film does not play up his status as a spy).
Francis Gary Powers was the second spy in the mix. A pilot with the CIA, he had been tasked with flying the U2 reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union, and had been downed by an anti-aircraft missile on May 1, 1960. While the film left out the geopolitical chaos this crash caused, historically this incident was responsible for the failure of a much-anticipated summit between the four “Great Powers” (France, Britain, the US, and the USSR). Khrushchev stormed out of this summit when President Eisenhower refused to apologise for the overflights or promise they would not occur again. The chief inaccuracy in the film was the depiction of Powers being ordered to blow up his plane and kill himself if shot down over the USSR. Historically, there was no official procedure for if the plane was shot down due to the fact that it was assumed that neither the plane nor the pilot could survive any hostile action. There was a detonator switch, but it only affected the cameras rather than the plane itself. As for the order to commit suicide, Giles Whittell states that it is “flat wrong to say that [Powers] was under orders to kill himself.” There was an optional poison-coated pin of the kind depicted in the film, but there was no expectation that Powers would use it; it was simply a way out if torture and execution seemed likely. Powers had, in fact, been instructed to cooperate with the KGB if caught, because it was felt the KGB would likely obtain his secrets anyways.
The third “spy” of the group was Frederic Pryor, a PhD student in economics from Yale. He was imprisoned by the East German Stasi soon after the Berlin Wall was constructed. Unlike in the film, he was not trying to smuggle out a girlfriend when captured; rather, he was visiting a friend’s sister who turned out to have already fled to the West. The KGB was staking out her apartment in case anyone arrived to retrieve her belongings, and upon discovering his PhD thesis (on the foreign trade system of the Eastern Bloc) he was immediately imprisoned. Also unlike in the film, more than one copy of his thesis existed, which removes some of the tension from the scene where he is captured. The rest of Pryor’s story played out historically much as it did in the film; as he was not truly a spy, he had little to give his Stasi interrogators, and therefore his release depended only on the pride of the East German government.
The three spies (or “spies”, in the case of Pryor) were therefore treated with a fair degree of accuracy by the film. There were changes made to the case of each individual, which by and large appear to have been made to make the story seem more dramatic. Pryor’s capture while trying to sneak back across the border (while the wall was being built, whereas in history it was a week or more afterwards) makes a more dramatic story than being arrested on false pretenses by the Stasi; Powers having been ordered to commit suicide makes his failure to do so a justified outrage in the eyes of the American people. Abel is portrayed with the most accuracy out of the three, as the changes to his story mostly take the form of omissions. Part 2 of this series will focus on the accuracy of the negotiations themselves and of the central character, James Donovan. I hope you all enjoyed this post, and have a wonderful day.
1 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 18.
2 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 7.
3 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 95.
4 Encyclopedia Britannica. “Rudolf Abel.” Last modified April 2012.
5 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 195.
6 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 168.
7 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 255.
8 Swarthmore University. “Economist Frederic Pryor Recounts Life as a ‘Spy’.” Last modified October 2015.
9 Swarthmore University. “Economist Frederic Pryor Recounts Life as a ‘Spy’.” Last modified October 2015.