How Accurate Is: Bridge of Spies (Movie, 2015, Steven Spielberg) Post 2

Donovan.
Donovan.

Hello everyone! Today’s post will be part 2 of the series on Bridge of Spies, focusing on the negotiations themselves and the treatment of the main character, James Donovan. Both historically and in the film, Donovan was a New York attorney and former prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials who was called upon to defend Abel in American court; he then became involved in the negotiations for the prisoner exchange because neither the American nor the Soviet government wanted to send officially recognized representatives. By and large, the film did a good job with the character of Donovan, with his arguments in court in particular lifted directly from the historical record (including his excellent arguments in front of the Supreme Court, which almost seem to have been made for a movie).[1] Donovan’s friendship with Abel was also accurate; historically, in fact, Abel sent Donovan 400-year old Latin commentaries on the Code of Justinian to thank him for his efforts on Abel’s behalf.[2] The role of Donovan in the negotiations was also more or less accurate with the major exception that attempting to free Pryor as well as Powers was not Donovan’s side project against direct orders from the CIA: in fact, the American government had always hoped to have Pryor freed as well.[3] This change was one of the largest because it made the CIA significantly less sympathetic than they come across as in the historical record, and increased Donovan’s role in the negotiations.

As for the negotiations themselves, several changes were made to the historical events. The “Abel family” employed by the Soviet government was historical, however; “Cousin Drewes” in particular was actually a fairly high-ranking KGB agent who had also been the author of the letters received by Donovan from “Mrs. Abel”.[4] One character who was treated poorly by the film was Vogel, the East German lawyer who was the main point of contact for the Pryor transfer. The film depicted him as working primarily for the Stasi, with his main concern regarding Pryor being whether his release would add to the prestige of East Germany. In fact, he was Pryor’s official lawyer (though he was also a Stasi informer), and was quite important in securing his release; the scene where he got Donovan arrested by the Stasi to win an argument was also quite fictional.[5] Pryor himself commented that the film had been unfair to Vogel, stating that “Vogel was actually a very nice guy.”[6] One excellent scene in the book Bridge of Spies mentioned the cast of characters who attended Vogel’s funeral, comprising former top diplomats from the US, the USSR, and the GDR who had been stationed in Berlin.[7]

The Glienicke Bridge, where the swap took place.
The Glienicke Bridge, where the swap took place.

Besides Vogel, the negotiations in the film proceeded more or less as they had been supposed to. One thing not mentioned in the film was that Donovan, by refusing to meet with Vogel on the first day of negotiations, nearly sabotaged any chance Pryor had of being released; the East German government, who was mainly interested in being seen as an equal player in the negotiations, was insulted and tried to call the whole thing off.[8] Donovan luckily changed his mind and managed to smooth things over, possibly without ever realising how important the meeting had been to the proceedings. The delay involving Pryor’s arrival during the actual prisoner swap was also not the result of the East Germans reconsidering, but rather trying to inflate their importance by delaying the main swap, involving Powers and Abel, for as long as possible.[9] This was likely done by the East German Attorney General; unlike in the film, however, Donovan never met with him in person. Once again, the CIA was treated unfairly; in the film the CIA urges Donovan to complete the swap without waiting for Pryor, while historically it was understood by all parties that the swap could not be completed until he was free.[10]

Bridge of Spies, for its few faults, was an excellent film. It was mostly historically accurate, well-acted, well-directed, and well-conceived. There were few parts of the film that were not enjoyable to watch, and despite already knowing everything that happened I found myself in suspense multiple times. I would recommend this film to anyone who is interested in the history of the Cold War or particularly enjoys movies starring Tom Hanks. I hope you all enjoyed this post, and have a wonderful day.

References:

1 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 111.

2 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 247.

3 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 233.

4 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 226.

5 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 238.

6 Swarthmore University. “Economist Frederic Pryor Recounts Life as a ‘Spy’.” Last modified October 2015.

http://www.swarthmore.edu/news-events/economist-frederic-pryor-recounts-life-a-spy

7 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 259.

8 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 241.

9 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 252.

10 Whittell, Giles. Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War. Canada, Doubleday Canada: 2010. 250.

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