Bridge of Spies

Who protects American freedoms more than criminal defense lawyers who put the government to its proof at trial?

Bridge of SpiesTo be quite frank, Bridges of Spies is not a great movie, but it is a great reflection on American history. As Mr. Spielberg demonstrated in Lincoln (2012), there are powerful moments in our country’s history that deserve to be remembered. Put another way, how can we hope to understand who we are if we don’t remember who we were?

Based on a true story, Mr. Spielberg focuses his attention on the height of the Cold War being waged by the USSR and the U.S. in the late 1950s and early 1960s. No one trusted anyone, and Castro’s rise to power in Cuba was followed by both the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis that danced on the edge of thermonuclear war.

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember the genuine threat of nuclear war. Attending grade school, our class was one of many that had regular drills where we crouched in a hallway with our heads buried in our knees to protect ourselves from a nuclear explosion. It now sounds absurd, but it is worth remembering that many people were digging underground shelters in their backyards stocked with provisions to escape the consequences of poisonous radiation.

In Bridge of Spies, Mr. Spielberg combines the shooting down and capture of American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers with the arrest in New York of Rudolf Abel, a man strongly suspected of being a Soviet spy. While the film helps to explain the spy swap that occurred several years later, the strength of this movie flows from Mr. Spielberg’s focus on the importance of the representation provided Mr. Abel at trial and appeal.

With our government, including the presiding judge, intent on giving Mr. Abel the image of a fair trial before executing him, they overlooked the dedication of James Donovan, an insurance lawyer appointed to represent Abel. What follows is a brilliant reminder of why cherished American freedoms could not endure without defense lawyers.

You have probably heard of Tom Hanks, and he embodies every noble feature of Mr. Donovan. As he fights for his client, Donovan incurs the wrath of his law firm as well as friends and relatives. Following gunshots through the windows of his home, even his wife, played by Amy Ryan in a very small role, questions her husband’s judgment.

Ironically, the movie loses considerable strength following Abel’s conviction and sentence. Though you see Donovan traveling to East Berlin to negotiate with both the Germans and the Russians concerning an agreed swap of prisoners, the movie drags to the point where it tests your patience.

The film’s energy and importance is found in the conduct of Donovan as he not only argued his client’s case before a jury, but followed it up with an argument before the United States Supreme Court. Despite enduring hatred and contempt from nearly every level, Hanks’ Donovan never stopped his efforts to put the government to their proof.

While Hanks is once again superb, Mark Rylance gives an Oscar worthy performance as the Soviet agent who refuses to panic. What follows is an unexpected close relationship between Donovan and Abel, and what you see is the dedication of a lawyer who will do his very best to give his unpopular client the benefit of the law.

This film should be seen by every law student in this country. To be quite honest, serving as a defense lawyer over the past 40 years has occasionally alienated me from friends and associates who I greatly admired, and I saw a small bit of myself at times as Hanks’ Donovan stood in support of the despised Rudolf Abel.

As I watched Mr. Spielberg focus on what Mr. Donovan had to endure, I was reminded of Gregory Peck’s classic performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). While these guys both lost their case before a jury, America stands out as a beacon of justice and freedom because of their efforts.