Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”

I watched Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies over the weekend and enjoyed it immensely. The man knows how to make a great movie, especially a historical one.

I’ll leave the filmmaking aspects to others to critique (the biggest flaw for me was time-sequencing: days, weeks, months go by in the span of seconds without any indication) and instead make a few specific history-related remarks that came to mind as I watched.

The Historical Accuracy

My undergraduate concentration was Russian and Soviet history, but I can’t claim to speak with expertise to the historical accuracy of the movie. This site and as well as this one provide the historical background based on James Donovan’s account of the events in question, which I haven’t read yet. Overall, if Donovan’s account is accurate, Spielberg has remained faithful to what actually happened, as he generally does in all of his historical movies (OK, we get it, the roll call in Lincoln was out of order; the kitchen meeting between Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens never occurred. Does the former in any way detract from the historical narrative of the events? Does the latter in any way present a false depiction of the character of the two men? Allow the “poet” his license.).

The Boston Massacre

I immediately thought about John Adams and the Boston Massacre when Donovan was given the task of defending Rudolf Abel. Donovan was reluctant. He knew the cost to him personally. He knew the cost to his firm. But precisely because of this, Donovan agreed to defend Abel, for if he did not, no one would.

“No one else would take the case, he was informed…. [He] accepted, firm in the belief, as he said, that no man in a free country should be denied the right counsel and a fair trial, and convinced, on principle, that the case was of utmost importance. As a lawyer, his duty was clear. That he would be hazarding his hard-earned reputation and, in his words, ‘incurring a clamor and popular suspicions and prejudices’ against him, was obvious….” No, these words are not describing James Donovan and the defense of Rudolf Abel; they describe John Adams and the defense of British soldiers responsible for killing five Bostonians in an event American history knows as the Boston Massacre and are taken from David McCullough’s biography John Adams.

The guilt or innocence of the accused is irrelevant (for the record: Abel was a spy; the Bostonians brought the “massacre” upon themselves). The point was, each accused represented a hated enemy, someone that was everything America wasn’t. All the more reason both Donovan and Adams deemed it absolutely necessary to show not just the Soviet Union or Great Britain, but the world, who America was. In other words, if the accused in either circumstance were to receive anything but an honest defense and fair trial, nothing separated America from the Soviet Union or Great Britain (side note: Great Britain circa the time of the Boston Massacre was most assuredly not the Soviet Union – I’m simply conveying American attitudes of the time).

The Show Trials

Speaking of “an honest defense and fair trial” and showing the Soviet Union and the world  who America was, the Show Trials came to mind too.

Soon after consolidating his power following Vladimir Lenin’s death, Josef Stalin initiated a wave of terror designed as a surgical strike to purge the Communist Party and the State of any that knew Lenin or had in any way participated in the events that culminated in the 1917 seizure of power. Stalin’s goal was to preemptively eliminate any future opposition.

To legilimize these purges, Stalin implemented staged trials wherein the soon-to-be liquidated Bolsheviks would publicly proclaim treason to the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.

Why would the accused knowingly go along with this farce? A common explanation was the torture process known as the “conveyor belt.” This method kept the accused perpetually awake and questioned while his or her interrogators would rotate out. Thus, while the interrogators could be replaced as they became sleepy, the accused could theoretically be kept awake indefinitely until he or she “confessed.” Though incredibly simple, such a method proved highly effective, as any of us that has gone for any period of time without sleep, or even simply disrupted sleep, can attest to.

There is another reason, however, many accused confessed to treason, and this is far more complex and alien to American comprehension. Marxism proclaims inherent infallibility and engenders such fanaticism among its adherents, that if Stalin, the leader of the Cause upon Lenin’s death, charged them with treason, then it must be true. In a perverse sense then, if Marxism can never be wrong, and the Communist Party is the organ of Marxism, and the Communist Party denounces one as a traitor, then the treason is true and confession is a final act of service. There is a psychological effect, after torture methods such as the conveyor belt, and intense devotion to an intrinsically flawed worldview and ideology like Marxism, wherein the accused individuals began to reshape their own memories and recall fictitious events; specifically, the very events he or she were being charged with. But it gets even more twisted because one’s thoughts were treasonous, so technically, many of the accused very likely were guilty. Because if even once they had a thought contrary to Marxism and the Communist Party, they were guilty. This phenomena is explored in a book I was required to read as an undergraduate called Darkness at Noon.

It should be self-evident why the Show Trials came to my mind while I watched the movie. James Donovan’s commitment to uphold the Constitution and ensure a strong defense and fair trial was about the most vigorous condemnation of the Soviet Union as could have been done. Perhaps what is more poignant is it was not a demonstration from the American government, but one man acting according to his conscience (there’s no such thing as a conscience in Marxism, nor for that matter is there such a thing as “one man”).

The Federalists

Finally, I can’t not watch a movie like Bridge of Spies without having at least one “mob mentality” thought. When Abel is sentenced to thirty years in lieu of the electric chair and the lemmings erupt in indignation, all I could think of was, “Yup, and that’s exactly why Hamilton and company didn’t want any of you voting for the President.”


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