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'Bridge of Spies,' set in the '50s, reflects on today's issues


In "Bridge of Spies," directed by Steven Spielberg, Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) and his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) become the target of anti-communist fears when Donovan agrees to defend a Soviet agent arrested in the U.S. Credit: DreamWorks, Fox 2000 Pictures / Jaap Buitendijk

The term "waterboarding" didn't exist in 1957, when the FBI arrested the Soviet spy known as Rudolf Abel. In fact, as the many books about the events behind Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies," opening Friday, Oct. 16, tell us, neither we nor the Soviets used torture against espionage detainees such as Abel in the U.S. or his counterpart, American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers in the U.S.S.R.

"As soon as you start torturing the people that we have, well, then, you give the other side permission and cause to do the same exact thing, and that's not what America stands for," says Tom Hanks, who plays attorney James Donovan, recruited by the U.S. government to defend Abel (Mark Rylance) at trial. Speaking at a midtown-Manhattan news conference for the film, he adds that, "As soon as you start executing anybody you think is going against your country, well, you're not that far removed from the KGB and the Stasi, and that's not what America was about" during, at least, the time frame of the film -- a fraught five years in which nuclear jitters, the policy of mutually assured destruction, the construction of the Berlin Wall and an often heated Cold War rivaled or even surpassed the post-9/11 fears of today.

"Spielberg was a child when he was taught in school to get under the desk or fill up the tub with water" in case of a nuclear detonation, "and he has very vivid memories of that," says Alan Alda, who plays Thomas Watters, Donovan's senior partner at their law firm. Speaking with a Newsday reporter in a hotel suite before the news conference, he recalls how he himself, as a young married man, found it "heartbreaking to see kids have to cope with that fear that ordinary, everyday life could be over in an instant. So it was a very serious part of our lives."


Based on real events

"Bridge of Spies" chronicles the real events surrounding insurance attorney and former Nuremberg Trials prosecutor Donovan as he negotiates a prisoner exchange of Abel for both Powers (Austin Stowell) -- whose Lockheed U-2 spy plane was infamously shot down over Soviet airspace on May 1, 1960 -- and Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). Pryor was a hapless Yale doctoral candidate from the Detroit area, who was doing graduate study at West Berlin's Free University and got caught behind the quickly built Berlin Wall on Aug. 5, 1961.

"I don't remember any feeling of relief" about the eventual prisoner exchange in early 1962, Alda muses, "because the [U.S. and Soviet ICBM] missiles were still there and there were plenty of other things to be concerned about."

That included the Cuban missile crisis that very October, when the world came close to nuclear Armageddon. Yet even in that era, despite genuine terror that "the Commies" were going to destroy America, contemporary news accounts and the various books written by Donovan, Powers and independent historians describe no Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, no torture in hopes of squeezing out information.

"There is so much relevance between the story in 1960 and the story today," says Spielberg at the news conference, pointedly adding that, "The Cold War was polite in terms of the way we spied on each other."

Fortunately, for all the seriousness of the subject matter, Spielberg kept his set free of angst.

"He's so available as a person," says Water Mill resident Alda, who helped create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, and is a visiting professor at that college's school of journalism. "He's got this whole movie in his head . . . and yet he's totally relaxed on the set. You see him building these shots improvisationally, which he can do because he has so much experience."

Which doesn't mean he didn't plan well beforehand. Some of the movie's most striking scenes take place around the Berlin Wall, some 300 yards of which production designer Adam Stockhausen reconstructed "on the border of Poland and Germany," the director says, "in a town called Breslau" -- or Wroclaw, historically depending on whether Germany or Poland claimed it. "There are still bullet holes in the buildings from World War II there," says Spielberg. "They never repaired the buildings."


Cold feet on Cold War

This wasn't the first time Hollywood took an interest in this story, he notes. The legendary Gregory Peck obtained rights to it in 1965 and "got Alec Guinness to agree to play Abel. Peck was going to play Donovan. And they got [future Oscar-winner] Stirling Silliphant to write the script. And then MGM at the time said, 'Nah, I don't think we're going to tell this story.' "

Fifty years later, Spielberg, with Matt Charman and the filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen as screenwriters, has told it to a world much different than then -- making the very same story a different story.


History without the Hollywood makeover

Unlike some historical dramas, "Bridge of Spies" hews fairly closely to the events spanning 1957 to 1962.

* Purported artist-photographer Rudolf Abel was arrested June 21, 1957, though at a Manhattan hotel and not at his Brooklyn Heights studio as seen in the film. Attorney James Donovan, of Watters and Donovan, took on Abel's defense after other lawyers had declined the U.S. government's request. On Oct. 25, 1957, a jury found Abel guilty of three spying counts, and on Nov. 15, he was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, which he began serving in Atlanta.

* Civilian CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet airspace on May 1, 1960. In July, he was indicted to stand trial before a military tribunal, and on Aug. 19, following a three-day proceeding, was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison and seven in a work camp. While the film doesn't go into it, Powers' wife and parents said they were "impressed" by their son's Kremlin-appointed defense counsel, Mikhail K. Grinev, and Powers himself, even after his release, never claimed any mistreatment at the hands of his captors.

* The arrest of grad student Frederic Pryor in East Berlin on Aug. 5, 1961, received virtually no coverage in the U.S. until after his return.

* And while anyone so inclined can look up the historical record, we'll refrain from giving spoilers about the events on Germany's Glienicke Bridge on Feb. 10, 1962, at 8:52 a.m. Berlin time, or at Berlin's Friederichstrasse checkpoint moments earlier.

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