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Spielberg's Bridge of Spies Perpetuates CIA Myths

Robert Nelson: Had Spielberg made Bridge of Spies film 50 years ago, it could be explained as a reflection of the Cold War climate that influenced popular culture of the period. We believed the Donovan myth.

Steven Spielberg’s film “Bridge of Spies,” currently screening in local theaters and nominated for six Academy Awards, is being marketed as an “historical-drama-thriller.” It certainly is dramatic and thrilling. It is not history.

Bridge of Spies

It re-spins a line of a Cold War propaganda repeated by our Central Intelligence Agency for a half-century. Those who see the film might assume it is factually accurate. It is not.

The Story

The film describes the Cold War spy swap of Rudolph Abel, a Soviet citizen convicted by the United States of conspiracy to commit espionage, and the American pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down deep inside Soviet borders.

The exchange of convicted spies happened at the Glienicke Bridge connecting Berlin and Potsdam in 1962.

The hero in Spielberg’s film is New York attorney James B. Donovan, who defended Abel against the spy charges and later negotiated the spy swap. Spielberg presents Donovan as an unassuming insurance attorney who was assigned the Abel case by the New York Bar Association through an apparently random process. Donovan goes to the mat to defend the rights of his client, appealing the case all the way to the Supreme Court against the advice of his family and legal associates.

Ultimately, Spielberg credits Donovan with singlehandedly masterminding the Glienicke Bridge swap five years later. He is the clean-cut American super hero —the embodiment of “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”

Connecting the Dots

The film does not tell us that Donovan had a long-term relationship with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA. He was not simply a low-level legal clerk. He was the top legal person at the OSS, the CIA’s parent organization. During World War II he was privy to the entire collection of intelligence secrets of the United States. He served as OSS chief counsel. As chief counsel he undoubtedly reported to the head of the agency.

Spielberg (and the CIA) would have us believe that after the war Donovan simply returned to a private life, raising a family and practicing insurance tort law.

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Wouldn’t it clearly be in the CIA’s interest to keep talented people like Donovan in reserve for future contingencies? It does not take the brains of a rocket scientist to understand that an insurance claims lawyer is the perfect cover.

Donovan’s CIA connections became public in the decades following his death. Why did Spielberg ignore this?

The Motive

Spielberg’s film admits that our government wanted to project to the world that the US legal system could provide a fair trial, even to someone charged with the most heinous crime of espionage. Donovan was the perfect man for the role. He is cast as a religious family man, deeply steeped in “American values,” with no apparent conflicts of interest, battling Goliath in defense of a wrenched man charged with a despicable crime.

The Problem

If the world really found out that the United States provided Rudolph Abel with apparently a top CIA contract lawyer as a defense attorney, the charade of a fair trial in a democratic society would quickly unravel. Abel’s trial would have been perceived as nothing more than a “show trial” of the kind we often attributed to the USSR. In fact, it was.

Obviously Donovan, as Abel’s lawyer, had a clear conflict of interest in the matter before the court. He was defending someone against charges that originated from a previous client. He did not reveal this at Abel’s trial. Sadly, a half-century later, Spielberg continues to perpetrate the CIA’s myth.

The Societal Damage

Scholars constantly warn us not to believe what we see in the movies. However, most people do. In 1939, the epic classic “Gone With the Wind” convinced much of white America that slavery was a morally acceptable condition for Africans brought here to work against their will. A half-century passed, and American audiences finally saw “Twelve Years as a Slave,” a much more accurate depiction of plantation life.

The Lesson

Had Spielberg made his film 50 years ago, it could be explained as a reflection of the Cold War climate that influenced popular culture of the period. We believed the Donovan myth.

In the time that has elapsed since the Abel-Powers prisoner swap much has been learned about the behavior of our intelligence agencies and the legal system when handling those who are apprehended on suspicion of assaulting our way of life. Almost 100 people continue to be interred at Guantanamo Cuba after more than a decade and have never been charged with a crime! This has happened 800 years after the legal principle of habeus corpus was introduced to Western law when King John was force to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.

Spielberg’s portrayal of the OSS’s chief legal counsel as nothing more than an un-conflicted, clean straight shooter is an assault on historical fact. We know only now the lengths that the CIA went to in painting the United States legal system as fair and just. Abel’s trial was a sham show trial staged to propagate a myth. Today, Spielberg has uncritically propagated the myth.

The only moral redemption in the entire Abel-Powers story is that two spies, both loyal servants to their governments, were spared long-term suffering in prison for spying, which, after all, was their job.


Robert M. Nelson
Pasadena Weekly