S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

MOVIE REVIEW: Bridge of Spies


Bridge of Spies is a superb film that accurately portrays a key incident in our cold war with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I would expect no less from this all-American first team.

Tom Hanks delivers a highly empathetic portrayal of James Donovan and leads us carefully through the narrative. Of singular import is Mark Reynolds’ part in the story—he steals the show with his low key and compelling performance. After a time, we begin to empathize with Colonel Able and consider him just another nice guy unjustly embroiled in our justice system. I must add that the resemblance between Reynolds and Able is remarkable. Kudos to the makeup artists.

To understand this outstanding film in depth, let’s take a quick review of the history of the event on which this film is based. With some exceptions, the film’s plot mimics the following narrative closely.

Background. During the height of the cold war, Colonel Rudolph Able was a long-term Soviet KGB agent operating in New York City. On 21 June 1957 the FBI arrested him and attorney James B. Donovan was appointed to represent him. On 15 November 1957, a federal court convicted Able and sentenced him to life in prison.

In March 1955, the United Air Force authorized Lockheed Martin to begin production of the reconnaissance aircraft titled U2. (“U” for utility instead of “R” for reconnaissance.) Work began at Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, and flight testing was done in Area 51 in the Nevada desert. The U2 was a technological aircraft equipped with advanced photography equipment capable of exceptionally high resolution images taken from 70,000 feet altitude.

On 21 July 1955, President Eisenhower proposed an Open Skies program to the USSR’s Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev’s response was, “Neyt!” It’s probable that the KGB knew about our U2 reconnaissance program and the USSR had no capability to respond.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s first U2 flight over the USSR was on 4 July 1956. This aircraft was immune from Soviet air defense surface-to-air missiles (SA2 Guideline) because it flew at 70,000 plus altitude—far higher than the range of the Guideline.

On 1 May 1960 Francis Gary Powers was piloting a U2 over Sverdlovsk (formerly called Ekaterinburg, the place of the regicide of Czar Nicholas II and the royal family.) A SAM exploded near the U2 causing some damage and forcing it to a lower altitude. A second SAM scored a proximity hit and the aircraft fell. Powers punched out and parachuted into a into a ten-year prison term for espionage.

I have some nits to pick regarding the technical details of the U2 in the digital animation sequence, but that’s in another critique—nonetheless, very well done, indeed.

At the Central Intelligence Agency’s insistence, James B. Donovan agreed to represent the United States of America to negotiations with the USSR for the exchange of Francis Powers for KGB intelligence officer, Rudolf Abel. KGB agents and Donovan held discussions in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) behind the Berlin Wall. Donovan also demanded the exchange of the American doctoral student Fredrick Pryor who was caught behind the Wall just as it was sealed.

After intense negotiations, bluffs, threats, etc., the parties concluded the deal, and on 10 February 1962 the exchange of prisoners was made on the Glienick Bridge, “The Bridge of Spies,” that separated the DDR from the German Federal Republic. Pryor was sent to freedom at Checkpoint Charlie.

I would urge all to see this epic and historically accurate (almost) film.


  • Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan, Esq.
  • Mark Reynolds as Colonel Rudolph Abel, Soviet spy
  • Alan Alda as Thomas Walters Esq., lead attorney in Donovan’s firm
  • Amy Ryan as Mary McKenna Donovan, James’ wife

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