Institutions and Competition

Hooray for Hollywood!

November 4, 2015

As combat aircraft from Russia and the United States shadow each other over Syrian airspace, director Steven Spielberg has created an Oscar-quality film about what happened when the Soviet Union shot down an American spy plane near Sverdlovsk on May 1st 1960.


The event was a major embarrassment to the Eisenhower administration, which got caught by its own lies. The U-2 affair effectively scuttled the Paris “peace summit” between Eisenhower, Khruschev, deGaulle and MacMillan that was to be held on May 16th .


The U-2 aircraft was developed under the aegis of the Central Intelligence Agency to collect information about Soviet military capabilities.


Resembling a giant glider with a huge jet engine, the U-2 made its first operational flight over the Soviet Union in 1956.


1956 was the same year the FBI arrested a man in New York they identified as Soviet spy Col. Rudolph Abel.


Inspired by real events

Spielberg's film, “Bridge of Spies,” is not about the “bomber gap” or the “missile gap” or rolling back the threat of mutually assured destruction in a thermonuclear exchange that some politicians, Pentagon influencers and media in the United States claimed the Soviet Union was trying to provoke.


The movie is a compelling story that highlights how the rugged Yankee individualism of Abel's appointed attorney, James B. Donovan, and how he extends the constitutional protections inherent to the American way of life to a man that the vox populi saw as a threat to that way of life.


The film stars Tom Hanks playing the role Donovan, a solid citizen from a Brooklyn upper middle class Irish American family who is a partner in a Manhattan law firm that specializes in insurance law.


Because of his reputation as a tough negotiator, the New York Bar Association asks Donovan to represent Col. Abel, so that the United States can show the world that the beacon of democracy is giving the captured illegal alien and spy a fair trial. Open source information indicates that none of the other lawyers asked by the Bar Association would agree to take the case.


In the 2013 film “Saving Mrs. Banks” directed by John Lee Hancock, Hanks played Hollywood icon Walt Disney, portraying him as the crafty, persuasive negotiator that he was. As Walt, Hanks even convinced the French that they should build a Disneyland outside Paris because he was of French heritage: Disney = D'Isigny. Directed by Spielberg, Hanks outdid himself to this end playing Donovan.


But while Disney made storytelling a part of the American psyche, Spielberg and his screenwriting team made it a big part of mashing up fact and fiction in “The Bridge of Spies.”


Rugged American individualism versus communist “how should we organize this.”

In the Speilberg film, in an effort to make sure that Col. Abel gets that “fair trial,” Donovan even suggests to the trial judge that it might be a good idea not to give the now convicted Soviet spy a death sentence just in case the Soviets capture an American spy. This, Donovan tells the judge at a scotch soaked visit to the home of his honor, would give the United States something to trade in the event they have to bring one of their own "in from the cold."


To the dismay of the American people the judge does exactly that.


The plot then moves forward showcasing Donovan's successful attempt as a private citizen to trade Fisher to the Soviet Union for captured U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, and an American student, Frederick Pryor, who was arrested as a spy by the German Democratic Republic (“East Germany”).


As one might expect, the murky world of the nascent Central Intelligence Agency and the Soviet intelligence apparat figure prominently in the subplot of the film.


Donovan (Hanks) negotiates and bluffs his way around the traps and pitfalls set by both organizations, and the fabled East German “Stasi” (ministry of state security) and their puppet justice minister.


Holding to the tradition of USSR-style “historical revisionism,” to this day the Kremlin has never acknowledged that Fisher was a spy on behalf of the Soviet Union operating in the United States. It is known, however, that Fisher was a Soviet citizen. A heavy smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1971. Ironically, he was later honored by the USSR in 1990 when a postage stamp featuring his portrait was published using the name Рудольф Иванович Абель.


Probably his best work for the Soviet Union was done not as a spy, but during World War II when Fisher trained radio operators for clandestine work in Nazi-occupied regions. His work training others is thought to have played an important role in what his mentor, Pavel Sudoplatov, later called one of the most important radio deception operations of the war.


What the Spielberg film doesn't tell us.

The movie takes its title from a 2010 book of the same title by one Giles Whittell, a British journalist. There is no mention of book author Whittell in the credits that run at the end of the film.


Donovan's real life account of the events, which are effectively diary entries, was published in 1964.


The film screenplay was written by Matt Charman and “polished” by Canadian film directors and brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, both favorites of the Hollywood “cult film” crowd.


James B. Donovan was not just an “insurance lawyer.” He had been a member of the United States intelligence community in the past. He was not related to William Donovan, wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services, also from New York.


Multiple open sources confirm that during World War II James B. Donovan was the general counsel for the United States Officie of Strategic Services (the precursor of the CIA). He was known to Soviet intelligence. He had spent time in London during World War II and had connections with the British, Canadian and other Allied intelligence organizations.


Declassified CIA documents discussed in The London Daily Mail in 2013 indicate that British pilots flew the first U-2 missions employed under cover as weather pilots by MI-6, not by the Royal Air Force. The declassified documents cite a memorandum between Eisenhower and MacMillan substantiating that. 


U-2 missions helped to debunk the propaganda that there was a "bomber gap" and a "missile gap" that got trumped up by defense industry insiders, military men and opportunistic politicians who wanted wartime defense budgets and, of course, the profits that go with them. For example, the CIA was able to show that the Air Force estimate that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union was grossly overstated and the United States was, in fact, ahead in the game.

Among political figures who supported the "bomber gap" and "missile gap" was young senator John F. Kennedy (D-Mass) advised by his father Joseph P. Kennedy with help from their ally former Air Force secretary senator Stuart Symington (D-Mo). To help jump start his trajectory to the presidency, Kennedy characterized president Eisenhower as being weak on defense.


None of this, of course would fit into the plotline of Spielberg's film.


Donovan's career as a "neutral" negotiator segued into the Kennedy administration, when he travelled  to Cuba and negotiated with Fidel Castro  the release of many of those captured in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invation, which damaged the reputation of the CIA. Donovan, as noted in the endnotes of the Spielberg film, was also able to negotiate the release of around 9,000 other Cubans probably in trade for medical supplies and food.  A U-2 was shot down over.Cuba in connection with the Bay of Pigs operation and its pilot, probably an American, was killed.


A U-2 base was in operation at Ezeiza airfleld west of Buenos Aires during the presidency of Arturo Frondizi and was shut down just days after Powers was shot down over Russia. Argentine leader Juan Peron was suspected of operating a secret nuclear weapons program that did not end when he was removed from power.    


Open sources indicate that around 100 updated versions of the U-2  were produced, operated mainly by the United States Air Force. Chaing Kai Shek's regime in Taiwan operated its own separate program. The U-2 was last known to be operational in Afghanistan in 2010 during the administration of U.S.president Barack Obama.


In the two weeks since its debut on October 16th, the film "Bridge of Spies" has grossed $48.5 million worldwide. Budgeted at $40 million, the cinematic storytelling of Spielberg is already turning a profit. Perhaps there is a sequel opportunity that could be a "blockbuster."  Hooray for Hollywood!










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