Sunday, June 9, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: Bridge of Spies

The Story: What was the line from Casablanca? "There are vultures—vultures everywhere."

Count spies among the vultures. Not the fictional spies like last week's "Don't Make a Scene," bur real spies, the ones who don't call attention to themselves, and the ones who blend in, the ones you'd least expect. Quiet, but inquisitive, looking for the "useful idiots" who'll talk too much, brag, be needy, for something that can be exploited and used.

"Useful idiots." We've got a lot of them in the U.S. And we've got stuff people want. So...spies—governmental, industrial, whatever. I'm sure there are spies who look for secrets about making yogurt, infuser technologies, apps. Important stuff like that.

Right now, there are a number of spies who are incarcerated for their activities in and against the United States. Less than you'd think—probably more than Wikipedia thinks. The latest—Maria Butina—was sentenced to 18 months in prison on April 26th of this year. Count the months. Butina's work was...odd. One of those things that are eye-rollingly dumb on the face of it, but useful as an agenda for another purpose. Butina was—is—a "Russian gun-rights activist". Now, bear in mind that Russia discourages its subjects from having guns—the place has been known for revolutions from time-to-time. So, Russia will not be supporting gun rights for its civilians at any time in the future—the bear isn't renowned for its civil rights work—and will keep the guns in the hand of the military, thank you very much. But, that stance DID allow Butina to ingratiate herself with the National Rifle Association, and many prominent Republicans.


Remember Anna Chapman? She didn't serve time; she was deported. As with Mutina and the man portrayed in this scene, she did not register as a foreign agent. I doubt anyone does. It would seem that that would defeat the purpose. Or, as the spy-genre series "The Prisoner" put it in 1968: "That would be telling..."

Now, Rudolf Abel—whose arrest and trial made up a large chunk of Bridge of Spies—wasn't as prominent as those two agent-provocateurs, nor did he become a part of the public gossip mill (there was no social media in those days, as media was run by professionals). But, he was a big deal in a time when this country's paranoia over Russia's acquisitiveness in matters both geographical and nuclear really did create a "witch hunt" and a blacklist and made you wonder what other little compromises to liberty and free thought we'd embrace in our post-war time of affluence (where the top tax rate was 91%—it peaked at 94% during the second world war).

Here, the film-Abel meets his defending lawyer, Jim Donovan, for the first time and accepts his services, probably because he seems practical and doesn't appear to have any hidden agendas—which must have seemed a nice change of pace at the time.

One line from this scene I've been using in my every-day life since I first saw this in theaters. The line "Would it help?" has the same deft comic resonance of "Couldn't hurt."

The Set-Up: Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is under federal guard in prison, accused of being a spy for Russia, a charge that, if found guilty, could mean the death penalty. It is 1957, both the U.S. and Russia have hydrogen bombs, and both countries are at the height of suspicion, juggling strategic positions and allies, building up infrastructures for civil defense, and spy capabilities and paranoia, creating a "Red Scare" during the 1950's. So, attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a little leery of accepting the Abel case that has been offered to him by his partners. As he says "even if he wins, he loses." Time to meet his client...

Abel is led by a guard into a detention room where Donovan awaits.
DONOVAN Good morning, sir. My name is Jim Donovan.
DONOVAN These are my credentials --

Both men stand looking at each other, Abel still at the threshold. After a beat he moves in further, his gaze holding on Donovan who glances at papers on table
DONOVAN (CONT’D) I’m a partner at Watters, Cowan and Donovan. I was admitted to the New York Bar in 1941.
As the guard slams the door shut, Abel picks up the papers and inspects them. Donovan watches him, trying to read him.
DONOVAN (CONT’D) ...You’ve been charged with three counts and nineteen overt acts;
DONOVAN ...conspiracy to transmit United States defense and atomic secrets to the Soviet Union;
DONOVAN ...conspiracy to gather secrets; and failing to register as a foreign agent.
ABEL Do many foreign agents register?

Only now does Abel look up from the credentials up to Donovan. Donovan takes a moment, not sure if he’s being kidded. He takes a seat at the table.
DONOVAN If you don’t mind my asking, sir,
DONOVAN ...since your arrest: where have you been?
ABEL I couldn’t say for certain.
DONOVAN You don’t know.

Abel takes a seat.
ABEL They drove me to an airport, put me on a plane. They took me off the plane. Somewhere hot.
DONOVAN It’s hot here.
ABEL Hotter. Very humid.
ABEL They put me in a room.

Abel attends to his runny nose with a handkerchief.
DONOVAN Were you beaten?
ABEL No. I was...talked to. Offers were made.
DONOVAN What do you mean?
ABEL Offers of employment. To work for your government.
ABEL I was told if I cooperated no further charges would be made against me, and I would be given money.
DONOVAN And you declined.
ABEL As you see.
DONOVAN Well of course, I can’t endorse that. I feel duty bound to urge you to... 
DONOVAN ...cooperate with the U.S. Government.
ABEL Well, I said no. Perhaps you could relay to your friends at the CIA that I meant it.
DONOVAN No no, I don’t work for the agency. I don’t work for the government. I’m here to offer my services as your legal counsel. If you accept them as such, I work for you.
ABEL If I accept you?
ABEL Are you good at what you do?
DONOVAN Yeah, yeah, I’m pretty good.
ABEL Have you represented many accused spies?
DONOVAN No. Not yet. This will be a first for the both of us.
Abel chuckles, looks again at Donovan’s credentials.
ABEL All right.
DONOVAN All right you accept?
ABEL Yes, all right.
DONOVAN Good, okay, let’s start here.
DONOVAN If you are firm in your resolve not to cooperate with the U.S. government --
ABEL I am.
DONOVAN Yeah, then do not talk to...
DONOVAN ...anyone else about your case. Inside of government or out. Except to me -- to the extent that you trust me. I have a mandate to serve you. Nobody else does.
DONOVAN Quite frankly, everybody else has an interest in sending you to the electric chair.
ABEL All right.
DONOVAN You don’t seem alarmed.
Abel shrugs.
ABEL Would it help?
Abel watches Donovan for another moment. Amused. 
Pulls out a pad of paper and starts writing.
ABEL (CONT’D) I’d like materials. To draw with.
DONOVAN That’s not possible.
ABEL A pencil. A piece of paper. And cigarettes.
ABEL Please. (?)
The show of manners surprises Donovan. Abel watches him.
ABEL Mr. Donovan,
ABEL have men like me doing the same for your country. 
ABEL If they were caught, I’m sure you’d wish them to be treated well.

Bridge of Spies

Words by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen

Pictures by Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg

Bridge of Spies is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Touchstone Home Entertainment.

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