One of the most amazing aspects of history is that many stories connected with momentous events fall beneath the radar.
These stories tend to languish until some inquisitive writer stumbles upon them and lets the world know what they’ve been missing. Usually these hidden nuggets end up as best-selling books or highly popular movies, leaving everyone wondering why nobody noticed them before.
The 2015 film, “Bridge of Spies,” which the Cooperstown Library owns, is one such gem. The basic story is fairly well-known to anyone who has taken U.S. history. Francis Gary Powers was among a select group of U.S. Air Force pilots recruited by the CIA to fly spy missions over the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. Powers ended up being shot down by the USSR and was sentenced to 10 years in a Russian prison.
The U.S. government was interested in getting Powers back, in part because it was afraid of what secrets he might reveal to the Soviets. The Kennedy Administration was eventually able to arrange a swap for a Russian spy, Rudolph Abel, held by the Americans. Powers returned home, and that was essentially the end of the story.
Naturally, as “Bridge of Spies” illustrates, there was much more to it. An insurance lawyer in Brooklyn named James Donovan ended up serving as the go-between to arrange the exchange of the two prisoners. He was tabbed for the assignment because he had been asked to defend Abel during his espionage trial.
What isn’t well-known to those of us versed in U.S. history is that an American graduate student from Yale, Frederic Pryor, was being held by the East Germans at the same time. When Donovan heard about Pryor’s predicament he decided to try to swap the Russian spy for both prisoners. The U.S. official working with Donovan was furious because all the government cared about was getting back Powers.
The added desire to include Pryor in the exchange adds to the suspense. The process is already dramatic enough since Donovan must travel into East Berlin on his own to carry out his objective. It is shortly after the Berlin Wall has been erected, and his safety can’t be guaranteed. He is also dealing with a conflicting situation since the Russians hold Powers, and the East Germans are detaining Pryor.
There are so many fascinating aspects to the film that it constantly keeps your attention. The first part of the film focuses on Abel’s trial and the development of the relationship between him and Donovan. The drama then shifts dramatically to Berlin and the fragile negotiations of the proposed prisoner swap. The contrast between West and East Berlin is also riveting.
The addition of Pryor to the drama provides the most tantalizing aspect of the film. I remember watching a made-for-TV movie about the incident back in the 1970s with Lee Majors playing Francis Gary Powers. I don’t recall any mention of Pryor.
Of course, what elevates the film to Oscar-worthy status are the people who are behind and in front of the camera. When you combine the artistic genius of Steven Spielberg with the acting ability of Tom Hanks, you have the makings of a classic. Spielberg tends to make works of art rather than simple feature-length films. And Hanks can take on just about any role and make it believable.
If you have the opportunity to check out the film, it will be well worth your time. Although the real-life Frederic Pryor admitted the film (as per Wikipedia) “took a lot of liberties” the narrative sounds plausible enough. “Bridge of Spies” mixes history and entertainment in the best way possible.
Don’t forget the library will be hosting local author Ginnah Howard as part of our “Nights at the Round Table” series at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Howard will be discussing her book, “I’m Sick of This Already: At-Risk Learning in a High School Class.”