The film Bridge of Spies is most often referred to as a Cold War drama – and indeed it is. Apart from this, however, it is also a story of the contours of the relationship between the construct of friends and enemies and the need to protect that enemy from potential harm. This relationship is developed in the setting of informal law that comprises tenets of social and moral norms.
At the beginning of the film, James Donovan – the protagonist and a well-established insurance lawyer – is approached by those acting for the government to represent Rudolf Abel, who is being charged in the US as a Soviet spy. Donovan is reluctant to accept this assignment, particularly given that his only criminal law work occurred as part of the Nuremberg trials. However, the chief partner in Donovan’s law firm is insistent that Donovan take the case.
It is clear from the outset that Donovan is a principled man and advocate who, once representing Abel, wants to provide him with thorough representation. From the first meeting onward, there is a sense of mutual respect between Abel and Donovan. Abel is an unlikely figure for a spy – not dashing and young but rather older and intellectual– and Donovan seeks to understand him. At the same time, he establishes a sense of protectiveness for Abel, trying to ensure that basic dignities are afforded to him. While Donovan continues to follow a zealous path for representing his client and crafting a defense, he is bluntly informed by the government and the judge that it is a case he cannot win. As his representation of Abel continues, Donovan is increasingly dismayed at the pre-determined outcome of the case. When the inevitable guilty sentence is handed down, Donovan does the unthinkable and appeals. The public is not as understanding of Donovan’s concerns for justice and fairness, and he rapidly finds himself at the center of a public controversy over appealing the guilty verdict of an enemy spy. Donovan faces public outrage, threatening comments, ostracising by the law firm partner who once encouraged him to take Abel’s case, and a shooting at his home. Ultimately, the appeal is denied and Abel remains in prison, where Donovan continues to pay him visits. These are not official visits as much as they are visits between friends – Donovan brings amusements for Abel and they slowly learn about each other as people rather than friend-foe or attorney-client.
Throughout the entire trial ordeal, the one victory Donovan is able to win is the judge’s agreement not to sentence Abel to death. Donovan is able to convince the judge that Abel is worth more alive than dead in the event that a prisoner exchange became necessary in the future. Donovan’s value as a clairvoyant is proven when an American pilot is captured by the Soviet Union and convicted of espionage. At this point, Donovan has returned to his private legal practice. An abrupt telephone call changes Donovan’s life yet again. This time, he is enlisted to assist as a private negotiator in brokering his prophesied prisoner exchange between Abel and the American pilot. Later, this expands to include a young American graduate student caught on the wrong side of the Berlin wall on the day it was sealed.
In Donovan’s role, he carries no official capacity and thus has no official protections when he is asked to travel to Berlin to execute the exchange. This of course makes Donovan vulnerable and his experiences in both East and West Berlin emphasize it. Throughout, Donovan is concerned with the lives of the captured Americans and particularly with Abel – while he is willing to assist in brokering the exchange he is not willing to undertake a course that will harm anyone. Abel is a hidden spectre during the negotiation but this does not mean that Donovan is unaware of the impacts of the potential exchange on all parties involved.
Finally, it appears that Donovan has negotiated an exchange of the two American prisoners for Abel. The pivotal moment occurs when the exchange of Abel for the pilot is set to occur. This is a very tense moment and a very personal one for Donovan and Abel, who know that their friendship is what brought them to that moment and also that it will end when the moment is complete. Donovan appears to have second thoughts and is concerned for Abel’s safety once he is returned to Soviet control – Abel remains unconcerned and philosophical, explaining to Donovan how he will know whether Abel is to be warmly welcomed at home. In a poignant moment, Donovan watches Abel cross into Soviet control and they share a look before they each disappear into cars headed for other sides of the world.
The relationship between Donovan and Abel is poetic in many respects, and is an excellent microcosm for the realisms of the Cold War’s impacts on people rather than simply at the state level. Beyond this, however, the relationship demonstrates the informal ways in which friend may protect foe even when the public sees only the enemy. The judicial proceedings against Abel were portrayed as designed to yield a specific result and necessary simply to provide the American public – and the world – with proof that the US justice system applied equally to friend and foe. Indeed, for official purposes Abel’s life was spared only because of the potential utility it could have in the future. The formal was thus protecting the enemy only to the extent that the enemy could be of use.
In contrast, Donovan protects Abel – the enemy – through the informal. At first, this is because of Donovan’s personal and professional sense of morality. Later, this is because of the personal relationship that develops between Donovan and Abel and Donovan’s desire to protect Abel as a friend rather than simply as a client. It is also the informal that allows Donovan to act as a private negotiator and broker the exchange of 3 people deemed enemies by one state or another, thus seeking to protect all 3 by returning them to their friends. Cinematically, the informal makes for a touching story and ending. In application, the film demonstrates the importance of the informal as a means to fill in the gaps created by the formal.