Ideally the concept of justice is considered to be independent of contextual factors like politics. And the notion of correlating the two feels somewhat odious, or at least repugnant. But the recent Speilberg movie, Bridge of Spies, is a fascinating tale of the oxymoronic twists of our government and its desire to appear just. I don’t recall ever thinking that a movie is perfect but Bridge of Spies, based on a true story about the defense of Russian spy Rudolf Abel by James Donovan, is flawless. Beginning with the screenplay by novice Matt Charman, Tom Hanks’ gripping depiction of Donovan through Speilberg’s impeccable direction, this grabs all senses and does not let go. And the very best part? We leaving thinking about the deceptive simplicity of justice and about others who were caught up by history in similar ways.
Two lawyers separated by two hundred years. Two lawyers who take on the defense of enemies of their country and the calumny that accompanies such profound risk: John Adams and James Donovan. Adams to earn lasting fame as the second President of the United States and Donovan to slip into obscurity. Until Donovan’s book, Strangers on a Bridge; The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers was rediscovered by Matt Charman.
It was the height of the cold war in the mid-fifties in America, paranoia about Russia and their malicious intent against the US never higher when James Donovan was asked to shoulder the burden of defending a Russian spy. Two hundred years earlier, a young John Adams was asked to defend five British soldiers indicted for murder at the Boston Massacre. Adams accepted, according to biographer David McCullough, because he believed that no man in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial. As a lawyer, Adams believed his duty clear. Despite “hazarding his hard won reputation and incurring a clamor and popular suspicions and prejudices.'”
Donovan writes in his diary, “We are two dissimilar men drawn close by fate and American law… into a classic case which deserves classic treatment.”
One lawyer won, the other lost. Adams won an acquittal for his clients along with the approbation he feared. Despite an appeal to the Supreme Court, Donovan lost. However and perhaps more crucially, the courageous lawyer argued at Abel’s sentencing in 1957 that there may come a time when possession of one of the most successful Russian spies may warrant an exchange for an American of equal rank, therefore, Abel’s life should be spared. Indeed just such an unlikely occurrence happened and Donovan was asked to broker the exchange of one spy for another: Rudolf Abel for Francis Gary Powers.
John Adams ends his summation of his defense of the British soldiers with these often quoted words:
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence:….
The law, in all vicissitudes of government, fluctuations of the passions, or flights of enthusiasm, will preserve a steady undeviating course; it will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations, and wanton tempers of men.
The Coen brothers altered version of the Bridge of Spies screenplay employs surprising levity in the characters of Donovan and Rudolf Abel:
After accepting the defense of the Russian spy, Donovan says, “Everyone will hate me but at least I’ll lose.”
While preparing for their trial, Donovan said to Abel, “You don’t seem alarmed?” To which he responds, “Would it help?
Each of these men understood that in order for justice to exist, it must be separated from politics. And then had the courage to weather the storms of outraged public opinion.