How “Bridge Of Spies” Sheds Light On The Refugee Crisis

Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) meets with his client Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent arrested in the U.S. in DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.


Spielberg’s latest may be dealing with communism and Russians, but the tension and prejudice are all familiar tones in a new world climate.

By Kenneth Shipp

We don’t have to look back far to see how poorly we handle fear mongering as a nation. It’s rather poignant that Spielberg’s newest film, Bridge of Spies, which came out last October takes us back only 50 or so years to a similar time (The timing is uncanny). McCarthyism was on the decline and almost eliminated due to wavering public support, McCarthy’s death in 1957, Supreme Court decisions (Watkins v. United States, Yates v. United States to name a few) and John Henry Faulk, who along with other actors and directors finally made headway in court proceedings against the firms who led private investigations on them. Even with this shift in climate, the Cold War was still underway, and anyone seen supporting a known communist could still expect less than a warm welcome.

Enter James B. Donovan. A New Yorker born and raised, he served as an officer in the Navy and general counsel in the O.S.S. (or precursor to the CIA) during World War II. Later, he would serve as an associate prosecutor during the Nuremberg Trials. However, the trial of Rudolf Abel would be the accomplishment that many others would have avoided. Donovan was convinced that Abel deserved a fair trial but many others didn’t see it that way.


Abel is an alien charged with the capital offense of Soviet espionage,” he wrote. “It may seem anomalous that our Constitutional guarantees protect such a man. … Yet our principles are engraved in the history and the law of the land. If the free world is not faithful to its own moral code, there remains no society for which others may hunger.

The public sentiment was not with him though. Donovan and his family would receive numerous death threats by mail, phone calls, and the many pickets outside of his home. Even losing the initial case was not enough for him. Donovan continued defending Abel, losing his appeal to the Supreme Court (regarding an invalid warrant used in the initial investigation). This was before securing a 30 year sentence for him, despite the public outcry for execution and/or life sentence. He was convinced having Abel alive would be more beneficial in future events. Many would see his efforts as almost prophetic, but it may have more to do with his intelligence background. He foresaw the situation that would require a valued Russian asset, and Abel being dead in 1957 would have most likely sealed Francis Gary Powers fate in 1960.

Donovan would go on to secure Powers release along with Frederic Pryor, an American student who was not high on anybody’s list in a prisoner swap. Even as he was working to negotiate the release, Donovan was being told repeatedly to only secure Power’s release and ignore Pryor, because government officials didn’t believe it could work. I find the similarities between this moment in American history and our current situation eerie to say the least.

So are we rounding up Muslim citizens and supporters for interrogations and prosecution like McCarthy supporters were for communist leaning or supporting Americans? No, but the climate is certainly similar. McCarthyism was built off the fears of Americans given the possibility of nuclear warfare or holocaust. The nation was whipped up into a fervor that lead some probably well meaning individuals to do things that were definitely contrary to who we are as a nation.

The same fears exist today and while they don’t involve weapons of mass destruction (and hopefully never will), the premise of a terrorist lurking down the street wraps those parallels into one. Instead of it being a communist spy reporting back to Moscow for the not-so inevitable nuclear battle. It’s now a family down the street with the last name Hussein that makes you do more than just clutch your purse tighter.

In Donovan’s legal proceedings, he felt that the American legal system was on trial. If he had just rolled over and let the masses influence or dictate how Abel was to be tried, what would that say about American justice? Today, we face the moral dilemma of determining what we stand for in the face of horrendous opposition. The fight against ISIS is going to be a physical one for sure. There will definitely be bombs dropped and strategies devised to combat and whittle them down. However the mental or philosophical issue is just as equally important if the current cycle of violence is going to be broken.

Both situations made the American public act in fear, but now we face an enemy whose ideology thrives on manipulating that fear. We must not back down from what we believe in just to be more comfortable. We must also hold our leaders accountable for the things that they say. Like GOP candidate Ted Cruz….


“There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror. If there were a group of radical Christians pledging to murder anyone who had a different religious view than they, we would have a different national security situation,”

“We should focus our efforts as it relates to refugees on the Christians that are being slaughtered,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

I’m not at all scoffing at Mr. Cruz’s assertion that Christians are being slaughtered. We have to screen refugees, that’s a given and there are certainly effective ways to handle it in a respectful way. The State Department has already been hard at work doing just that, but it will take more support. Before you cast aspersions, I am supportive of GOP moves this week to define the admission criteria and restrictions (provided they are grounded in reality) This kind of religious preference rhetoric isn’t going to help us though. It’s still an argument or premise based out of fear and it compromises what we “say” we believe in.

We should take a page out of Mr. Donovan’s playbook. If you believe we are a force for freedom and good, then you must also be willing to defend those convictions. It’s certainly not an easy choice to make at all, but the cost of compromising our values to be more comfortable or live completely risk free lives will certainly be worse. Because after ISIS is defeated, we will have to eventually move forward together  and the actions we take now will determine if that’s even feasible when the dust settles.

I’ll leave you with this, I think Shepard Smith sums up my thoughts nicely which was a pleasant surprise…


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