Just Finished Reading: Strangers on a Bridge – The Case of Colonel Abel by James B Donovan (FP: 1964)
New York, 1957. Approaching the height of the Cold War and with Soviet paranoia rife at all levels of American society a spy is uncovered and swiftly brought to justice. But to show that America is really the land of the free with enforced rights for all – no matter who they are – a lawyer of quality is sought to defend him. That particular poison chalice is accepted by the author of this book played quite superbly by Tom Hanks in the 2015 Masterpiece ‘Bridge of Spies’. As you might imagine though the reality of the case and Hollywood’s portrayal of it are at times quite different. Not surprisingly the book, written after all by a practicing lawyer concentrates on the case against his client, Colonel Abel (again played superbly by Mark Rylance), the evidence against him and the varying strategies to minimise the prosecution’s case. If you’re a lawyer (or a legal nerd), especially an American lawyer, no doubt you’ll love this bit. Although I found it interesting enough I did struggle a bit and honestly found it a bit of a slog. I wasn’t too fazed by the Constitutional aspects brought out as I’ve seen enough US crime and courtroom drama’s to get the gist of this sort of thing without completely losing the plot.
What I did find far more interesting was what happened later – both with the infamous Gary Powers U2 Incident and with the author travelling to East Germany to negotiate his release (in exchange for Abel) along with two other American’s held by the Soviet’s on spying charges. The second civilian was dropped from the movie but that didn’t detract from the overall drama of the negotiation process which was both simplified and complicated in the movie version. Oddly in both the book and the movie the main Soviet negotiator (played yet again superbly by Michael Gorevoy in the screen adaptation) came across very well. You knew exactly where he was coming from – despite hiding his true identity as a very high level KGB operative – and he definitely came across in both media as a man you could do business with just so long as you kept reminding yourself exactly who and what he was.
I can definitely see what this story was made into a film. It’s a very human story surrounded by some very historic events. However, despite rating the movie as one of the best in that year (if not THE best film of the year IMHO) I was disappointed to learn that at least one very dramatic incident in the movie never happened. The shooting through the window of Tom Hank’s residence is not mentioned at all in the narrative. I doubt very much if the author would’ve skipped over that bit considering that he covered much more hat did make it into the movie. I understand the need to make the story dramatic but this level of invention sticks in my craw more than a little. OK, turn things up a few notches for effect but not to this level. That said, if you’ve seen the movie and enjoyed it anywhere as much as I did then this will be a nice addition to that enjoyment and it does fill in many of the questions raised by the movie. It is dry on occasion but if you have an interest in American jurisprudence that’ll help quite a bit. Not exactly riveting but still recommended.