Miss the Cold War? <br>‘Bridge of Spies’ <br>Offers Glimpse of Glory
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“How I miss the Cold War,” I said to my wife as we strolled home from seeing Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, “Bridge of Spies,” in which Tom Hanks plays the lawyer for Soviet agent Rudolf Abel.
“Be careful,” she said.
It’s not that I miss living under the threat of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union or its proxies. It’s not that I fail to appreciate all the lives the vast contest claimed — despite being called a “cold war,” it was far more than a staring match. But that era had a moral clarity that has dimmed in the decades since the Soviet Union collapsed.
“Be careful how you put that,” my wife said.
The effort to cloud our memory of the Cold War seems to grow with every passing season. Just last month, a faction within New York’s own City Council signed a resolution honoring Ethel Rosenberg.
She’d been convicted, along with her husband Julius, of spying for the Soviet Communist regime. In 1953, after losing a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court, she and her husband went to the chair at Sing Sing.
Where do City Council members come off honoring the life of a convicted Soviet spy? Particularly at a time when another foe, levying an Islamist jihad against us, is trying — and, horrifyingly, increasingly succeeding — to lure our youths into hostile armies that commit the most horrible deeds.
“Bridge of Spies” is full of Hollywood caricatures and has hints of moral equivalency. But it’s also a reminder of what the hunt was like when the Communists were at the height of their power.
The movie opens with Rudolf Abel at work at his easel in his “studio” in Brooklyn. He goes out to a dead-drop under one of the East River bridges to pick up the famous “hollow nickel” in which coded messages were concealed.
FBI agents burst into Abel’s apartment and arrest him at gunpoint, addressing the aging artist as “colonel.” The drama shifts to Mr. Hanks’ character, Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer who’s asked by the Bar Association to represent the spy.
Donovan becomes a hated man in the city. His home is fired upon. A CIA agent warns him against fighting too hard for acquittal. Donovan lectures the agent on what makes a person an American: a fidelity to the Constitution.
Donovan loses the case, after the judge warns him in chambers that his client is guilty and there won’t be any delays in finding him as such.
A guilty verdict is brought in, and Donovan convinces the judge to spare Abel’s life with the prospect of swapping him for an American spy.
The opportunity arises when a pilot for the CIA, Francis Gary Powers, is shot down over Russia. The movie centers on Donovan’s negotiations, in which he also seeks to retrieve an American student being held hostage by the Communists in East Berlin. I won’t spoil the ending, though when I went back to see it with a teenager I was startled.
“It is soooo pro-American,” she exclaimed, when the credits went up. I had a similar rush each time I saw it. All the gray tones were there, but they didn’t ruin the story. The FBI, the CIA, the judge, Powers — they all came out looking better than the Communists.
If Abel (his real name was Fisher) behaved with honor, as was often said in the film, it could only be because the stumblebum had so little to give up. I wonder how Julian Assange and Edward Snowden will fare in the Hollywood of the future.
As for missing the Cold War, it turns out Bill Clinton claimed to have a reverie for it himself. “Gosh, I miss the Cold War,” he once told The Washington Post, characterizing his remark as a joke.
It wasn’t a joke, Charles Krauthammer responded in a brilliant column in Time magazine. It was an alibi for the failures of liberal foreign policy. Which is another thing I miss about the Cold War: We won it — fair and square, and it was nice to see Hollywood get another piece of the story.
This column first appeared in the New York Post.