As the threats of the Cold War continue to increase, American government agencies converge on and capture a suspected spy, Rudolph Abel. While in custody, James B. Donovan is contacted to step in as his council. while hesitant, he decides to do the right thing by the law, knowing that he has an uphill climb ahead of him. After going to trial, James was able to avoid the death penalty but Rudolph was sentenced to a number of years in federal prison. While the trial may have been over in the US, Francis Gary Powers gets captured after his plane is shot down by the Soviets and American student Frederic Pryor is taken into custody while studying European economics in Berlin. James is called upon again to step forward, being asked to negotiate the return of Powers regardless of the outcome for Pryor.
Service to One’s Country: While Rudolph may have been identified as a spy and was known to have been engaging in spy-like activities, he put up no real resistance to his capture. While he refused to share any secrets or details of his activities, he also did not seem to impede the investigation in any other fashion. Staying true to supporting his home nation, he kept his secrets from the US government. This was something that James was able to identify in his client, as he tried to reclassify the image the American legal system had of the detainee and convey that through the negotiations with the representatives of Germany and the Soviet Union. In a similar fashion, Powers withholds any secrets about his activities and the plane that was shot down.
Nations in Conflict with their People: One of the most impactful scenes of the film occurred at the moment of the exchange. As James and Rudolph are waiting for the actual switch to occur, it dawns on James that Rudolph may not be welcomed back so openly when he is received by his country’s representatives. Rudolph, in his low-toned way, dismisses any real concern over his potential treatment for getting caught but acknowledges that the way he is received will determine his fate. While he eventually was able to reunite with his family, there was a clear sense of worry James had for Rudolph when he was not embraced upon his reunion and was rather just escorted to the back of a vehicle.
Dishonor in the Court: Two of the biggest obstacles during this time were the image of communism and the fear of the Cold War. The American public lived in a state of judgment and fear rather than search for the truth. While Rudolph was not truly innocent, he still had certain rights which should have been respected, such as due process and a fair trial. During the proceedings, it was clear that the judge had no interest in listening to any of the claims James made about the provision and gathering of evidence. While he was more open to hearing details about the actual sentencing, it was clear that the American public was less concerned with the law as opposed to punishment for what they chose not to understand. James’s family was victimized as their home was attacked and their family ridiculed for James defending someone in response to his pursuit of justice. This was mirrored in his attempts to save both detainees in Berlin while the US government showed no interested in Pryor’s release.
Final Verdict: This true story was dramatic and well-acted. Mark Rylance was particularly entertaining to watch as he provided depth to an extremely stoic character. Even knowing the outcome of the exchange did not diminish the excitement of watching the story unfold. This was definitely one of the stronger films of 2015.
Dan’s Rating: 4.5/5