The beleaguered legal profession should be gratified by the new Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, based on the true story of the prisoner exchange for U2 pilot Gary Powers. Unlike most movie portrayals of attorneys, this one casts its lawyer-hero, James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) in a highly favorable light. Though we first see someone who appears to be a typical insurance company lawyer making clever legal arguments about whether an accident involving five motorcyclists should be considered a single “incident,” even when he does that, Donovan is able to impress by tying those arguments to a higher purpose.
When Donovan is asked to defend an accused Russian spy, he takes his ethical responsibilities, and his devotion to the Constitution and to his client’s interests, as seriously as any lawyer would wish to perform them, and performs to the highest professional standards. Compare James Donovan to the fictional Atticus Finch, an idealistic role model who has served as an inspiration to many lawyers. Both took on hopeless cases, and both strove to uphold the rights of a reviled defendant. But it must be said that although Finch performed nobly by exposing the community’s racism, his shaming of the jury may not have served his client all that well in the end. We should probably admire the real-life hero Donovan even more, because he comes up with the winning argument that saves the life of a client who was probably not so innocent.
At the same time, like Atticus Finch, he reminds the community of the ideals they are supposed to stand for. At home, Donovan has to endure the disapproval of his neighbors for taking on the defense of a hated spy. But all it takes is a tour of postwar Berlin with our hero to appreciate his viewpoint that upholding the rule of law is the only thing protecting us from descending into the fear, crime and oppression prevalent on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Not only does Donovan turn out to be a highly skilled trial lawyer, he also shows himself as an effective negotiator. He does that by understanding well both the limits and the extent of leverage he had over his adversaries. Donovan also knew his client well enough to understand his value to the Russians, and had built up the kind of trust with his client that enabled him to achieve even greater success in the end.
All in all, a perfect combination of street smarts and idealism. And a perfect combination of knowing what it takes to win, and what it takes to negotiate a mutually beneficial result with one’s adversary. Truly an inspiring story.