The new Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, based on the true story of the prisoner exchange for captured U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, shows an attorney living up to the highest standards of advocacy as well as negotiating ability. The movie’s lawyer-hero, James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) is first seen as a typical insurance company lawyer making clever legal arguments about whether an accident involving five motorcyclists should be considered a single “incident.” Even when doing that, however, Donovan is able to impress by tying those arguments to a higher purpose.
When Donovan is asked to defend accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel, 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, despite pressure to compromise those standards for the sake of gaining an advantage in the Cold War game of espionage. 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 showed courage in 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 took on the defense of a client who was probably not so innocent, and came up with the winning strategy that saved his client’s life.
At the same time, like Atticus Finch, Donovan reminds the community of the Constitutional 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 knowing 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.