5 Things You May Not Know About the "Bridge of Spies" Negotiator

Jennifer Tran


by Jennifer Tran

med_bridge_of_spies_ver6.jpgFamous Negotiators: 5 Things You May Not Know About James B. Donovan (portrayed by Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies”)

Steven Spielberg has a large list of films under his sleeve: Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc. One of his latest releases, “Bridge of Spies”, tells the true and compelling story of a New York lawyer involved in a high-stake negotiation during the Cold War.

James B. Donovan, the New York lawyer portrayed by Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies, represented and defended Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in exchange for American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Instead of comparing the historical event with what Spielberg decided to include in just under 2.5 hours, let’s instead discuss a few things that Spielberg could not have possibly encompassed in the film - facts about the real James B. Donovan.

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  1. Donovan was considering a career in journalism before pursuing a degree in law.
    While earning his bachelor of arts degree at Fordham University, Donovan was the editor-in-chief for The Ram, the University’s newspaper. Spending most of his junior and senior year writing editorials for The Ram, he considered a career in journalism but was urged by his father to pursue law. The push led him to complete his Bachelor of Laws degree at Harvard Law instead. He completed these studies in 1940.
  2. During WWII Donovan attained the rank of Navy commander.
    He attained the title of Navy commander after working as a general counsel for the Office of Scientific Research Development and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS - the predecessor of the CIA). In this role he spent much of the summer in 1945 assisting the then Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson to negotiate the treaty that established the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.  After the war he was named as an associate prosecutor for the Nuremberg Trials and assembled photographic evidence for use against Nazi officers charged with war crimes.
  3. Donovan got a taste of Hollywood during his time. Donovan provided legal supervision during the production of Nazi Concentration Camps and The Nazi Plan, working with Hollywood directors and producers such as Ray Kellogg (director), George Stevens (director/producer), and Budd Schulberg (screenwriter/producer) who were also then working for the OSS. These films were used as evidence in the Nuremberg trials.
  4. After receiving $10,000 for his work on the Abel v. United States case, Donovan donated all of it.  Wanting to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel as a “public service”, Donovan donated half of his $10,000 fee to Fordham University, and split the remainder between Harvard Law, his alma mater, and Columbia Law, where his colleagues had earned their degrees.
  5. Donovan walked out onto the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin himself to conduct the prisoner swap between Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.
After the successful exchange, Donovan revealed that he had a 0.32 pistol hidden in his umbrella handle in case the swap ended up in a shootout.

So there we have 5 facts about James B. Donovan not many might have known from watching Spielberg’s film adaptation. Did you know these facts about Donovan? Do you think Spielberg did a decent job in portraying the more personal side of Donovan?  What did you think of the Donvan's negotiating as portrayed by Tom Hanks in the film "Bridge of Spies".

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Jennifer Tran

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