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Topics in History: History through Film

Topics in History: History through Film

Topics is a course at Southport High School taught by Kevin Sanders that analyzes major events from United States and world history through Hollywood films that attempt to portray those events. Students investigate historical documents and other sources to determine if a film is historically accurate.

The goal is for students to develop deeper understandings of the historical discipline while generating questions about the way the world is around them, along with watching classical films that have graced American and international screens.

Student: Matt Rines

Film Reviewed: Bridge of Spies

Espionage! Bridge of Spies is a spy thriller movie released in 2015 and directed by Steven Spielberg. The movie begins in New York in 1957, but the setting takes place mostly in Berlin over the next several years during the Cold War. Bridge of Spies offers a unique perspective into part of the Cold War: the spy game. The movie reveals issues with espionage through the story of three prisoners; the complex spy exchange negotiation practices between the United States, Russia, and East Germany; and the seemingly inexperienced but powerful attorney navigating his way.

Bridge of Spies is based from a true story including the main characters and Glienicke Bridge which extends across the Havel River, connecting Berlin to Potsdam. This bridge is the spy exchange location of Col. Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy, and Lt. Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 spy plane pilot as well as the actual location of the prisoner exchange in February 1962.

The movie opens without dialogue and includes one character, an elderly painter, aka Abel, the Russian spy, which makes the audience feel that something intense will happen, especially when Abel pries open a coin with a secret hidden message waiting inside. Soon after, the FBI raids Abel’s tiny apartment thanks to Abel’s assistant from Russia, Hayhanen, who turs him in after 10 years of spying together. The movie, in contrast to the quiet beginning, takes a fast turn from here.

An insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan, has been chosen by the Brooklyn Bar Association to represent Abel. But prior to his 10 years as a civilian lawyer, Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) had experience from the Nuremberg trials as well as with prosecuting sabotage, so he had the perfect experience for the job. His family received death threats because of his choice to defend a traitor to the United States, but that didn’t stop Donovan. He loses the case in an unfair trial but convinces the judge to spare the death penalty for Abel so that he could be used as a prisoner exchange in the future. That opportunity arose when an American spy plane pilot, Gary Powers, was shot down in 1960 and held hostage by the Russian government. Donovan was called again to negotiate an exchange between Abel and Powers with the help of the CIA.

Showing the outstanding moral character of Donovan, he learns of another American hostage, Frederic Pryor, held in East Berlin and includes him in the prisoner exchange. Through much negotiation, Donovan arranges Powers and Abel to be exchanged at the end of the movie at the Glienicke Bridge and Pryor to be exchanged at Checkpoint Charlie.

Spielberg’s technique of switching from full to long shots and low to high angles allows the view to see the scene from all perspectives, including a very long shot of the bridge after the prisoner exchange is completed. Also, his use of shadow and darker lighting gives the viewer a sense of being in 1960 East Berlin in the dark of winter during the Cold War and an eerie feeling throughout most of the movie. The best example is the scene when Donovan meets Abel in jail after the trial; the dark shadowy jail is in contras with the sun shining in. We also draw perspective through the development of film theory, which began in the 1920s that discusses why a film was created. The most fitting for Bridge of Spies is the Auteur theory which states that the director is the film’s true creature. Spielberg has the experience as an auteur due to the many films and a long, successful career in directing them. Spielberg masterfully painted this picture into one of the best films in 2015 because he captures the notoriety of the spy game by combining legal and political matters into a well-paced thriller with rising stakes at every turn.

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