'Bridge of Spies': What Obama could learn from Spielberg and Hanks

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With Russia escalating its attacks on U.S.-trained rebel forces in Syria, some speculate that we are on the brink of another Cold War. Americans wonder: is President Obama, who has shown weakness in confrontations with Syria, China, Iran and Russia, up to the challenge? Does he have a plan? Does he even understand the nature of the conflict?

Maybe he could learn something from Steven Spielberg’s terrific new drama, "Bridge of Spies." The movie, which premiered at the New York Film Festival and will hit theaters next week, is based on the true story of a dramatic spy swap made at the height of the Cold War.

A spy picked up by the FBI and convicted of espionage is handed over to the Russians in exchange for Francis Gary Powers, the American U-2 pilot shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union.  Tom Hanks stars as the lawyer James Donovan, who is asked to defend accused spy Rudolf Abel, and who angers the nation (and risks his family’s safety) in order to assure the Russian a fair trial.

The movie carries us back to the titanic confrontation between rival economic and political systems   that began in 1947.  It hints at the elements that ultimately put the Soviets out of business -- the freedoms and resulting prosperity of the United States, compared to the inefficiencies and corruption of the Soviet state.  President Reagan took advantage of the long-term economic slump of the U.S.S.R. by challenging Moscow to an arms race they could not win. Ultimately, the empire collapsed of its own weight.

Obama’s naïveté about the downfall of the Soviet Union is alarming; so is his conviction that endless talks – instead of a show of force- will stymie Putin’s aggression in Syria. History tells us that Obama should raise the price tag for Russia’s adventurism.

President Obama sees the fall of the Soviet Union differently: “Make no mistake: This change did not come from any one nation. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful."

Obama’s naïveté about the downfall of the Soviet Union is alarming; so is his conviction that endless talks – instead of a show of force- will stymie Putin’s aggression in Syria.  History tells us that Obama should raise the price tag for Russia’s adventurism.

Just as the Soviet Union’s failing economy buckled under the demands of an arms race, so may Russia’s incursions into Syria and Ukraine strain its already-stretched budget.

The oil-dependent economy is set to shrink by more than 3 percent this year, and the ruble is trading at about half its value of a year ago. Inflation is running close to 17 percent and real incomes have dropped sharply. Moscow’s budget deficit will amount to more than 3 percent this year, and the government’s reserve fund may soon be depleted.

Meanwhile, the due bills – expectations of investment in Crimea, higher promised wages for teachers and other workers, and now increased military outlays to sustain his Syria campaign – are mounting. Some analysts think the country could face real financial trouble by 2017. 

Like Reagan, Obama can and should raise the ante, taking advantage of Russia’s weakening economy.  He can ramp up our arming of rebel forces and increased our air support, which the administration has been reluctant to do.  But, to play this hand, President Obama has to buy into the trump cards held by the U.S.

"Bridge of Spies" reveals those cards – the individualism and bloody-minded quest for justice that characterize the best of American heroes, and the freedom that allows such a quest.  Not because the movie, like the televisions of the day, shows the Cold War or the U.S. in stark black and white.  Spielberg reveals our imperfections; despite tainted evidence, and Donovan’s appeal to the Supreme Court, the Russian spy Abel is sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Powers is similarly convicted of espionage in a show trial in the Soviet Union. There is no individual standing up for his rights; there is no appeal. Instead, Powers is brutally interrogated and becomes a bargaining chip.  Donovan is sent to Berlin to arrange an exchange.

It is here that Donovan (and the audience) encounters the evil of the communist state. The monstrous wall and barbed wire corridor that divide Berlin are going up; innocent people are shot dead trying to escape from East to West. The footage is chilling.  East Germany is under the heavy boot of the Soviets.

Critics will doubtless play up the harsh orders given the U-2 pilots, who were told to destroy their top-secret spy planes and to kill themselves if they risked being caught. They will draw parallels to today, with politics and bias infecting our law enforcement and courts, and our intelligence operations dancing on the edge of legality.

That we are the good guys in the drama, however, is indisputable. Those who doubt it should consider the countless people who risked death to escape to the west. Try to recall the last time the United States had to forcibly prevent people from leaving our country. In the 1960s millions tried to flee the corruption and brutality of the Soviet Union, East Germany, Cuba and other totalitarian regimes; many wanted to enter the U.S.

Children in school today do not learn much about the Cold War. History curriculums, like the much-criticized AP course rolled out in 2014, dwell on our shameful history of slavery or unsuccessful battle against Communism in Vietnam. 

It is refreshing to see Hollywood occasionally plug this information deficit.

We thank Steven Spielberg for telling this story, which might well inform or inspire our leaders.

Let’s hope Obama scores a front-row seat, and sits through the show.