Based on a true story, Bridge of Spies reveals a thrilling spy story, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg himself. We discovered a few more enticing historic events not included in the film.
1. Rudolf Abel’s wooden nickel mishap
Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), whose real name was Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, moved to New York City to work as a KGB agent. Like a scene straight out the spy show The Americans, Abel would receive encoded information at predetermined “dead drop” locations. At one point, he received a hollowed-out nickel, but either lost it or spent it before opening it. The hollow nickel was exchanged throughout New York City for nearly a year before a 13-year-old newsboy received the nickel as payment. When he accidentally dropped it, the nickel opened and revealed a microscopic photograph with a series of numbers. The boy turned it over to a police officer, who gave it to the FBI. The FBI was never able to decode the message.
2. James Donovan’s trip to Cuba
James Donovan (Tom Hanks) was sent to Cuba in 1962 to negotiate an exchange of 1,113 prisoners for $53 million in food and medicine, which he successfully completed. Castro was impressed that Donovan had brought his son with him on the trip. However, when the CIA asked Donovan to give Castro a scuba diving suit contaminated with lethal chemical agents and a diving regulator loaded with tuberculosis germs, Donovan refused, and instead gave Castro his own diving suit as a gift.
3. A cold welcome home for spy Francis Gary Powers
Francis Gary Powers’ (Austin Stowell) U-2 aircraft was hit by a Soviet missile, forcing him to eject. He was captured by the Soviets, convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and seven years of hard labor. After he was traded for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, Powers was not given a hero’s welcome back in the U.S. because he didn’t activate his aircraft’s self-destruct mechanism to destroy the plane and camera equipment.
4. No death by shellfish toxin
Powers was also faulted because didn’t take his own life with the “scratcher” the CIA provided him, which was a sliver dollar loaded with shellfish toxin, called saxitoxin. Though using biological warfare was later outlawed by President Nixon, the CIA admitted to keeping a secret stash of saxitoxin and snake venom. This stockpile was later dismantled.
5. Crash No. 2 would be Powers’ last
While working for Los Angeles’ KNBC news in 1977, Powers was killed in a helicopter crash while covering the brush fires in nearby Santa Barbara. His engine ran out of fuel and he maneuvered the helicopter to the Sepulveda Dam to avoid crashing into children playing in the area. He died on impact.
6. Powers’ son makes a cameo in the film
Francis Gary Powers Jr., plays a CIA agent involved with the training of the U-2 pilots, more commonly referred to as “drivers” at the time.
7. Steven Spielberg’s personal connection to the story
Director Steven Spielberg’s father Arnold visited Russia when Spielberg was a boy, just shortly after Francis Gary Powers was shot down. Spielberg’s father and three of his colleagues from General Electric waited in line to get into the country. The line was long because Soviet officials were setting Powers’ flight suit, helmet and the remains of the U-2 on display. The Soviet officials, according to Spielberg, “got them to the head of the line, not to convenience them, because after they got to the head of the line this Russian pointed to the U-2 and then pointed to my dad and his friends and said, ‘Look what your country is doing to us,’ which he repeated angrily several times before handing back their passports.”
Spielberg never forgot that story, and it’s clearly what inspired him to want to make a film about the event.
8. Propaganda films shown to children
In Bridge of Spies, we see Donovan’s young son Roger (Noah Schnapp) preparing in case of a nuclear bomb. Historians generally agree that these efforts to prepare schoolchildren to survive an atom bomb was mostly propaganda. Here is a real “duck and cover” educational video shown to kids in the early 1950s.
9. Steven Spielberg on casting Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance
Spielberg had been following British actor Mark Rylance’s career for years, hoping to one day cast him in a film. “Mark is one of the most extraordinary actors working anywhere. I saw him in Twelfth Night and that pretty much cinched it for me,” said Spielberg. Rylance recently starred in the Emmy-nominated PBS miniseries Wolf Hall.
Bridge of Spies opens Oct. 16.