Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hollywood And The Economist: Bridge of Spies and Frederic L. Pryor

So, once again I must declare spoiler alert as I am going to correct errors in a big Hollywood movie about historical events, although Steven Spielberg does have it said it upfront that the movie is "inspired" by real events rather than claiming actual accuracy.  In any case, just-released Bridge of Spies is probably more historically accurate than either The Imitation Game or A Beautiful Mind.  To get to an important point, it turns out that a surprisingly important character in Bridge of Spies, whose events occurred during 1957-62, is 82-year old Swarthmore College economist, Frederic L. Pryor, the only one of the major characters in this movie who is still alive.  And, it turns out that nobody associated with making the movie ever contacted him, not Spielberg, not the Coen Brothers, not the actor (with the all-American name of Will Rogers).  They did not bother to talk to the one living witness to the events when they wrote and made the movie.

For those who have not  seen the movie and do not know what it is about, I shall give a quick synopsis before pointing out where it is off.  So, in 1957 Soviet master spy, Rudolf Abel (real name: Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, played admirably by Mark Rylance) was arrested in New York. Former  OSS and Nuremberg attorney, James B. Donovan (played well by Tom Hanks), then in private practice, agreed to defend him and managed to get him a 30 year sentence rather than the death sentence that most of the public wanted for him (with Donovan suffering criticism and ostracism, with him looking like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird at one point).  In the meantime, Francis Gary Powers (played by Austin Stowell) got himself shot down in 1960 in a high-flying U-2 spy plane and was captured by the Soviets, who put him on a show trial  and sentenced him to a long term in their prisons.  After a letter arrived from Berlin from a fake wife of Abel, Donovan went to Berlin unofficially at the end of January, 1962, and after a lot of harrowing Cold War adventures with atmospherics of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, negotiated an exchange of  Abel for  Powers.  However, a complication arose for this in the form of Fred Pryor who had been studying trade patterns of Eastern European nations for a PhD at Yale (received later that year) when he got captured in East Berlin in an essentially snafu situation.  CIA wanted Donovan to abandon Pryor, but Donovan heroically insisted on him also being released along with Powers, and in the end got his way, with the final exchange of Abel and Powers on the cinematic Glienicke Bridge getting held up for about half an hour while they waited for Pryor to be released at Checkpoint Charlie, which he was, letting the whole thing go through, with all-American hero Donovan/Hanks going home to well-deserved praise, and with what I have described here also corresponding relatively well to the historical facts.  It is in details where things get messed up.

Let me begin with my friend Fred Pryor, who is one of the world's most important comparative economists, the man the film makers did not talk to.  He has actually publicly spoken now in an interview in his hometown newspaper a few days ago, the Mansfield (OH) News Journal.  He has dismissed his own role as "I don't think I was an important part.  I was  just a throwaway."  Some years ago he told my wife my Marina that he was "just a pawn in their game," with us not knowing if he was consciously quoting Bob Dylan or not.  Anyway, reading this interview one can get straight how things went down with him, which is not too far off from the movie version, although he is a much more substantial and acerbic character than Will Rogers played, whom Fred describes unhappily in his interview as "He looks like a delinquent."  They show him passing through the half-completed wall in August, 1961 with a copy of his dissertation to give to an East Berlin economics professor.  He encounters this professor's daughter, and seeing her appeals to her to get her father and escape to West Berlin, but then where he came in is sealed off and police see him and seize him while the young woman, apparently fond of him, escapes (and later appeals to the police about him).  He is seen being knocked to the ground with a rifle butt, but little is seen of him being "interrogated" in jail or of his solitary confinement.  His copy of his thesis is seized from him when he is arrested.

According to him, while he had mainly gone to the eastern side to attend a lecture, he was indeed taking a copy of his thesis to a prof he had attended the lectures of at the Free University, with his thesis on trade relations leading the police to think he was "doing legwork for a foreign trade blockade."  There was a girl, but she was the sister of a friend who had requested he get news from her given that communications between the two Berlins had been mostly cut.  However, it  turned out she had already fled to the west when he got to her apartment.  He was arrested while leaving her apartment, with them initially thinking he was there to "get her stuff."

It was the East Germans who dragged him into the deal and tried to turn the whole thing into a trade of just Pryor for Powers, which became a sticking point.  They were trying to assert themselves with both the Americans and the Soviets.  In the film at the climactic moment he is not  at Checkpoint Charlie during the final wait, but is only driven up at the last moment (his father was on the other side to receive him when he crossed).  In reality apparently the East Germans had him there for that whole time and only finally released him after pressure from the Soviets.

As near as I can tell, aside from not mentioning his previous work with the OSS (his Nuremberg trial work was mentioned), and a few minor details and exaggerations, it looks like Donovan was presented pretty accurately.

When we get to Abel/Fisher, things are more complicated, with only a small amount of the following shown in the movie.  Born in 1903 near Newcastle-on-Tyne in northern England of German-Russian parents who were strong Bolsheviks who had fled tsarist Russia and then returned, Abel-Fisher had been with Soviet intelligence except for a few years from 1927 on based on his knowing five languages and being good with radios, aside from numerous other talents, including serious artistic ones (shown in the movie), with him indeed marrying a well-known Moscow harpist.  During WW II he trained the real Rudolf Abel to do radio transmissions from behind German lines.  Abel died in 1955 after being expelled from China, which Fisher knew.  While he is known mostly to history as "Rudolf Abel," he never used that name until his arrest in the US in 1957.  The film shows him being addressed by the arresting FBI agents as "Colonel Abel," but in fact all they knew that he was a colonel code-named  "Mark."  He had been betrayed by an incompetent underling who was being recalled to Moscow, but who managed to defect to the the US in Paris on the way back.  He only knew the code name and "Mark's" rank, although Fisher had made the mistake of once letting him visit the hotel room where he stayed in Brooklyn, posing as an artist-photographer named Emil Gusfel, with this location the key to the FBI busting Abel/Fisher.  Giving the FBI the name of this dead agent was his way of signaling to Moscow that he was loyal and would not leak, which he did  not.

While most of the problems with the film's depiction of Abel/Fisher involve things left out, there is one important error relevant to the worsening condition of US-Russian relations today.  At the end of the exchange on the bridge, Abel/Fisher is seen as being put into the back seat of the receiving car without being hugged or even his hands shaken, with him looking significantly at Donovan still left at the other end of the bridge.  Just prior to his release Donovan asked him how he would be treated by the Soviets when he returned to which he said he did not know.  But he then said that if they hugged him he would be fine, but if they just put him in the back seat of the car he would not be.

Well, what was shown was inaccurate.  In fact, he was hugged and treated not only well but as a major hero to the point of overstating his skill and exploits. Apparently the KGB decided to use him for propaganda purposes precisely as that, a hero of Soviet intelligence, sort of like how Stakhanov was a hero-worker in the 1930s. In 1968 a movie was made about his exploits called "Dead Season," which having seen some of it appears to be less accurate than Bridge of Spies, although the latter really shows very little of what he was spying on or what he was actually doing, with probably the most important of that being in the late 40s when he was in Santa Fe serving as a major link in the network associated with the Rosenbergs spying on nuclear activities at Los Alamos (if Julius Rosenberg had cooperated with the FBI and thus probably saved the life of his wife, Ethel, it is probably the case that ratting on Abel/Fisher would have been the biggest catch he could have revealed to them).  Dead Season had him chasing after German Nazi scientists working on chemical weapons for the US, which does not appear to have been what he was up to in reality, but a handsome and famous actor played him, and he provided an introduction at the beginning praising in general the KGB's work abroad.  This movie was played many times and was very popular. Abel/Gutsfel/Fisher would die peacefully in bed in 1971, a full-blown Hero of the Soviet Union.  Donovan died of a heart attack in 1970 at the age of 53.

So, here is the thing.  This movie is back.  It is now being played repeatedly on Russian TV, a movie that heroizes the old KGB and suggests that the US was working with Nazi German scientists on chemical weapons.  Of course there were many former German scientists in the US working on military stuff, but the most important were those associated with Werrnher von Braun (whom my late father knew) who worked on rockets, as is widely known (and the Soviets managed to get some of the German military scientists, although the majority went over to the US of their own volition, particularly the group led by von Braun). But I find it curious that while in the US we have a major movie being made about Abel/Fisher that suggests falsely that he was mistreated by the Soviets after he was returned to them, whereas at the same time an old movie made glamorizing him is now being repeatedly played on Russian TV.

Regarding Powers there are some apparent discrepancies about details of how he was shot down with the movie version probably partly inaccurate. There remains controversy about those details to this day, with an NSA report on it still classified, even though Powers wrote a book on it that was made into a movie with Lee Majors in 1976 the year before Powers died in a helicopter crash.  While Powers was mistreated initially on his return for failing to destroy the U-2 plane and for not killing himself with a device he was given before he flew, he has come to be viewed more favorably, receiving a Silver Star posthumously in 2012 for not breaking or leaking classified information during his harrowing interrogation in the Lubyanka.  But much about what really happened with Powers, especially the details of his shoot down, remain unclear.

As it was, Donovan died in 1970, Abel/Fisher in 1971, and Powers in 1977.  But Fred Pryor remains alive and active and a most admirable and interesting person, a highly innovative economist whose work showed the way to doing comparative economics after the fall of Soviet bloc communism, on which he was (and still is) an expert.  I shall note that a major part of this innovation was to consider broader cultural influences as economic systems as well, such as Islamic economics or the Catholic economics that led to corporatism (an invention of the 19th century Catholic Church, as he has pointed out), among others.  But I shall not pursue this topic here further at this time, other than to say it has strongly influenced the work of me and my wife.

Barkley Rosser


kevin quinn said...

Barkley; very interesting, as usual. As an aside, I can't see Von Braun's name without hearing (and singing along with) the great Tom Lehrer: "Ven the rockets go up, who cares vere they come down?/ "That's not my department," says Werner Von Braun.

PS: What papers/books of Pryor's do you recommend most highly?

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


Fred has a long vita with many articles and books. He was one of the first comparative economists to write on how social and cultural systems influence economic systems. His "Corporatism as an Economic System: A Review Essay" in the Journal of Comparative Economics, 1988, is an excellent example.

Four excelelnt books are

The Red and the Green: The Rise and Fall of Collectivized Agriculture in Marxist Regimes, Princeton U. Press, originally 1992, pb ed. 2014 (still selling). This is without doubt the definitive work on collectivized agriculture, period, Fred at his top as a comparative economics scholar.

Economic Evolution and Structure: The Impact of Complexity on the U.S. Economic System, Cambridge U. Press, 1996, where Fred does the complexity bit, with pretty good analysis of a variety of trends.

Economic Systems of Foraging, Agricultural, and Industrial Societies, Cambridge U. Press, 2005, where Fred goes big picture, big time. They guy has historical as well as multi-disciplinary sweep.

Capitalism Reassessed, Cambridge U. Press, 2006, in which he looks closely at 22 OECD economies, bringing in cultural and social factors as well as the usual sort of stuff.

There is much more accessible by googling.

Pat Clifford said...

Great update thanks Barkley