Bridge of Spies, out on DVD/Blu-Ray this week, tells the story of the tense negotiations for the exchange of a Soviet spy for an American U2 pilot and a graduate student. The pilot was Francis Gary Powers, who was flying a camera-equipped plane on a top secret reconnaissance mission for the CIA when he was shot down over the Soviet Union.
His son, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., talked to me about the film and about his work in educating people about his father’s legacy and about the Cold War era.
What led you to create the Cold War Museum?
I founded the Museum in 1996 to honor Cold War veterans, preserve Cold War history and educate future generations about this time period. I found that in the early 90s right after the end of the Cold War. I’d be giving lectures to high school students in the Washington DC Fairfax County area, and nine times out of ten I would walk into a classroom to give a talk on the U-2 incident and I would get blank stares from the kids. The students thought I was there to talk about the U-2 rock band. And so that was the catalyst, that was a light bulb that goes on, that said, “Oh we need to create a Cold War Museum to preserve this history and educate the students.” That’s how it all transpired.
It was opened in November 2011, 2000 square feet of Museum space, an addition 2000 square feet of storage space adjacent to the Museum. It is in Vint Hill, Virginia, 40 miles from Washington DC, in an authentic Cold War historic site that was used throughout the Cold War by NSA, CIA, ASA – Army Security Agency – to electronically monitor and intercept communications primarily from the DC embassies. And so it was functional up through the mid-90s at which time it was closed down by BRACT – the Base Realignment and Closure Act. The government of Virginia had appointed a Vint Hill task force to oversee some developments of homes and businesses and make it a residential area and a business complex. So that’s what they’re doing now. It’s opened on weekends, midweek by appointment for school groups and the vision that we have is to grow on site, to become a state of the art museum.
I think even adults will learn something from the movie. Does it tell the story accurately?
I am hearing very good reviews from friends and peers, and people I have interacted with over the last few months like the movie. My personal take is that the movie is very well done. In the big scheme of things, the overall movie hits the historical accuracy spot on, the feelings of the 1950s and 60s, the fear of the Soviet Union, the civil defense drills and duck and cover drills that people would do are all accurately portrayed, including the feelings towards my father, towards [Soviet spy] Rudolf Abel, and towards James Donovan [played by Tom Hanks], the attorney representing the Soviet spy but also brokering the exchange between my father and Rudolf Abel. So the feelings felt towards these individuals sometimes throughout the movie were not so flattering. I mean it was the time period and these were the feelings that were felt, so overall in the big picture it’s historically accurate.
Now you get to the details of each scene. It’s Hollywood, a little embellishing, a little dramatic effect, a little artistic liberty in all the scenes. At the very end of the movie, they do honor my father, though. They helped to set the record straight, acknowledge him as a hero to our country through the medals he received posthumously.
In the film’s climax, as your father is being released, the Americans bring someone there who knew him and could identify him. Is that how it happened?
In reality there is a gentleman name Joe Murphy and he was responsible for ID-ing my father at the bridge. So that is historically accurate. The movie takes some liberties with the role that Joe Murphy plays. In the movie Joe Murphy is a second lieutenant U-2 pilot along with my father, one of his colleagues. In reality Joe Murphy worked for the CIA in their security division and he was tasked to bring the pilot home. So in the movie it seems like dad and Joe knew each other very well, they were pilots together, in reality they did not know each other very well until after he came home.
But you had also have to remember this time period. Abel was caught in 1957-ish. There was a sting operation set up by the FBI for about two years in order to capture him. So between 55 and 57 they’re looking for Rudolf Abel. My father got shot down on May 1st of 1960. His his trial was August 60 then he got exchanged in February 62. So there’s about a 5 to 7 year time period that the movie has to condense into a two hour block so as a result some things are left out, some things are left unanswered. It’s not Gary Powers-centric, the movie is Donovan-centric. He is the hero of this movie, James Donovan. So there are a couple of things that I would have done or added in to clarify which there wasn’t time for.
Where should people go if they want to learn more?
There are three books out there that talk about this part of American history, or world history. My father’s book, Operation Overflight, that he wrote and had published in 1970. There is that of one James Donovan’s book called Strangers On A Bridge published in 1965. And there is a third book with the same title of the movie called Bridge of Spies that was written by Giles Whittell out of the UK. The movie is not based on any one book. It is based on, as they say in the movie, inspired by historical events. So between the historical records, the declassification conferences and files, the news reports at the time, the books that were written about it, the Coen brothers put together this movie script.
What did you know about all of this when you were growing up?
I was actually born in 1965, two and a half years later. So my father got shot down on May 1st of 60, spends 21 months in the Soviet prison, three months solitary confinement going through the interrogations, 3 days trials in August of 60 and then another 18 months Vladimir prison. The first prison he stayed in for the three months of interrogation was Llubyanka, the infamous KGB prison and then after the trial he was transported to three hours outside of Moscow to Vladimir prison where he serves out another 18 months as a sentence, a total of 21 months in captivity. His exchange on February 10th at the Glienicke Bridge, Potsdam Germany. It’s a cold dark foggy morning right out of a le Carré novel, these two spies were on each side of the bridge with their entourage, they are positively ID-ed and they walk home with their respective freedoms. So as a kid I was very well aware of this. I knew my father had been shot down and I knew he had been imprisoned. We talked about this, when I was reading his book. He would come in at nights and answer questions I would have. But for me as a kid 10 years old or so reading this book I thought this was normal, I thought everybody’s dad did something like this. That perception changed on August 1st of 77, I’m 12 years old my father dies in a helicopter crash while working for NBC television out of Los Angeles and that’s when the last light bulb goes on. That’s when I realized ‘Oh, not everybody’s dad gets struck down, imprisoned exchanged, buried at Arlington, news reports about him,’ that’s when it really hit home. But by that time had passed away and I couldn’t ask any other questions.
What is it that you think the Cold War era has to teach us about the geopolitics issues of our day?
The Cold War needs to be studied and analyzed so that people, including students and scholars understand the world we live in today. The War on terror has its origins in the Cold War. For example, the Afghan war in 1979 – 1980, when the Soviet Union is fighting Afghanistan in a guerilla type of war in that country. The CIA is helping to supply the rebels with the weapons and instructions to fight the Soviets. Well the head of the rebel organization that the CIA was backing to fight off the Soviets was none other than Osama bin Laden and so from his training, from the CIA, in the 1970s, late 70’s and early 80’s, the Afghan war evolves into over the next 10+ years into him using that technology, that training it against us. And so in this war on terror it’s very important to realize what the roots are, where it comes from. To understand what’s happening in the world today you have to understand how the Cold War contributed to it. And so one of the very important things that I like to reach out to my students about is that it’s not just two separate conflicts, it’s overlapped.