Bridge of Spies: The Real Story

By Elizabeth Bowley.
Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies, tells the story of the exchange between Francis Gary Powers and Rudolf Abel. British Pathé followed this story as it happened. Here we present newsreels documenting the real story of the exchange.
Vilyam Fisher (Mark Rylance) was a Soviet Intelligence officer, operating under the alias of Rudolf Abel. He was spotted by FBI agents after acting nervously in a park in Brooklyn; he was then put under surveillance and eventually arrested. After his capture, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) was asked to be his defence lawyer. Abel accepted. However, he was still sentenced to 30 years imprisonment.

The above newsreel shows Rudolf Abel’s capture.


Meanwhile, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) was taking part in an espionage mission in a U-2 plane which was designed to take high resolution photos of Soviet air defences. Powers’ plane was shot down by a Soviet missile. He was unable to self destruct his plane and was captured by Soviet forces. The US government stated that it had been a “weather plane” that had strayed off course, not realising that the plane had crashed almost entirely intact.


Here Eisenhower defends espionage.


This video looks at the Soviet reaction to the events.


Here is footage of the U-2 aircraft similar to what Powers would have been in. They were designed to fly above altitudes of 70,000 feet.


Powers was taken to trial and found guilty of espionage against the Soviet Union, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

This film details the Power’s trial.


The Power’s trial.


In 1962, Powers and an American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) were exchanged with Rudolf Abel. (Pryor had been studying in West Berlin when he was arrested by the East German police in 1961.) The swap took place in Berlin on Glienicke Bridge and was highly publicised.

This newsreel reports on the event.


Listen to Powers’ final comments on the events following his return home.


The story of the Abel, Powers and Pryor exchange is a fascinating one. The events encapsulate the sheer tension and paranoia between the West and the East during the Cold War. We at British Pathé are big fans of the film and we think Steven Spielberg’s portrayal of the exchange is definitely worth a watch. Let us know what you think of the film by posting your comments below.