#SCOTUS Goes Hollywood: Abel v. United States and “Bridge of Spies”

November 17th, 2015

In Steven Spielberg’s new film, Bridge of Spies (which I haven’t yet seen), there is a re-enactment of oral arguments in Abel v. United States (1960). In two brief clips from the trailer (starting at 2:00) , you can see Tom Hanks in a morning coat (no he is not the Solicitor General), and a wide-angle shot of the Court. It looks fairly accurate. The bench is curved, the curtains are the right color, and you can even see the bronze gates on the wings. They didn’t quite capture the grand hallway behind the Court, there doesn’t seem to be a bar between the general audience section, the floor is marble and not carpet, there are individual seats and not the rows of benches, there do not appear to be seats on either side including where the press sits, and the lectern does not seem to be the proper height. But this is a heck of a lot more accurate than the awful representation of #SCOTUS in “Woman in Gold.”



Update: Garrett Epps writes about the real court case behind Bridge of Spies, Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, also known as ‘Mark’ and also known as Martin Collins and Emil R. Goldfus, Petitioner, v. United States.:

Abel—an implacable enemy of the United States at the height of the nuclear standoff—came remarkably close to succeeding. Donovan fought gamely for his client’s Fourth Amendment rights; he also convinced the district judge to spare Abel’s life on the grounds that he might be useful in a swap later. (In the film this is depicted as taking place in an improper secret talk with the judge, but in reality the argument was made in open court.) That happened, and five years later, Rudolf Abel walked across the Glienicke Bridge between Potsdam and East Berlin, where he was met by Soviet intelligence.

Bridge of Spies is the best picture of a good lawyer I have ever seen. As Donovan, Tom Hanks is both restrained and implacable. Donovan fought hard for Abel, and the case cost him dearly. “In fact,” Kahn told me, the film “might even have undersold how much of a political risk he took.” Donovan ran for Senate in 1962 and was beaten badly.