'Bridge of Spies' Story Is Unbelievable

'Tis the season of serious, grown-up movies, like the latest Tom Hanks drama-fest Bridge Of Spies. Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, a lawyer who is recruited by the U.S. government during the Cold War to negotiate the release of an American pilot in exchange for the Soviet spy he once defended in court. The film deals with questions of patriotism in a time of paranoia, and the protection of the due process that defines America in the first place. It's heavy stuff, hence an A-List creative push, including director Steven Spielberg and a final screenplay draft with the input of Joel and Ethan Coen. Donovan's story is so compelling that it's amazing it hasn't been on-screen already. But it has been written about: Bridge Of Spies is partly based on the book Strangers on a Bridge by James Donovan, inspired by that account's record of the famed prisoner exchange.

The film wasn't always carrying that moniker though. During development, Bridge Of Spies was referenced as "Untitled Cold War Thriller" and shot under the title "St. James Place." The title was officially announced as Bridge Of Spies in March of 2015, after producer Marc Platt let the cat out of the bag to a University Of Pennsylvania student newspaper.

The title of the book and the film refers to the nickname of the Glienicke Bridge, which connected Potsdam in East Germany and West Berlin during the Cold War. The American and Soviet governments used the bridge to make exchanges of captured spies, since it was heavily guarded and closed to the public. The exchange depicted in Bridge Of Spies and made possible by Donovan's work is the first and most famous one to have taken place there.

Whittell's book was published in 2010 and carries the subtitle, A True Story Of The Cold War. It focuses on the three individuals who are the subjects of the exchange: the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel; the capture American pilot Gary Powers; and a falsely accused American student who had been held by the East German Stasi under suspicion of espionage. James Donovan is not the main character in the non-fiction book, though he does play a significant role in Abel's trial and the exchange itself. Though with Hanks on board, Bridge Of Spies becomes Donovan's movie.

Donovan himself recorded his own version of events in a memoir titled Strangers On A Bridge: The Case Of Colonel Abel & Francis Gary Powers. Originally released in 1964, Strangers received a new paperback printing this year to tie in to the buzz of the film. The new version includes the cover headline, "The Subject Of The Major Motion Picture Bridge Of Spies." So while Donovan's remembrances were surely reviewed and considered, this book does not claim to have been the source material adapted by the Coens and fellow screenwriter Matt Charman.

Watch Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks discuss the incredible story behind the book and the movie Bridge Of Spies below.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Bridge of Spies is based on the book Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell.

Image: Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios