Intricate, complex, and revealing, Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell takes audiences as far back in time as 1917 during the collapse of the rein of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. It is the end of World War I, marked by the rise of the proletariat or wage-earners across eastern Europe. A class of a people born to humble means are the focal point of Whittell’s tale.
Based on the lives of three real people, Whittell attempts to describe the intricacies that led to the tense political climate through the 1950’s earmarked by the Cold War, the Red Scare, and the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities who sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to their death sentence.
In a nutshell, Bridge of Spies refers to the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin famously known as Checkpoint Charlie where in February 1962, an exchange of spies took place. To summarize the gist of Whittell’s tale, Americans Frederic Pryor and Francis Gary Powers, who were held by the KGB, had been traded for William Fisher, a Russian spy known as Rudolf Abel in America, who was held by the CIA.
Powers, a U-2 pilot who had been on a reconnaissance mission to discover what nuclear arms Russia had, was captured in 1960 by the KGB. Fisher, who had been born in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England to Russian parents and had pledged his loyalty to Communist Russia after Tsar Nicholas was executed, collected nuclear intelligence on American soil through the 1940’s and ’50s. Innocent of the charges of espionage, Pryor had been a graduate student from Yale visiting East Germany to study the country’s foreign trade policy for his college thesis.
Whittell’s investigation into the lives of these three men is thorough, oftentimes, too thorough causing readers to lose their focus as secondary players fill up the pages. The reader’s focus is dispersed among the transient intermediaries who enter and leave the lives of the three main players. The author’s writing style resembles a college thesis itself rather than a biography or biopic of the events which lead to the trade at Checkpoint Charlie.
The author assumes that the reader knows where he is at any given point, neglecting to explain in layman terms who is who and why the tertiary individuals are important to note. The book is very complex, bogged down by details and intricacies that only people who were actually present at the scene being described can fully understand what is going on at that point.
Whittell injects conjectures and assumptions about what took place, and takes creative liberties to fill in the gaps through the evolving stages of the lives being portrayed. The reader must take the author’s word as truth, which takes readers ability to think on their own out of the read. The audience is spoon-fed the story, though the threads from scene to scene are not connected. The players move around without something to move them to the subsequent scene.
The read is disjointed though very interesting. How U.S. defense attorney James Donovan negotiated the release of Powers and Pryor for Fisher remains speculation from the reader’s point of view. Secrets and how those secrets travel into the enemy’s hands is intriguing to audiences, though the transfer of secrets during the Cold War still remain a mystery after reading Bridge of Spies.