Georgetown's Connection to the Oscar-Nominated Film "Bridge of Spies"

Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Dreamworks Pictures/Disney

By Jeffrey Donahoe

The Cold War-era drama-thriller Bridge of Spies, nominated this year for six Academy Awards, including best picture and best original screenplay, has a connection to a multi-generational Georgetown family and to Lauinger Library’s Booth Family Center for Special Collections.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies is inspired by the true story of James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks. In 1957, Donovan defended accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Believing that even an accused KGB spy was entitled to a fair trial, Donovan took on the thankless case “as a public service,” he said, after many other lawyers refused. Although Abel was convicted, Donovan mounted a vigorous and ethical defense, much to the surprise of the U.S. government, the press, and the public.

With a prescient belief that Abel might one day be valuable as a bargaining chip, Donovan convinced the court to sentence the convicted spy to life in prison rather than the death penalty. Five years later, Donovan successfully negotiated with the USSR to exchange the still-imprisoned Abel for the captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.

In 1964, Donovan documented the story in Strangers on a Bridge, the title referring to the Glienicke Bridge in Germany, where the spy swap took place. 

In this Bridge of Spies clip, James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, tries to explain the value of American justice to his family of future Hoyas.

From Out of Print to No. 1

At the same time that Spielberg was developing Bridge of Spies, Donovan’s granddaughter Beth Amorosi (C’89) was independently working to resurrect Strangers on a Bridge from its out-of-print status. A second-generation Hoya, her parents are Edward L. (C’56) and Jan Amorosi, the eldest daughter of James Donovan. Her siblings are John (C’91, L’95), Trish (C’94), and Ed (C’98). A Hoya uncle is Leo Amorosi (C’51, M’55).

Several Georgetown alumni helped Beth Amorosi (C’89) republish Strangers on a Bridge, now the subject of the film Bridge of Spies.

A Georgetown alumnus and literary agent guided Amorosi through the steps of meeting with Simon & Schuster, owner of the rights to Strangers on a Bridge. In the summer of 2014, she asked the publishing giant to consider two options: republish the book or revert the publishing rights to her.

Within 48 hours of the pitch, Simon & Schuster reasserted their rights to publish. The book was re-released nine months later. Thanks in part to the subsequent release of the film, it was No. 1 on last December’s New York Times espionage bestseller list.

‘A Jesuit Family’

John Donovan, Amorosi’s uncle and the son of James Donovan, the central character of the spy story, attended for Georgetown in 1963 and 1964, before joining the Marines and deploying to Vietnam.

The senior Donovan had graduated from Fordham University and understood the value of a Jesuit education. “We are something of a Jesuit family,” John Donovan says of himself, his brother-in-law, and the several Hoya nieces, nephews, and in-laws who attended Georgetown.

Amorosi says only half-jokingly that her grandfather’s place in history is how she ended up at Georgetown. “I wrote about him as a role model for my admissions essay,” she says. “I am sure that’s what got me in.”

No Longer a Footnote

Both Donovan and Amorosi are quick to stress that Bridge of Spies’ Oscar-nominated screenplay by British screenwriter and playwright Matt Charman is a separate and original work, not adapted from Strangers on a Bridge. “That the screenplay was developed independently further demonstrates that there is something special about the story,” Amorosi says.

Intrigued by reading a fleeting reference to James Donovan negotiating the return of more than 1,000 members of a U.S.-backed paramilitary group captured in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Charman researched Donovan’s life and wrote the screenplay to elevate him from what Charman calls a “footnote in history” to the central character of the screenplay he successfully pitched to Steven Spielberg.

While writing the screenplay, Charman visited John Donovan. “It was important for me to be up close to John,” Charman told Georgetown magazine by phone from London. “I wanted to ask for his blessing to tell the story.”

“It was an emotional meeting, and quite honestly, it was that emotion that made the screenplay work,” Charman says. “I could see how much his dad meant to him, that he was so proud of his father. Meeting John was the most incredible, most important moment in the journey of writing the script,” Charman says.

John Donovan, who attended SFS (far left), and Beth Amorosi (C’89) (far right,) and their families attended the Bridge of Spies world premiere at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center last October. Actor Tom Hanks, who plays James Donovan in the film, is in the center.

The movie calls itself “inspired by true events,” but Amorosi and Donovan agree that the overall story and the spirit of James Donovan are true. “The decisions about streamlining the story were good,” Donovan says, adding that, “it’s fascinating to see someone play you, to try to see that actor as yourself.”

Last October in New York, the families were invited to a private screening of the film with Spielberg, Charman, and executive producer Marc Platt. Spielberg told Amorosi that he was struck by the character and heroism of her grandfather, whose rather James Bond-like life included, in addition to the prisoner exchange, service as a WWII Naval Commander, counsel for the federal agency that developed the atomic bomb, early service in the country’s first intelligence agency, associate prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial, and one-on-one negotiations with Fidel Castro to release the Bay of Pigs prisoners.

John Donovan, then an 18-year-old student on his way to Georgetown University, accompanied his father to Cuba and met Castro. 

Honoring a Friendship

Soviet spy Rudolf Abel gave a rare commentary on the Justinian Code to James Donovan, whose family has since donated it to Georgetown’s Lauinger Library.

Georgetown holds a permanent and valuable testament to the Donovan-Abel story.

Six months after his to release to the USSR on Glienicke Bridge, Abel sent Donovan—a fellow rare book collector—two 17th-century legal works: a massive folio of German legal decisions and an equally massive commentary on the Justinian code, a 6th-century work that is a cornerstone of jurisprudence. The gifts were meant to honor the friendship they had developed during the espionage trial and prisoner exchange.

In 1994, Donovan’s eldest daughter, Jan Amorosi, the mother of four Hoyas and wife of another, donated the works to Georgetown.

“By giving these books to Georgetown, the families have helped ensure their long-term preservation in a place where researchers can have ready access to them,” says John A. Buchtel, director of Georgetown’s Booth Family Center for Special Collections. “Original primary source materials like these also enable us to provide our students with a tangible experience of history, whether they are studying the cultural effects of Roman law on early modern society, or the delicacy of negotiations in the wake of a major international incident.”

“Abel gave these works to my grandfather for their symbolic value as core legal works and to honor my grandfather’s commitment to the law,” says Amorosi. “Our family knew that Georgetown was an appropriate home for them because of its renown in international affairs, diplomacy, and law.”