Archive | September, 2015

Cold War High Jinks

3 Sep

When we were kids, we checked out a book called “Spies and Spying” from our local library. Written for a young readers, it nevertheless contained real life tales of espionage. Our favorite was about Rudolph Abel (now known by his real name, William Fisher), an undercover Soviet agent living in New York, and the inept spy that Moscow sent to assist him, Reino Hayhanen.

The end of Fisher’s time in New York began when one of the men (probably Hayhanen) inadvertently passed into circulation a hollow nickel concealing a small sheet of film containing microdots. The specious specie came into the possession of two school teachers, who passed it in a handful of change to their news boy. The young man thereupon dropped the coins, splitting open the faux nickel and revealing its contents. This and the fact that Hayhanen spilled his guts to U.S.authorities ultimately led to Fisher’s arrest. (After receiving a message calling him back to Moscow for a ‘rest’ and a ‘promotion’, Hayhanen rightly panicked.) Fisher was later returned to Russia in a prisoner swap that included U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.

Two years ago we had another of our get-rich-quick schemes. We would write a screenplay. We didn’t know of a single movie that dealt with the Fisher / Hayhanen story, so we’d get in ahead of everyone else. It couldn’t miss:

“Fade in. A bridge seen from above with figures at either end. The scene is partially obscured by fog. Cut to a tracking shot of two men seen from behind at the right of the frame. At the left of the frame, we see in the distance three men approaching in the opposite direction. The camera pans around, and we see the faces of the two men.

Cut  to five years earlier …”

Needless to say, we never followed through, and now we’ve been beaten to the punch by Steven Speilberg; next month, Dreamworks will release “Bridge of Spies”. We’re disappointed – instead of our hackneyed handling of the story, the world will instead see Spielbeg’s hackeneyed handling of the story.

Nothing in the film’s promotional materials indicates the film’s sources, but we speculate that it’s based at least in part on Giles Whittell’s book “Bridge Of Spies.” Without having yet seen the film, we worry that it’ll contain a lot of hokey jingoism (The tagline on the official web site is “In the shadow of war, one man showed the world what we stand for.”) We won’t provide a link to the site, ’cause Spielberg isn’t one of our favorite directors – we’re probably the only ones who think that “E.T.” was overrated.

From the looks of things, the focus of the film is going to be on James Donovan, the American lawyer who negotiated the swap of William Fisher for Francis Gary Powers and Frederic Pryor, an academic captured by the East German Stasi. To us though, the story of the odd pairing of the adept Fisher with the incompetent Hayhanen seems the more interesting one. The accounts we read years ago about Abel/Fisher depicted him as a superspy, though Whittell’s book suggests that this reputation is undeserved. Fisher certainly kept a low profile, and was capable at photography and at creating microdots, but Whittell points out that he provided Moscow with little valuable intelligence during his stint in the US. Whittell goes as far as suggesting that Fisher essentially “went native”, going through the motions of espionage while his main pursuits were art and painting. Still, he was competent, in contrast to Hayhanen, who spoke English with a thick accent, showed little interest in learning the techniques of spycraft, spent money intended for other purposes on himself,  engaged in loud drunken rows with his wife, and generally called lots of attention to himself.  To us, this seems the stuff of a Harold Pinter play.

We’ll know soon enough if the Spielberg production is a worthy one. As long as they don’t overplay the patriotic angle and lay off the cliches, we figure it’ll be an OK movie. The trailer for the film displays the words “Inspired by True Events”, which is usually code for “We’re gonna play fast and loose with the facts, then tell you it’s the true story.”

William Fisher

Why’d ya spy on us, Willie?