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Book/film List / Heroes / Legal Fictions

I am told that the greatest compliment one trial lawyer can pay to another is the comment that he or she “can see out the front.” It means the lawyer has not only knowledge of the facts of the case up to the present, but also the uncanny ability to foresee how the future will unfurl.

Steven Spielberg’s new film Bridge of Spies gives us a good example of this lawyerly talent. The movie tells the story of Jim Donovan, a lawyer in private practice who in the 1950’s is asked to defend a Russian accused of being a Soviet spy. It soon becomes clear to Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) that his client is guilty, but that does not deter him from waging a vigorous defense. Still the defendant is found guilty, and the judge shows every sign of intending to impose the death penalty, at least until Donovan makes his plea for leniency.

It’s not a “bleeding heart” plea. Donovan instead points out that it would not be in the best interests of the United States to execute his client. The judge must know that just as the Soviets have agents committing acts in violation of our laws, we also have agents busy violating Russian laws. That’s the way the Cold War operates. Donovan predicts that it is just a matter of time before some American agent is arrested, tried, and convicted in a Soviet court. Would it not be in the United States’ interest to have a pawn to offer in exchange for our man? The judge grudgingly agrees, and Donovan’s client is sentenced to life.

Then it turns out that Donovan’s prophecy comes true. I won’t say more in hope that you will want to see what other lawyerly skills Donovan displays in this most enjoyable film.

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