A master course on negotiation: competitive, cooperative, blended

Directed by Steven Spielberg - 2015 - USA - 141 minutes

Bridge of Spies

2021 June 07 | by Arduino Mancini Asking questions - Critical thinking - Game theory - Negotiation - Politics - Stratagems - War


The film is based on James B. Donovan’s book The Truth about the Rudolf Abel Case, inspired by a true story.

The film is set in the middle of the Cold War and begins in 1957, when the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy living in New York.

Since the United States intends to maintain intact its image as a democratic nation and respectful of the rights of everyone, the government asks a prestigious law firm to take on the defence of the prisoner; the assignment is given to attorney James B. Donovan, who has not handled criminal cases for many years.

In those years, the U.S. purchased a spy aeroplane, the Lockheed U-2, to drive which they selected young and well-prepared pilots.

The engagement rule is very simple: do not fall into the enemy’s hands.

Despite the aeroplane can fly at a height that takes it out of the radar range and the recognition equipment of the time, the aircraft is shot down and Francis Gary Powers, the pilot, captured and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

At this point, the USA needs to bring back home their man, and it is Donovan who is appointed to handle the negotiation, which consists of an exchange between Powers and Abel.

But the negotiation is complicated in a totally unexpected way by a new fact, caused by the construction of the Berlin Wall: the Volkspolizei, the East German police, arrests Frederic Pryor, an American economics student, on accusations of being a spy.

I won’t tell you more about the plot and leave you to the trailer; then we shall have a chat about the aspects of the film that I find most interesting.



What you can learn from this film

I recommend it to anyone interested in developing his or her negotiation skills: here cooperative, competitive, and blended negotiations strategies come around in whirlwinds, with situations assuming different negotiation structures thanks to the skill of attorney Donovan.

A story in which you will be able to observe the development of negotiation options through sophisticated remodelling techniques and a tireless tendency to identify the opponent’s room for action and understand his next moves.

Spielberg’s direction will keep you glued to the screen the whole time, allowing you to appreciate Donovan’s ability to balance the use of the iron fist and the velvet glove, patiently and skillfully constructing the negotiating space.

Some might observe that the film is one-sided, a film in which the Western “good guys” get the better of the “bad guys” from beyond the curtain: a criticism that can only be partially shared.

The movie camera focuses on people and their destinies:

  • the lawyer whose family and career are in danger by a convenient and unwanted client;
  • the solitude of the spy;
  • the relationship that can be created between people with very different cultural backgrounds and values;
  • the management of emotions as a crucial factor for survival;
  • the cage of interdependence that constrains even the most powerful governments.

However, as I said, in terms of the negotiation skills development, the film is especially appreciated for the several models presented and for the rapidity with which its protagonists pass from one to the other.

People interested in organizational dynamics will appreciate the “elegance” of Donovan’s colleagues in “unloading” on him the defence of Abel, trouble from which he is very likely to come out at least battered.

Not to be missed!


Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Scott Shepherd, Jesse Plemons

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