Although the U-2 Spy Plane featured in the superbly done new film by Steven Spielberg and featuring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance and Alan Alda, was an older version of the plane now being flown by the First Aero Squadron out of Beale Air Force Base in California, only an expert aficionado of modern aircraft will be able to detect the difference, since the newer more powerful model of the U-2 continues to very closely resemble the original version that caused such an international uproar – and embarrassment – to the Eisenhower Administration on May Day in 1960. Otherwise, the accuracy with which Mr. Spielberg recreated the film’s 1950’s and early 1960’s background scenes, including the autos and other period artifacts seen in the movie, are impeccably accurate in their attention to the smallest details.
From its opening moments, this masterpiece of entertainment easily captures its audiences and doesn’t let them relax their white knuckled grips on their seats until the credits roll at the film’s end.
Sticking respectably close to actual history, Spielberg and his screen writers nevertheless weave a captivatingly colorful and dramatic tale of these two major historical incidents, particularly useful for those born after the international events about which the plot circles. The dramatic incidents at the core of this masterpiece actually took place, so the film’s producers provide a memory refresher – or possibly even some new history lesson specifics for those of us who actually lived through the potentially catastrophic nuclear war-triggering events at the center of the film’s story.
In fact, one could speculate that many who remember when the stories behind this film actually unfolded in real time, but likely didn’t even know some of the critical details behind the frightening world headlines that rolled off the presses. But now they will.
While the film begins with an actual Soviet Spy incident that unfolded in the U.S. several years before the infamous shooting down of the U.S. spy plane over the USSR, the captured Russian spy, Colonel Rudolf Ivonovich Abel (meaningfully portrayed by actor Mark Rylance) and his reluctant yet dedicated and principled defense attorney, Jim Donovan (played by Hanks), manage to capture and easily hold the audience’s attention as they relive the history of those precipitous times.
The public uproar over Soviet spy Abel’s capture and subsequent trial – and Donovan’s brilliant and dedicated defense – are brilliantly woven into the movie’s fabric. This was a dangerous time in America, and, in fact, the entire world, with the two super-powers of the day consistently threatening one another in both word and action. The intensity of the international spying that lay just under the surface on both sides of the Atlantic inspired many exciting action films, including the popular James Bond series. The world, and most in it, realized they were truly living on the precipice of a nuclear holocaust.
CIA U-2 Pilot Gary Powers and his U-2 capture by the Soviets was a major diplomatic disaster for the U.S., which had repeatedly and publicly denied they were spying on the Russians (and violating their sovereign air space) with high flying military surveillance aircraft. After all, the U.S. was confident that the top secret the U-2 was flying safely far above Soviet missile range.
Although Spy Abel’s defense attorney, James Donovan, was subjected to serious and even life-threatening threats for simply trying to do a good job of defending his assigned (not desired) client, his public and court room explanations of why his hearty defense was necessary, spoke loudly to the principles and ideals upon which the United States was founded. However this nevertheless didn’t in any way abate the abuse to which he was subjected, as much of the public cried aloud for the quick execution of his client, Russian spy Rudolf Abel.
If you see this outstanding film you will most likely come away richer for the experience.
Thanks to the archives of the U.S. Department of Defense, we have provided a short video, above, of a film they produced, which includes some actual footage of both spy Abel and of his famous defense attorney – and his reluctant, but successful international negotiator, Jim Donovan.
To give you a better grasp of the famous spy plane, the U-2 “Dragon Lady,” we have also embedded a ten minute clip excerpted from the more lengthy BBC Special Film entitled “James May on the Edge of Space,” a part of the larger project called, “James May on the Moon.” This much viewed production of the BBC was made possible by then USAF Major – and highly experienced U-2 Pilot – John “Cabi” Cabigas, an active member of the FASF.
We suggest you watch the full BBC film of that flight and of the complicated preparations required of Mr. May, before he was certified capable of just riding in the back seat of the U-2 trainer at Beale AFB with Cabi. Although Cabi has retired from the USAF, he continues to instruct our “Dragon Lady” pilots at Beale. Below is shot of Cabi aloft in the U-2,
At right is photo of Cabi with his vintage Piper J-3 Cub. Cabi is also busily constructing a P-51-like higher performance experimental airplane called the “Jaguar.” This aircraft is seen below at right.
Directly below is the low resolution 10 minute clip from the full length BBC film: “John May at the Edge of Space” Cabi is the pilot in this film.
Your Webmaster interviewed Cabi back in 2013 at Beale Air Force Base. To re-visit this video-taped session with Cabi and his fellow U-2 Instructor, Bill Williams, merely click right here. In this on-camera interview Bill and Cabi reveal some otherwise unknown and interesting facts about the Powers catastrophe and the Russian’s SAM Missile that was able to reach the high-flying U-2.
Great post. Such a beautiful wonder the U-2 is. Greatly admire Pilot Cabigas. Saw the BBC special and it made me consider more than ever how much we have over come and how fragile we are.
Thanks for you comments, Caryn. The U-2 certainly is an unusual – and long lived – bird. I’m blessed to have had the chance to meet our first astronaut of Philippine heritage, Cabi, and can attest to what an outstanding fellow he is. Although he chose to retire from the USAF early, he certainly didn’t retire from working with his beloved U-2, since he’s continued right on working at Beale AFB helping instruct each new bevy of U-2 trainees that regularly arrive for upgrading into the high flying machine. And Cabi loves to fly – anything, even an old classic Piper Cub, on of which he proudly owns, flies and maintains! He’s also personally building a true hod-rod experimental aircraft right in his own garage at home in his spare time. It mostly resembles the famous WWII/Korean Conflict P/F-51 Mustang, but is called the Prowler Jaguar. Its powerplant is an automotive V-8 made by GM, not even an engine intended for an airplane. You can see what it looks like by searching the Internet for Prowler Aviation Jaguar. Cheers, ric