"Would it help?"

I don't generally take object lessons or rubrics away from movies. Other than don't go up against Javier Bardem or Josh Brolin without armor and a buttload of firepower. But Bridge of Spies did supply me with a thoughtful piece of advice. One I try to follow.

  Will the real Rudolf Abel please stand up and worry?

Will the real Rudolf Abel please stand up and worry?

Tom Hanks plays an insurance salesman who used to be a lawyer. Mark Rylance won an Oscar for best supporting actor, and his role was that of cold war spy Rudolf Abel. It was a fairly quiet, mannered movie with superb acting and portrayal of a time in U.S. history that was both paranoid and simplistic.

The capture of Abel (who wasn't Abel at all, but who had so many personas the prosecution settled on one that conveniently made him a KGB Colonel) and his subsequent imprisonment, rather than execution was a large part of the story.

Hanks's character, Jim Donovan, took his appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, making himself and family extremely unpopular, but his determination to save Abel's life proved brilliant. It gave the U.S. a trading card for the return of our spy, Francis Gary Powers and an innocent student, at a later date.

The film is quite good, though it severely abridges the Powers story for the sake of continuity; real events are rarely so convenient as portrayed in movies.

What I found to be valuable advice is this: when Hank's character is talking to Abel in prison, he is taken aback by Abel's calm demeanor at the prospect of being executed. He says to Abel, "you don't seem alarmed. Aren't you worried?"

To which Rylance's stoic character replies, softly, "Would it help?" 

To me, this became a leitmotif. At Checkpoint Charlie when Abel is being exchanged for Powers and the student, Hanks once more poses a worrisome thought about what will happen to Abel when he returns home. Although he has told nothing to the U.S. interrogators, the Soviets might think he had. "Are you worried that they might execute you?" The answer, of course, in Abel's calm unruffled manner is, "Would it help?"

  A secret compartment nickel figures in Abel's movie capture, but in reality another spy spent it and it bounced around New York's economy for months until a newsboy discovered it.

A secret compartment nickel figures in Abel's movie capture, but in reality another spy spent it and it bounced around New York's economy for months until a newsboy discovered it.

I believe it happened three times in the movie (here's a wonderful example on youtube) and I took it to heart every time. It reminds me of another prosaic saw: Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere. If Abel is being truly portrayed in Bridge of Spies, he had admirable qualities. He asked little of the world around him. He believed in his cause and was a "good soldier." He was courageous and conveyed that Kiplingesque attribute of keeping his head when all goes wrong. All for the wrong side, true, but admirable, nevertheless.

He has been called, "arguably, the most successful Soviet spy of all time," and probably would never have been discovered had it not been for another Soviet spy who drank too much. Here's to that guy, a round of Stolichnaya, please.

We all have worries, things that wake us up at night. Financial, medical, existential stuff. That slow-to-come promotion, a simple oil change that turned into a fire-breathing compressor replacement bill, an IRS notice, a crappy contractor--on and on and on.

Five minutes ago I got off the phone with a major company. They were supposed to be here before noon for an installation. I am also trying to take a workshop course with a bestselling novelist. Trash that for today.

I finally cancelled the installation. There was a misplaced digit in the phone number (mine) that prevented the company from contacting me. Their mistake, not mine, I checked. The human from the company kept telling me "They were in your area but couldn't contact you..." I kept saying, "I know that."  My blood pressure has spiked, I'm sure. And now I've missed a whole morning of the first day of workshop. I could pretty much spit nails right now.

So I look at what I've written about Abel and the unflappable visage of Rylance's Rudolf Abel floats before me.

I ask him, "Well, wouldn't you be steamed?"

And he answers, without a trace of irony, "Would it help?"