Tysons Corner resident Francis Gary Powers Jr. has built his own bridge of spies, having gathered intel from CIA officials, FBI agents and KGB operatives to piece together the facts behind his late father’s mission, capture and release from the Soviet Union.
Hero? Traitor? Coward? The questions about his father that harried Mr. Powers, 50, for much of his life were answered by years of research and advocacy that helped shape the film “Bridge of Spies,” which is up for six Oscars this month, including best film and best original screenplay.
“I got wind this movie was going to be produced in June 2014. And I’m like, ‘Oh no, how do you get in touch with Steven Spielberg?’” Mr. Powers, president of the Tysons Regional Chamber of Commerce, told The Washington Times. “We were concerned that if they portrayed my father based on the information of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he could be viewed in a negative way. If they based it on the declassified data that’s come out then they’d be honoring him as a hero to our country.”
Mr. Powers tried every avenue he knew to get in touch with the legendary director of “Jaws,” the Indiana Jones films and “Saving Private Ryan” — all dead ends. Then a phone call came in to the Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Virginia, which Mr. Powers founded in 1996: It was producer Marc Platt, who was seeking to know more about Gary Sr. via his son’s recollections.
Mr. Powers explained the family’s concerns about his father’s portrayal in the film, and Mr. Platt was so receptive that he hired him to consult on the production.
“He hired me on with the understanding that I would answer questions, I would provide photographs, I would provide recordings, I would do anything I could to help with their adaptation of the story,” Mr. Powers said. “The contract basically said that they didn’t have to listen to what I had to say, and if I didn’t like the end result, I couldn’t sue. I figured it was more important to be a part of it than to say ‘No, thank you,’ and walk away.”
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Francis Gary Powers was an Air Force veteran when the CIA recruited him to fly reconnaissance missions. He was shot down while piloting a high-altitude U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960, weeks after U.S. officials had denied knowledge of such flights.
Throughout his capture, interrogation and trial, he navigated a treacherous course between providing his captors with some information about his flight but not so much as to risk the secrecy of his do-or-die mission and allow the CIA to assume he had defected, his son says today.
“He told me stories about lying to his captors, misleading them anyway he could,” Mr. Powers said. “The KGB guard looks at him and basically says, ‘You might as well tell us everything, we’ll get it out of your American press anyway.’
“He tells the full truth when he knows they can verify the information in the press. It gives him credibility. He always said that he was at the maximum altitude of 68,000 feet when he was shot down. Close enough to be believable, far enough away to keep other pilots out of harm’s way and [it was] his attempt to get a message to the CIA back home: ‘Hey guys, I’m not telling the full truth.’”
Powers spent 21 months in a Soviet prison — from May 1, 1960, until Feb. 10, 1962, when he was returned to the U.S. in a swap for Russian spy Rudolph Abel. The pilot was debriefed in Washington by his CIA handlers, who were callous because he had not taken a suicide pill before being captured. His two-year absence had strained his marriage, but he eventually met Mr. Powers’ mother, Claudia, in the nation’s capital.
Originally from Virginia, Powers moved to Los Angeles, where he worked first as a test pilot for Lockheed and later as a helicopter pilot for an NBC News affiliate. He wrote a book about his capture and detainment, “Operation Overflight,” and went on a book tour.
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Mr. Powers was 12 when his father was killed in an on-the-job helicopter accident in 1977. Conspiracy theories immediately spread that the CIA had a hand in the death, but Mr. Powers dismisses all such notions — including that there was a UFO sighting or sabotage involved in the downing of his father’s spy plane.
“When I started my journey to find out more about my father, I did not start out with the expectation to vindicate him,” he said. “Had I found out it was sabotage or a flameout or a conspiracy, that’s what I’d be saying now. All of the information I’ve gained over the years [from] firsthand accounts from Russians, Americans, CIA, KGB, it all leads to the fact that he was at altitude [and that it was a] near-miss from a Soviet A2 missile that brought him down.”
Mr. Powers introduced the filmmakers to Edward Moody, the FBI agent who captured Abel, and coached actor Austin Stowell, who portrays his father. He also was given a cameo role as a military officer who escorts Powers to embark on his fateful mission. In the extra features on the DVD, he wears that same uniform while giving an on-camera interview.
“What I want people to take out of the movie and the public record is that it’s never too late to set the record straight,” Mr. Powers said, noting that after CIA files were declassified, his father was posthumously awarded the POW Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star and the CIA Director’s Medal.
“It took all these years to get all these records declassified to find out that he did not disobey orders, that he did not spill state secrets, that he did not defect,” he said. “He did everything he was supposed to do under those circumstances. Because of the film, [his reputation] will last forever.”
• Eric Althoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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