When we first meet James Donovan (Tom Hanks) in Bridge of Spies, he is debating liability with an opposing lawyer in a shadowy bar, trying, testily, to explain his way into a settlement. “Don’t say my guy,” he says, interrupting his companion. “He’s not my guy. We’re talking about a guy who was insured by my client.” This guy, insured by his client, hit five motorcyclists with his car. The insurance company, Donovan explains, sees this as a single claim, which they plan to honor up to the limit of their liability, at $100,000. The opposing lawyer disagrees—from the perspective of his clients this was five events; five instances of an out-of-control car plowing into unprotected bodies. No, Donovan counters—a bowling ball hits a strike, not ten separate pins; a tornado carries away your house, not every stick of furniture individually. If we couldn’t rely on clear limits in these cases, that would halt the entire insurance business.
It’s a well-reasoned argument: Rationally, for a company to stay afloat, it needs to know when it’s no longer in its interest to keep helping the people it protects. If we didn’t have liability laws, how would people be able to know where their responsibility ended?
Rationality falls so low on my list of human virtues, I texted a friend early this spring. I was talking about an article on Silicon Valley libertarians, but it fed into the subtext of many of the conversations we have. Discussing politics, talking about moral principles, about the stings of online dating, we always seem to circle around the same ideas: how do you act honorably in a world so messy and chaotic? How do you know what your responsibilities are to other people? How do you try to make things better when pain emerges from interactions and systems that appear perfectly reasonable?
For all the talk of gray morality flourishing in the golden age of television, contemporary narratives continue to return to these questions. In stories like Breaking Bad and The Americans we watch people led through labyrinths of circumstance and temperament towards greater and greater moral transgressions. For these characters, the slow pull of rationality is so often what brings them closer to darkness and despair. Transgression is necessary—how else to protect families, loved ones, ways of life, to keep from being found out, betrayed, hurt, killed? There is only one way to survive this, logic whispers coldly in their ears, and so the characters do what they must until their worlds unravel under their feet.
These are morality tales, surely, that show us the way corruption produces an inexorable gravity, how we can justify ourselves into our own oblivion. But they don’t really tell us how we ought to live in the world.
With Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg tries, tentatively, to do just that.
James Donovan begins this story as a good man. He is a caring husband and father, talented at his job, knowing the rules and what the rules ought to do for his clients. When his colleagues tell him to take on the case of Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy discovered on American soil, he does so, because the rules he knows so well ought to apply to everyone. When pressured by the court to go through the motions, because Abel is a traitor and justice in this case merely a formality, he attempts to give him a good defense. From the beginning, Hanks plays Donovan with the matter-of-fact heart and sense of an everyman hero—which makes it easy to miss that this initial goodness is limited.
Shortly after taking the case, a federal agent demands Donovan breach attorney-client privilege, and he refuses. “What makes us both Americans? Just one thing. Only one. The rulebook.” This speech of Donovan’s feels, at this moment, like it might be the moral thesis of the film.
Donovan’s rationality isn’t the rationality that corrupts, not at all. It’s the rationality of a good lawyer, of an insurance company that knows the limits of its liability. The rules exist for all of us so we can be compelled to take care of our responsibilities, even when it’s inconvenient. Even a Soviet spy deserves justice. And once those responsibilities are fulfilled, we can walk away with the knowledge we’ve done our duty.
These are solid principles, but we have further to go.
Last fall, a good friend abruptly and brutally broke my heart. We had dated the year before and, in a ridiculously complicated turn of events, ended up very far away from each other and then, a year later, in the same city again. We spent the summer together but not. We talked almost every day, held each other, touched with plausible deniability in movie theatres and on sidewalks. But we kept a sliver of distance between us, because he was going through something difficult and needed to get on solid ground again, because even though I was in love with him I wanted most of all to be a good friend.
Then, a few months into it, I found out he had a girlfriend. Numb, disbelieving, I texted him and asked if it was true. As functional truth, yes, he replied after I waited up all night, not knowing what to think of the guy who moved across the world for a noble cause, who once wrote that it was a privilege to read the emails I sent him for a year. I feel strongly I told you you should expect nothing in that direction from me, he wrote later that day, without any apology.
We hadn’t so much as kissed that summer, even though we’d skirted the edge of that line. He had told me he wasn’t ready for a relationship. (With anyone, because of trauma and mental illness, but I was lovely and smart and fun, and he was so messed up, and he hoped he didn’t lose my friendship but—) Technically he had not cheated or lied. He hadn’t led me on. He had followed the rules of a game I didn’t know we were playing. Anything I felt or thought he had felt was not his responsibility. He hoped I was okay, after what had just happened and what he had certainly not just done to me.
Maybe this isn’t quite the rationality that corrupts, either. It’s just the way it feels when someone suddenly starts treating relationships like legal strategies, when they insist there are rules that say they only have to care about you so much.
I was reeling for a long time. I had a digital paper trail of emails and texts that had seemed to say everything and now, maddeningly, seemed to say nothing at all. I wrote him a long, angry letter, but I still walked around for weeks afterwards arguing with him in my mind, trying to poke holes in his antiseptic logic.
He disappeared, because he wasn’t responsible to me anymore.
Donovan seems to begin moving beyond the rulebook almost before he chooses to. “Not all of my points are narrowly legal,” he tells the judge presiding over Abel’s case when he comes to the man’s home to convince him not to sentence his client to death. He justifies leniency as an insurance policy, in case an American is captured and the government needs a prisoner they can exchange. Mercy, he reasons, gives us strategic options. But we’ve already seen his defense of Abel inch from capable to passionate, their interactions slip from professional to intimate. When he appeals the case in the Supreme Court, we can feel, already, that something has changed on a molecular level.
To see the consequences of this shift, first someone else must break the rules. Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union in a top-secret aircraft. Facing capture, he is expected to prick himself with a poison-tipped pin and die. He refuses to sacrifice himself, betraying his orders and rejecting the calculations of military strategy so he might live instead. Though we spend little time with Powers, his choice to live is crucial; a function of character and narrative, not plot. This is what is the most important thing at stake for Spielberg—human life, however imperfect, however out of alignment with the values of a nation or the strategic needs of a war. Powers’ choice demands response, from his government and from Donovan.
Now, Donovan is called to leave the regimented space of the courtroom for the dangerous, unpredictable ground of divided Berlin. He takes on the task of making the trade he predicted, Abel for Powers. He’s on his own, not officially acknowledged by his nation, with no guarantee of help should the operation fail. He’s staying in a freezing apartment, battling a cold. Working within the difficult, contradictory channels of international politics and government bureaucracy, he faces obstacles both extraordinary and mundane.
He learns upon his arrival that another American has been captured, a young economics student named Frederic Pryor. His American handlers counsel him that the Soviets will try to convince him to take the student in Powers’ place. For the Americans, Powers—with his valuable intelligence at risk every day he spends in Soviet hands—is the only one they’re here to save. Pryor is merely a liability. The Soviet and German representatives want to trade Pryor for Abel, emphasizing the student’s youth and innocence, compared with Abel—an old man, a duplicitous spy—and Powers—a used-up asset that has already relinquished any intelligence of worth. But neither of these factors matter to Donovan in the face of the intrinsic value of human life.
In organizing the trade, going beyond the logics of either moral innocence or strategic advantage, Donovan moves past the rationality of the rulebook and into a true moral sense. In a moment when it seems like Donovan has secured Powers but not Pryor, he tells his American handler that he can’t simply give up on one of them.
“Every person matters,” he says.
“Sure, that’s why you tried, that’s why you tried,” replies the handler, grin barely slipping as the mission he’d envisioned solidifies.
Donovan refuses to offer only this kind of perfunctory gesture. He’s no longer satisfied with simply doing his job. He’s decided—now, but also long before—that his responsibility to the people he’s come to save is nothing less than the very best he can give them. What he might end up giving them is everything he has—the success of the mission, his wife and children, his freedom, his life. It’s not the rational choice, and no one could fault him for not making it.
But it’s this irrationality, this conviction to give more than is called for, that is the only thing that counters that other irrationality, of international political conflict and nuclear devastation. In an earlier scene, back when Donovan was still a lawyer doing his job, we watch children weep in a classroom as scenes of an imagined nuclear attack play out on the screen in front of them. The Cold War conflict barely needs sketching, we know it so well: the stockpiling of strategic advantage, the thin protections of rules of engagement, while children cry imagining their worlds destroyed. In the concrete sense, Donovan is arguing for three lives, but his choices represent the protection of a future for the whole of humanity.
This spring, I told the friend I text about libertarians and morality and Tinder, about silly puns and my week, that I had feelings for him.
Our friendship makes close to zero rational sense. We made friends with each other on Twitter, by making fun of Banksy for no reason and then talking about our lives for no reason. Somehow, only because we found that we liked each other and decided to keep talking, he became someone I catch up with every few days, even though he lives far away and I’ve never heard his voice aloud. Because our only connection to each other is made of pixels and code, we have a friendship that only exists because we want it to exist.
We aren’t together, for a lot of reasons that came up when we talked about it. But the kindness that emerged in that conversation floored me in a way I didn’t expect.
My friend has no responsibility to me, really. He could not have expected that my platonic affection would slip into something else under such silly, impossible conditions. We’ve never dated, never touched. We talk about mostly inconsequential things on the internet. Relationships built on much more can sour and vanish faster and on far less than anyone would like to believe.
As true as my feelings were, it meant much more to me to hear that he hoped we would be friends for years than it would have to hear that I was special and attractive, those things people say all the time without it meaning anything about what you can actually rely on from them.
In some ways, friendship comes down to choosing to be responsible to someone else when you don’t have to. It’s a special, durable form of the irrational, extraordinary thing that happens whenever we are good to another person only because we want to be. We need laws, principles, rules, because there will always be duties to enforce and rights to safeguard, but real goodness starts where those things end. What’s right always exceeds the codes we can enforce or even articulate, but it’s something we know when we give it and when it is given to us.
This moment with my friend, where I was vulnerable and he was kind, was a small thing, but it was also the building block of the best we have to offer.
When the trade is finally made, it looks as though Donovan has only saved two of his three guys.
“Let’s watch how they treat me,” Abel says at the exchange, when Donovan asks him if he will be safe returning to the Soviet Union. Minutes later he is loaded unceremoniously into the backseat of a Soviet car, presumably to face execution, while Donovan looks on, alone and shrouded in shadows.
As he leaves the exchange site, dwelling on Abel’s fate, Donovan watches the rescued Powers be snubbed by his American handler, who suspects the soldier of surrendering state secrets during his imprisonment. They sit next to each other in the transport vehicle, decidedly unheroic. They are two of the three most hated men in America. The third looks to be as good as dead.
“I gave them nothing,” Powers says to Donovan.
“It doesn’t matter what people think,” Donovan replies. “You know what you did.”
There are lighter scenes that close the film, and heroic announcements to come. We learn in the closing credits that Abel lived and was reunited with his family. But despite the resonance and tenderness of the film’s ending, it can’t quite paper over the ambivalence of this penultimate note. The two men sit side by side, knowing they’ve given more than was asked of them, unacknowledged by a world that’s still going to hell, one that cares more about assets and advantage than what their strategies might lead to.
To return to the idea of a moralizing cinema, it’s this scene, especially, that shows us what kinds of narratives we need onscreen. Corruption, tragedy, moral grays and their consequences, yes, but also what it looks like to do good, in a way that matters, in a world that might not care. A goodness that comes not from the rulebook, from simply drawn heroes and villains, but from the heart and shaded in all its nuances. The kind of cinema that can instruct, even as it acknowledges that parts of the world remain broken.
How do we know how to do what matters in a world like that? Spielberg answers, with the light touch of a master: by giving what we have and taking responsibility for more of it than we need to. In short, by making what we do matter.