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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: Selfless Motivation in Bridge of Spies

One element of my story checklist that has gotten some pushback is my insistence that the hero’s motivation must be not-selfless, at least initially, and even possibly all the way through. To my mind, there’s only one difference between a well-written villain and a well-written hero: The villain pursues a self-interested goal with which we can empathize but not sympathize, while the hero pursues a self-interested goal with which we can both empathize and sympathize.

Can’t heroes just selflessly pursue heroism for heroism’s sake right from the beginning? No, because it’s totally alien to human nature, and never convincing. Bridge of Spies ably demonstrates this.

The scene that introduces Tom Hanks is the movie’s best, and promises a great movie that never arrives: Our hero is at his dayjob as a hard-nosed insurance lawyer, denying a large claim using legalistic pedantry in a cold-blooded-but-friendly rapidfire monologue. The hope is generated that Hanks will finally grow some teeth, for once, but no, he soon falls back into dopey good guy mode and gums his way through the rest of the movie.

It didn’t have to be that way. Here’s a quick summary of the movie:
  • Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is arrested, and the judge randomly selects a respected non-criminal lawyer (Hanks as James Donovan) to “defend” him, assuming that he’ll give no pushback. Instead, Donovan gives a surprisingly strong defense and refuses to push his client to work with the CIA. Abel is convicted, but Hanks saves him from execution. A few years later, the Soviets shoot down American spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers so the CIA has Donovan negotiate a trade of Abel for Powers. As they brief him for the trade, they advise him that the Soviets may try to keep Powers and offer up instead an American student who got stuck on the wrong side of the Wall. Donovan suddenly decides that the kid deserves to get out, too, and defies the CIA by insisting that the Soviets turn over both prisoners in return for Abel.
This is all well and good, and it could have made for a fine movie, but where it falls apart is motivation. In both halves, Hanks is defying the CIA and everyone else in a way that seemingly puts his country at risk, in order to “stand up for the little guy.” Why? Because galldurnit, it’s the right thing to do. The Donovan we met in that first monologue instantly disappears, and instead we get speech after speech about American ideals. His motivation is simple: he’s simply doing what any right-thinking American would do.

Spielberg, as always, refuses to acknowledge the moral ambiguity of Donovan’s actions, but more importantly, he fails to acknowledge the character’s volatility. Yes, Donovan’s taking a stand for the little guy in both cases, but he’s also acting out of spite, and it’s that sense of spite that’s sorely lacking.

Donovan has spent his life screwing over accident victims, and so the judge thought that he would be willing to go along with the show-trial, but he underestimates Donovan. Does he underestimate Donovan’s American idealism? Of course not, he underestimates Donovan’s obsessive need to win. Not just win, in fact, but to humiliate, as he does in that first scene. He himself feels humiliated by his new role, and he won’t put up with that. When he ends up with a loss on the books, he smarts about it until he gets a chance to settle things with the CIA, by not only springing his guy but defying their orders again and saving another little guy they want to throw under the bus. Yes, he may incidentally be doing the right thing, and he may use “America the Great” speeches to accomplish that, but ultimately, this is revenge.

But all of this rich subtext is simply ignored by Spielberg and Hanks, both of whom sell the hell out those catch-in-the-throat speeches as if they were convincing. They earnestly present a selfless, generically idealistic hero, ignoring the version that would be more compelling, more believable, more ironic, and, ultimately, more genuinely heroic: one in which our hero just so happens to do the right thing by pursuing his own self-interest in a uniquely volatile way.

By divorcing Donovan’s actions from his personal feelings, Spielberg puts himself in an impossible position. Why does Donovan care about doing the right thing by Abel, if not for the sake of spite? Well, Spielberg just has to make Abel a likable guy, so we get some cutesy dialogue between them. But wait, why does Donovan later take a stand for some student he’s never met? Here Spielberg falls back on that lamest of all possible justifications: Donovan hears just enough about the student to say that he reminds him of someone else he does care about (his assistant back home).

Never, ever, ever, do this. People do decent, heroic things every day, but they don’t do them solely out of their passion for decency and heroism. With a few exceptions (see the comments), heroes are simply people whose self-interest happens to coincide with the public interest. As a writer, your job is to make that self-interest come alive, because it is the heart of what makes us human.

9 comments:

A.D. said...

I love this. Bring the fire!

Jesse Baruffi said...

I'm not sure I agree with you completely on this. The idea that a person's selfishness lining up with public good strikes me as, at best, the actions of an anti-hero. There's no moral courage in doing exactly what you want selfishly just because it happens to be the right thing. I don't disagree that a hero should have some self-interest; after all, even the best people do and characters who don't often come across as preachy and inhuman. Heck, even Victor Laszlo in Casablanca (who is not the hero precisely because he is so effortlessly good) was willing to sacrifice his cause for the love of his wife. However, a hero, in my opinion, is generally someone who weighs their own interest against the good of others and ultimately decides to do the latter, or at least find a way to satisfy both. To continue the Casablanca analogy, Rick does this, sacrificing his own happiness for what's right in the end, simply because it's the right thing to do. I would hardly say he's a bad or boring hero.

I haven't seen this movie, and it may well be that Tom Hanks's character does lack the proper motivation, but I can't imagine he'd come across as anything but petty if his sole motive was vengeance. That is to say, if all he cared about in the end was crushing those government agents who humiliated him, it doesn't feel like his victory matters and he seems like a jerk. Now, I think if he starts off just trying to win, and comes to see how the government using its authority to railroad little guys is like what he did in insurance law, that is the sort of initially selfish place a conflicted hero can start off in. But all of a sudden, he realizes that having been on the other side, he knows how to protect little guys against bullies and decides that it's what he's going to do. That, to me, feels both heroic and human at the same time.

Sorry for the wall of text, but this article really got me thinking.

Matt Bird said...

Some good points. I should change "preferably" to "even possibly" in my post, because, as you point out, there's no problem with stories in which the hero chooses in the second half to choose public good over their own needs and desires, such as in "Casablanca."

There are also plenty of good stories in which the hero's pursuit of private interest winds up incidentally serving the public good, as in our last two checklist movies, "The Fugitive" and "Blazing Saddles".

(There are also stories, of course, in which the hero has chosen to make money in a public good profession, and can therefore pursue their private good and the public good simultaneously, such as "Silence of the Lambs.")

But stories such as "Bridge of Spies", in which a previously not-selfless character very quickly chooses public good over private interest and confidently does so from that point on, are very tricky to write without alienating the audience.

"How to Train Your Dragon" does a great job threading that needle: Hiccup has an unexpected burst of selfless humanity right at the beginning, and continues to selflessly help his enemy from that point on, but he's kind of horrified at his own selflessness, and while he's working to heal Toothless he simultaneously uses things learned during that work to pursue his self-interest in the arena. The movie is acutely aware that selflessness is weird, scary, and dangerous.

"Bridge of Spies", on the other hand, treats Hanks's sudden heroism as a natural reaction to this situation, and it seems utterly unconvincing: it comes off a dad-ism, as a commenter said the other day.

Matt Bird said...

I've now changed it, as per your point. For you archivists out there, the first sentence originally ended: " and preferably all the way through." I also added "right from the beginning" to the second paragraph.

Jesse Baruffi said...

Off topic, but I've been meaning to say that I used a lot of the advice you offered on this blog while writing my first book, which just came out. So I figured I should throw a thanks at you for that.

Matt Bird said...

Glad to hear it! Your book looks like a lot of fun, and that's a hell of a cover! I invite others to click though on Jesse's name and check out OTTO VON TRAPEZOID AND THE EMPRESS OF THIEVES.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

The dilemma James Donovan faced in real life is a great "good versus good" conflict. On the one hand, there's the good of upholding the laws that protect us from our own government. On the other hand, there's the good of protecting the country from outside threats. Very much a contemporary issue, and one that still gets people all fired up. The big problem in politics is that it's very, very easy to frame those as opposed goods, and that to strengthen protections against one threat is to weaken them against the other.

In Donovan's story, he could ultimately resolve the dilemma he is presented with as a false one. Which it did prove to be. Those two goods can be in opposition -- the fears aren't unfounded, which makes the subject a solid "good vs. good" core problem -- but in real life they are usually only barely related, and depending on your point of view, can be allied more often than not.

I haven't seen Bridge of Spies. But based only on the commercials for it, I have a strong hunch that this dilemma was brought up, because it's hard to avoid, but handled ineptly. The argument needs to be handled with nuance, and that's Spielberg's great weak spot. You can't tell an honest Cold War story if you have Heroes and Villains, Black and White, Ambiguity Sent Packing. Blergh.

Matt Bird said...

I'd say that the movie actually gives a pretty good airing to that issue, but it's presented in a lofty, impersonal way and has no bite.

Adrian Syah said...

Thank you for good points here. Finally I'm able to locate this tingling feeling inside, even when I like this film for its ideals. And I'm not even American.

But suddenly occurs to me, to add to Jesse's points. I agree with him that heroes can't be just that his self-interested motivations coincidentally line up with public needs, but that can also be that he chose to do the greater good after doing some pros and cons weighing.

But even then, I think it's not enough. What made the hero -in this case, Donovan- ultimately chose to do the greater good? I think it would be more compelling to see him change. Or at least learn something new. I don't know the exact mechanism, but I guess Rudolph Abel is the one in position who can impact Donovan to change. Or at least to realize and relive his American ideals.

Here we have a lawyer character, who probably deep down admires truly the value of his country, but in everyday live, was tainted by his work, practices, and self-interests to the point that he decided to fight the CIA in the name of revenge. On the other hand, there was Abel, a good old soldier who had the ultimate faith in his motherland, an honest warrior that in itself may be admired for being so. From here, I think it would be interesting to see how Donovan was influenced (and probably humbled) by this character, and so on. I believe that would be a more compelling battle of wits. Not to mention that the battle of values could be explored more, seeing how even the public condemn him for his tasks.

And only at the Berlin incident that Donovan is a changed man, that can employ his skills and wits with a clearer conscience (but not without his old cunning self) to fight nails and tooth for the sake of an innocent student.