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.
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.