The heart of the film adaptation of the sprawling and engrossing nonfiction work Bridge of Spies is about the secrets of the human heart in the face of the constant deceptions, and false perceptions of human social interaction. The book delves deep into history and the personal lives of the spies that are swapped, while the movie (adapted by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen) focuses on the problems and character of James B. Donovan, a lawyer who found himself at the heart some of the 20th century’s most pivotal historical issues.
Foisted upon a backdrop that magnifies the problems of identity and perception, Bridge of Spies speaks to the questions all of us have to face as we made our private decisions and face the judgement others make of us based on what they think we are doing. James B. Donovan made a choice to represent a Soviet spy in U.S. court in the middle of the Cold War, earning a degree of ire most of us wouldn’t have the courage to undertake. He put his family endanger, as well as himself, but the movie depicts his decision to be motivated on his belief in a sense of justice higher than national interests, and a confidence in his own ability to negotiate in the toughest situations imaginable.
Espionage exposes the shadow of our sense of self. What makes us members of a certain nation? What makes us who we are? When a person sheds their past identity for the purpose of gathering information against another country, questions of what makes us who we are bubble to the surface, not just in existential ways, but in prickly tangible ways we can almost touch.
We cannot deny that we all born into certain identities. We also all carry secrets, and we are always inside a bit different than the faces we show the world. Some of our secrets are nefarious, but a great deal of our secrets concern qualities of goodness and kindness, or just little decisions we feel are right to make, but are difficult to explain to others. There is so much we cannot explain, we can only live through, and this the space between ourselves and others is tinged with melancholy.
No one knows what has happened in our lives, from our point of view, but ourselves. We can write a thousand books trying to tell it, and all of it will never quite be said. No matter what we get distracted by some of the feedback we hear from others, but what they tell us, and what we suspect about them. We want to tell them they are wrong about who we are, we want to explain that our past self is wrong about who we are, and all the while the moments slip away through our grasping words.
At the end of Bridge of Spies, a cold-ravaged Donovan is both physically wrecked, and emotionally worn by this trade of spies. He’s developed a sense of respect for the Soviet spy he was hired to defend, and is a bit devastated at the knowledge that the Soviets have no reason to trust either himself or Rudolph Abel when it comes to what Abel did or did not reveal to the U.S. government. On the ride home, the United States’ spy, Francis Gary Powers, seems eager to tell someone, anyone, that he was honorable, that he betrayed nothing either. He wants to prove what is impossible to prove, what is even more impossible for a spy to prove. Donovon solemnly turns to him and says “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. You know what you did.”
This is maybe a harsh truth for the guilty, for people who carry with them knowledge that they have hurt others, but it is also a bit of a weight for the innocent. Being falsely accused, even on a small and petty scale, is one of the harshest assaults to us, and trying to prove something can just make us look worse. Sometimes, a bit of what we know is true about ourselves will be revealed, as it was for Donovan. Still, good or bad, exciting or blank, we are the only witness to our own minds. Being aware of that, of the solid and safe prison of our own secrets, is a small, pet loneliness we carry with us throughout our lives.