Two well-conceived and well-executed films that hark back to the Cold War and Red Scare of the 1950s — Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and Jay Roach’s Trumbo — are particularly relevant today, when our country is under serious threat of international conflict intruding on our own shores, challenging our myth of invulnerable borders and self-sufficiency. These films are reminders, instructive and nostalgic, that what scares us now happened before, and we survived.
In the first half of the 20th century, America engaged in two world wars with virtually no damage to its homeland. Then, in the 1950s, fear of a Communist revolution that could destroy our values, and of a nuclear war that could destroy our very survival, created an atmosphere of brinksmanship. Today a similar shadow is cast on our homeland as radical Islamic terrorism, mass immigration, political divisiveness, and malicious cyber-technology pose significant threats to our lives, our sense of privilege and identity, our trust in leadership, and our faith in geographical borders to keep us safe.
Now, as then, there is a pervasive fear that the center cannot hold. There is a flaw in human nature such that fear of a singular enemy leads to demonization of all those who are different. The ’50s scenario of self-protective panic and generalized attacks on enemies real and imagined has resurfaced throughout American history, breaking through the comfortable illusion that our homeland is protected.
A spy thriller with a moral dilemma
Bridge of Spies depicts the dilemma of New York lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is called upon to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) while the legal profession, military intelligence, and the masses all want him to go to the electric chair for relaying nuclear secrets to the Russians. Donovan, who takes the letter of the law seriously and is additionally moved by Abel’s apparent kindness and sense of duty, gets the spy’s sentence reduced. He also resolves his guilt about thereby escalating political tensions by successfully negotiating the famous prisoner exchange of Abel for reconnaissance pilot Francis Gary Powers — when any false move could lead to nuclear war.
The film captures the suspense, intrigue, and moral dilemmas of Donovan’s situation as well as the physical and cultural ambience. The moral dilemma faced by Donovan — adherence to the constitution at the risk of escalating international conflict — resonates with our current political debate regarding generosity toward Mexican “aliens” and Muslim immigrants versus securing the safety of American citizens.
Standing up to an American inquisition
Trumbo is the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) during the Red Scare, when Senator Joseph McCarthy as wll as the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted those in the film industry who didn’t cooperate with their inquisitions of alleged Communists. Trumbo puts his career and family at risk and incurs prison time by vocally opposing HUAC when others are cooperating to the point of naming names and destroying careers. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) heads up McCarthy’s supporters; she encouraged filmmakers and actors to root out the Commies among them who, she thinks, betoken Soviet infiltration and the undermining of American values.
Trumbo maintains that he and others are entitled to their beliefs, and that freedom of speech, far from undermining democracy, is its very foundation. Like Donovan, his moral dilemma is whether to adhere to a constitutional principle at the risk to himself, his family, and — if the anti-Communists are right — America itself.
This dilemma parallels the present assault on truth, in which politicians who maintain emotional balance and stick to principles place themselves at a disadvantage. The winners of the manipulation use emotionality and demagoguery to attain power and attention. The most obvious example is Donald Trump, who is only a symptom of a culture that pervasively legitimizes power at the expense of truth. Not coincidentally, the dynamic of creating imaginary “bad guys” to attain political clout fueled McCarthy’s venom, just as it does Trump’s.
The nature of heroism
Each film thus places a moral dilemma at the center of the unfolding story. In each, the main character is reluctantly called to action rather than seeking power for its own sake. Donovan is a pragmatist, while Trumbo is a sincere idealist.
Each film sustains emotional intensity, but Bridge of Spies is unremittingly suspenseful regarding the outcomes, while the twists and turns of Trumbo manifest on a more personal level. The character portrayals in the former are stick-figures compared to the complex personalities of the latter.
But both films fare equally well at capturing the physical environment, mannerisms, and ambience of the 1950s on the East and West Coasts, respectively. This verisimilitude wakes us up to the fact that, while human nature remains the same over time, the world and its problems are far more complex now than then. In the ’50s, the dividing lines were clear, and individuals were called upon to take a stand. Today, there are often merits to both sides of a moral argument, and the solutions call for creative problem-solving and novel perspectives as much as — or more than — they require firmly held belief systems.
Truth and morality are just as important now as then, but need to be understood as “my truth” and “my way of life,” with openness to alternatives. Such a position of openness and receptivity to others’ viewpoints is the only way to achieve meaningful dialogue.
Our real heroes are those who bring people together. Yet even though our profiles in courage have changed from those of the ’50s, the “enemy within” remains the same: namely fear and the resultant tendency to create enemies where there are none.