Spy stories imagine a secret world, happening underneath the one we think we inhabit. At their best (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), they grip and empathize, lamenting the very existence of the espionage system. At their most popular (James Bond), they have been the frivolous backdrop to over half a century of serious war games, seeing out the Cold War, the eras of Reagan, Clinton and Bush, and now the post-9/11 confusion. Honest attempts at spy stories tell us that secret agents are scapegoats for communities unwilling to be transparent with each other, and that unless the general public is willing to risk the first move in de-escalating international tensions, their jobs will always be a necessary evil.
Bridge of Spies, the Steven Spielberg film about James Donovan, the man who negotiated the exchange of downed U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, is a gripping drama, with heart and even a bit of wisdom. It has delicious dialogue, and a couple of gorgeous performances from Tom Hanks as Donovan and the great Mark Rylance as Abel. It’s quality theatrical entertainment, if not always historically accurate, and appealing to the highest values to which its makers aspire. The US Constitution is often invoked in stories of American mavericks appealing to their governments, which Donovan did by first representing an accused enemy of the state, personally pleading with the judge to avoid the death penalty, and eventually appealing to the Supreme Court to ensure fair treatment for his client.
Much is made of the moral imperative to show ourselves better than our opponents by transcending the rule of an eye for an eye (or worse), and in the plea to prevent his client’s execution, Hanks/Donovan is doing the very definition of treating others as he would want to be treated. The ethics Donovan embodies are rooted in the idea that saying “I wouldn’t do that if I were him” is absurd – when in fact, if you had the same life circumstances, resources, and opportunities as him, you might do exactly the same, whoever “him” is. The invitation to non-judgmentalism, to empathy with people who seem different, is the loveliest gift in Bridge of Spies (along with the sequences in East Berlin, where the anxiety of being in an alien place is hauntingly portrayed, the Hollywood snow seeming real enough to freeze in).
It’s an ironic amusement that the journey of spiritual expansiveness resonates with the espionage thriller. Authentic spirituality is, of course, also about a world above/between/within the one we think we can see; as with international relations, it’s about finding an identity in the story we tell. The words and images we use to signify our sense of meaning can be just as shadowy as those communicated by the euphemisms of covert intelligence agents.
In Bridge of Spies, Donovan thinks he’s talking to a mid-level functionary in the Soviet embassy, but turns out to have been negotiating with one of the KGB’s most senior officials; and how many times have we thought we understood what was going on in our spiritual journey, but discovered we were actually learning a lesson in letting go of control?
What happens on the bridge between nations is a transaction of the most significant kind, but it’s not best defined in the lofty terms of geopolitics: as Byron Katie says, “all war belongs on paper,” and all violent conflict results from two human beings not meeting, listening and understanding each other. For in an uncertain world (and one whose uncertainty authentic spiritual teachers invite us to accept as a gift) if “security” is ultimately an illusion, what is “national security” founded on if not the relationship of human beings, willing to be vulnerable, one to each other? As Abel says, three times, in Bridge of Spies, worrying about the future doesn’t help. What helps is the integrity to stand on authenticity, to know that truly loving someone—a person or a nation, a friend, stranger, or “enemy” means to try to understand them, but before even that, to try to get to know yourself.