Conformity Versus Individuality in Bridge of Spies and in The Experimenter

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Used with Courtesy

Ralph Waldo Emerson stated “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore it if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”  Within the last week, two movies that opened based on true events that embody Emerson’s belief are Michael Almereyda’s The Experimenter, and Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, (written by Ethan and Joel Coen and Matt Charman). The main character of each film operated within the integrity of his own mind. Each refused, based on his own morality, to do what others told him to do; each searched his own conscience and made determinations based on his exploration of goodness. Years later, each won the “suffrage” of the world having never felt culpability about his own actions.

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from left to right: Billy Magnussen, Mark Rylance as Rudolph Abel and Tom Hanks. Used with courtesy.

The Experimenter depicts the story of the famed, although originally maligned, psychologist Stanley Milgram, (played by Peter Sarsgaard) who conducted experiments in 1961 on human behavior, specifically on obedience. His goal was to determine what made people commit atrocities during the Holocaust. He conducted an experiment, later deemed unethical because of failure to disclose with veracity how he was going to conduct the experiment and the reasons behind the experiment. The people who participated in the experiment believed that they were applying electric shock to Individuals who gave incorrect answers to questions posed during the experiment. With each subsequent incorrect answer, “the teachers” increased electrical voltage to the “learners”. “The teachers”, told to continue, applied the shock. Although most of “the teachers” believed that the shock application harmed “the learner, they continued applying the shock because they believed  that it was for the good of mankind. In the experiment, sixty-five percent of “the teachers” continued applying the shock in spite of the assumed protests and screams of “the learners.”  Only thirty-five percent of “The Learners” ended the experiment because hurting someone was contrary to their ethics, despite the psychologist’s exhortation to continue for the greater good.  Milgram did other experiments testing for conformity and he came to the conclusion that most people follow orders without questioning the authority from which they came. Most people want to conform because of their need to belong and to have popularity. Nonconformists question authority, and determine the greater good, be it following orders or holding to their own belief about what is best. Milgram was originally disdained for his “unethical” experiment, but later became a world-renowned psychologist for his behavioral experiments. He was not looking for the approval of man, but he received it nonetheless because of his nonconformity.

Similarly, in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), an attorney, represents a notorious “Russian” spy, Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance), that the United States government arrests for espionage. Almost no one wants Donovan to vociferously represent Abel. Contemptuously viewed, others question Donovan’s allegiance to both his family and to his country. In the end, although he did not win the case, despite his vehement representation, he became an expert negotiator, exchanging Abel for two Americans (Frances Powers, a U.S. pilot, and Frederic Pryor, a Yale student) held by the Soviets and East Germans,respectively, during the Cold War. Furthermore, the United States, under President Kennedy, engaged him as an expert negotiator who ultimately gained the release of nearly ten thousand Americans imprisoned in Cuba as a result of the Bay Of Pigs. In Bridge of Spies, one of the last statements that Donovan makes to Pryor is that “It doesn’t matter what people think. You know what you did.” Ultimately, one must follow his conscience and do what he feels is right. Pryor later became a professor at Swarthmore College.

The Experimenter explores man’s need to belong. He wants group association and acceptance rather than outlier status. Even when he knows he is right about something, and everyone around him has an opposing view, he will often abandon his own morality to become part of the group. He feels both external and internal pressure to conform. Most people do not ask questions; they assume honesty and not mendacity or chicanery. They go along to get along.

In both of the aforementioned films, both Milgram and Donovan took audacious stands in the face of overwhelming criticism; they remained steadfast. Donovan, in the movie, repeatedly tries winning the release of both American prisoners, although admonished to try to win only the release of Powers. He, however, did not want to leave either one behind. Most people would have buckled under the pressure to follow orders and gained the release of just one prisoner. Because of the temerity of both Milgram and Donovan, political negotiations and knowledge of human behavior has increased and shaped political and psychological disciplines. Both individuals went on to achieve greatness in their respective fields, receiving top accolades for their work. The citizens in the communities where they both lived later held them in high esteem.

These two entertaining and educational films are both great, but in different ways. Artistically, Bridge of Spies, is more thrilling, but The Experimenter is more ponderous. I doubt that either one will be an Oscar contender, but each is worth watching for its historical context.  Using the ideas of Emerson, both Donovan and Milgram, through their individuality and their nonconformity, and after absolution, won the suffrage of the world.

Personal note: I saw peter Sarsgaard in an off-Broadway production of Hamlet. He was similarly reflective in such a ponderous role as Hamlet, as he was as Milgram. Playing such heavy roles is his strength.  During the production, I sat behind Jake Gyllenhaal, his brother-in-law.

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