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.

Saving Mr. Banks: The Backstory of Mary Poppins From Book to Film

As children many of us grew up on songs from the film Mary Poppins.  We remember singing “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, the medicine go down.”  Many of us also as children sang “supefragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of it is very quite atrocious.” In spite of seeing the film as a child, I never knew the story behind it. I would never have suspected that these songs were rebuffed by the original author of Mary Poppins. It is this backstory that Disney illuminates in Saving Mr. Banks by showing us the contentious contract that Walt Disney himself negotiated with the author of Mary Poppins for twenty years in his visionary fulfillment of the book ‘s adaptation to film. The film stars the inimitable Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and the accomplished Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the author of the original book, Mary Poppins. The film is set during the 1960’s in California.  Chivalry, diplomacy, and family loyalty were three of the prevailing attitudes reflected during this time. They are adequately portrayed through the characters.  During the film, Walt Disney shows Travers the utmost respect and decorum and both Disney and Travers are committed to the project in spite of their dogmatic opinions on how the film would be presented.  Saving Mr. Banks takes us through the musical process, and ultimately through the originally unwanted animation.  Working with Travers proves to be a daunting task to which Disney is committed because he promised his children that he would bring the book to film.

Travers is recalcitrant, intractable, and cantankerous throughout the entire process of developing the screenplay including the musical score for the film.  When the film opens, Travers’s attorney makes us aware of the two decades that have passed since Walt Disney first requested the rights to make the film.  With her financial stability depleting, Travers acquiesces and agrees to allow the process of adaptation to move forward; however, there is one caveat: all communications must be recorded and there must not be any animation.  Unfortunately, the one film genre that Disney is known for is animation.  He unwillingly agrees.  The process becomes quarrelsome because they each have separate agendas regarding the production of the film.  Travers, a British citizen, has her own views on how seriously she wants two of the characters to be depicted. She deplores what she sees as frivolity regarding the Disney empire. The title of the film takes its name from one of the characters in the book.  Mr. Banks, one of the main characters in the book, is a facsimile of Travers’s real life father. Disney is unaware that there is a connection between Travers and her characters in the story.  It is this connection that holds up the creative process.

As the action rises, we see the challenges that Mrs. Travers has as a young child and as an adolescent. Travers grew up with an alcoholic father and with a docile mother.  Travers’s father had difficulty maintaining a job and he was chronically ill because of his excessive drinking.  He died during Travers’s childhood.  She felt guilty because she believed that she was not everything that her father wanted her to be.  Thus, during the film’s production, she wants to pay homage to her father.  She wants to make sure that the portrayal of  Mr. Banks (Disney once again had no knowledge that the story Mary Poppins had elements of Travers’s life) was accurate.  Travers did not want the portrayal of her father to be desiccated.  Near the end of Saving Mr. Banks, Walt Disney realizes that Mary Poppins is based on Travers’s life.  Disney, at that juncture makes a personal connection with Travers.  He shares with her his personal difficult childhood experiences.  His identification with her made her decide to move toward completion of the film, in spite of its animation.  Disney assures her that her father’s character would be an authentic portrayal of his life in all of his goodness and he assured her that the character Mary Poppins would be similar to her character in the book.

Emma Thompson gives a convincing performance.  She is able to show the stubborn disagreeable temperament that Travers must have had.  Thompson’s depiction of Travers is often superb when conveying Travers’s dismissive attributes.  Thompson is able to convey Travers’s lack of satiety with both the ideas of the musicians or with the ideas of the writers of the screenplay. Through Thompson’s performance, we are able to see Travers’s dissatisfaction. Thompson’s performance is compelling as the audience begins to fully understand Travers.  As the production of Mary Poppins is completed, one sees the reserved elation exuded by Thompson.  Thompson’s captivating performance helps one want to reexamine the original book as well as Disney’s film so that all of the literary process could be fully appreciated.  I just wish that I had seen the Broadway production of Mary Poppins.

Tom Hanks plays a tenacious Walt Disney.  He is not deterred by hardship.  His childhood was difficult.  He clearly depicts the etiquette of the time period regarding how women were treated during the 60’s.  Disney’s gentility toward Travers is fully conveyed. Because the film is largely about Travers, Hanks plays a less dominant role than Thompson.  Thus, Hanks has less of a pivotal role than Thompson.  Nevertheless, he plays his role well.

As the film credits role, authentic recordings of the original process are played. We hear Travers voice, we hear her recalcitrance, we hear her reluctance, and we hear her strong will.  These recordings help validate the authenticity of the film.  Without Saving Mr. Banks, I would have never know that there was a real life story behind the making of the film, Mary Poppins.  Although this film is rated PG, it’s more for adults who can appreciate the literary and creative process that is involved in filmmaking.  The film’s setting helps to maintain the film’s family atmosphere although young children and most teenagers would fail to appreciate the ingenuity of the film.  They will however, appreciate the highly chimerical Mary Poppins since it “will help the medicine go down.”

If you desire a quality film with no objectionable content, then this film is for you.  It has great acting, a great story, and great cinematography that captures the zeitgeist of the 60’s. It is highly enjoyable and may even help you break out into singing a song with unintelligible words.