'Bridge of Spies': The Coen Brothers' Unintentionally Radical Script

Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Joel and Ethan Coen are bringing it all together.

Bridge of Spies opens everywhere October 16, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen.


Set during the 1950s Cold War, Bridge of Spies turns on an unlikely camaraderie between patriotic American James Donovan (Tom Hanks) and Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Donovan's character is an insurance claims attorney who, summoned by patriotic duty, vigorously defends the spy before a justice system ready to skip due process and apply capital punishment. In one of his many triumphs, Donovan gets the spy sentenced to prison instead of being killed by the state.

Donovan’s desire to spare the spy’s life is more pragmatism than principle. He foresees a day when an American spy is captured by the Soviets and sees Abel as a bargaining chip. Indeed an American spy is captured by the Soviets — a U2 spy plane pilot — and Donovan must negotiate behind enemy lines to bring our boy home.

Bridge of Spies isn't quite a spy-thriller worthy of John le Carré (A Most Wanted Man, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The casting is too blunt and moments are played for chuckles rather than intrigue. But neither is there an easily digestible message one can leave the theatre with.

There is nothing pragmatic about Donovan's pursuit of justice, however. It is dangerously pure. Even when his wife and children are shot at in the family home for his defending public enemy #1, he is not for a moment deterred.

What is striking about the film is how non-ideological it appears at a time when two ideologies — communism and capitalism — competed fiercely for control of the world. In this sense, the film is refreshing. If any American decade is an easy target for criticism, it is the 1950s. Plenty of films have been about the time’s social ills and rightfully so. 

The most nefarious force in the film is the Institution. Both American and Soviet governments are transparently corrupt, unashamedly immoral, and staffed by buffoons. Only the individual’s moral sense can rise above the noise. There is nothing pragmatic about Donovan's pursuit of justice, however. It is dangerously pure. Even when his wife and children are shot at in the family home for his defending public enemy #1, he is not for a moment deterred. 

This absolutist defense of traditional morals, i.e., honor before self-interest, is not an advert for American exceptionalism. Who could possibly stomach such propaganda after Guantanamo, after Iraq, after #blacklivesmatter, after our complacency with school shootings, after the scandals that caused the financial collapse, and considering the current state of national governance? Today, to speak about America with any attempt at honesty is to speak critically, skeptically, and cynically.

What is most remarkable about Bridge of Spies is its return to a pure morality that is radically out of touch with our current level of cynicism (this review, for example). In his book Trouble in Paradise, Slavoj Zizek quotes G.K. Chesterton on the topic of crime stories:

"…civilization itself is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions … When the detective in a police romance stands alone, and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the knives and fists of a thieves’ kitchen, it does certainly serve to make us remember that it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure, while the burglars and footpads are merely old cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves. The romance of the police … is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of consequences." 

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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