How do you keep the audience engaged when a movie plot is already well known?

[2 November 2010]

By Christopher Borrelli

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Early on in “127 Hours,” around hour 10 or so, James Franco, who has fallen into a canyon and stands awkwardly trapped with one arm beneath a boulder, pulls out a cheap pocket tool, a multiuse thingamajig with a particularly dull knife. He pokes tentatively at his right arm with the rounded edge. He never breaks the skin, though. Not yet, he doesn’t. The audience recoils anyway. Which, in an odd way, feels reminiscent of the opening moments in “Secretariat”: We hear Diane Lane’s smooth, crisp voice reading from the Book of Job as we watch a magnificent animal being loaded into a starting gate, its ears twitching, its nostrils flaring. Which itself recalls, to a degree, a very different moment, early in “The Social Network”: Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg sits with his lawyer across a table from his best friend and lawyer. Nobody is smiling.

How do these scenes connect? Each hints at a future.

Then there’s “Fair Game,” opening Friday, which, in a nutshell, is the Valerie-Plame-Joe-Wilson-leaked- CIA-spy-identity tale. Director Doug Liman makes a curious decision: Rather than telegraph many details of the outcome, an outcome we knew we would get before entering the theater, he takes the “All the President’s Men” route and simply offers the story, piece by piece. Relatively speaking, compared with “Social Network,” “127 Hours” or “Secretariat,” “Fair Game” seems to play out in real time.

And raises a question: How do movies based on real events wrestle with a preordained ending?

“Fair Game” (Nov. 5)

What’s the story? Plame-gate. The White House, in retaliation for a New York Times editorial written by Plame’s husband that dismisses claims that Iraq was trying to buy uranium (which led to the “smoking gun in the shape of a mushroom cloud” thing), the White House leaks Valerie Plame’s identity: CIA operative.

Are the details well known? The details of the scandal, of course. Beyond that, not really.

How does the film handle the audience’s awareness of its inevitable ending? Doug Liman said the decision was made early on to do a lot of original reporting about Plame and “focus on the part of Valerie’s story that wasn’t known, the part that was still classified, and that became the bulk of the story. People forget, but she swore an oath, so when all this stuff happened, she could not talk about things. She could not say what she was doing on a day-to-day basis.” He said he started with the outcome, then worked backward. “In terms of suspense, we shifted that to other crises, like the question of whether or not these Iraqi scientists will get out of the country. What we didn’t want was a film full of things that everyone knows. I took that lesson from watching ‘Green Zone’ and Matt Damon running around going ‘Where are the WMDs?’ You’re in the audience thinking, ‘Yeah, there are no WMDs!’ I think that was in the back of mind, as an example of what not to do.”

Is there ever a feeling that we’ll get something other than the ending we’re expecting? No, but then there are no winks at that ending either.

“The Social Network” (now playing)

What’s the story? Mark Zuckerberg creates Facebook. Or does he? Either way, the result is many lost friends and litigious Harvard classmates.

Are the details well known? Yes, the vague outline.

How does the film handle the audience’s awareness of its inevitable ending? By being upfront. By framing Facebook’s birth as a business thriller by way of a character sketch — a thriller less reliant on traditional Grisham-esque tension than an ever-present chance of betrayal and, perversely, a different kind of cliffhanger: How many friends will Zuckerberg be left with? The first moments are a hint, focusing on Zuckerberg’s mean-spirited reaction to a breakup (suggesting there was little sociability left to lose). Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher tinker with time, switching between Zuckerberg working on Facebook and the cold legalities that followed; Jesse Eisenberg’s motor-mouth delivery feels like an act of foreshadowing, so glib and devoid of niceties that you just know harsh ramifications will be inevitable. They also tinker with the details, to great effect: “I dramatized the fact that there were conflicting stories,” Sorkin told New York magazine — leaving the audience not with just an expected outcome but an argumentative one.

Is there ever a feeling that we’ll get something other than the ending we’re expecting? If you really wondered, you must be on Friendster.

“127 Hours” (Friday)

What’s the story? In 2003, Aron Ralston, a young but experienced climber, fell into a canyon in Utah and was trapped beneath a boulder for more than five days with little water. He cut off his right arm to escape (and later wrote a memoir).

Are the details well known? Somewhat. (And if you’re not aware of Ralston’s story, the film’s marketing plays up its true-life angle.)

How does the film handle the audience’s awareness of its inevitable ending? The title screen, “127 Hours,’ doesn’t come up until the moment Ralston is trapped. Which creates a clock in your head. Also, there’s a lot of foreshadowing — a dripping faucet, a last-minute grab of a second bottle of Gatorade — some of it subtle, some not so much. Christian Colson, who produced the film (and “Slumdog Millionaire”) with director Danny Boyle, said they always thought that “if you could keep the audience constantly within the present tense, then you make the audience forget a bit. The guy’s name is on the opening credits, so you look for other things to distract. We had this thing called storytelling by amplification, where tiny incidents carry disproportionate weight to how they would in a traditional story.” The sun rising, for instance. Franco’s attempt to reclaim a knife. The suspense is there; it’s just not focused on his arm. “And if you read the book, we also had the benefit of information gathered in the three years that passed since the book.”

Is there ever a feeling that we’ll get something other than the ending we’re expecting? Frequently. Or at least, the feeling that perhaps it didn’t play out exactly as you heard. “We tried to embed that in our approach,” Colson said. The outlook is grim for a long while; even a quick moment early on when Franco tumbles from his bike, then laughs and takes a picture of himself on the ground feels as fatalistic as it is breezy. By forgetting the survival elements of the story for a while (and focusing on his life), the audience is now never quite sure when the climatic moment of release will happen.”

“Secretariat” (now playing)

What’s the story? In 1973, 3-year old Secretariat wins the first Triple Crown in 25 years, setting records that remain unbroken.

Are the details well known? Yes. (And our collective awareness of the history of uplifting sports movie does it no favors.)

How does the film handle the audience’s awareness of its inevitable ending? In two ways: No. 1, by shifting the story’s focus to Diane Lane’s Denver housewife, who inherits a fledgling horse, then lets her family relationships suffer (Indeed, the Preakness is mainly watched on a television with the family, lending a slightly unpredictable air to the outcome); No. 2, with races so involving the traditional mechanics of suspense simply take over. Director Randall Wallace, who also made “We Were Soldiers” and wrote “Braveheart,” said he doesn’t believe in “intellectualizing a situation or stepping outside of a moment and considering it from a distance but drawing the audience in by making it as much a primary experience as possible. I don’t want them to watch Secretariat. I want them to be him. You don’t want them in a space where they’re intellectualizing and thinking, ‘Yeah, I know what’s going to happen.’” He also gives nearly every character (including the horse) a moment alone: “My father once said to me, ‘People will remember almost nothing of what you say and only slightly more of what you do, but all their lives they will remember the way you made them feel.’ I believe that applies here.”

Is there ever a feeling that we’ll get something other than the ending we’re expecting? The first scene quotes biblical prophesy. So, uh, no.

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