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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Location: California, United States

Thursday, January 05, 2006


Logline: A Middle Eastern reformer and heir to an oil empire is assassinated in favor of his brother who has policies more favorable to American corporations.

The Good Idea: Expose some underlying causes to the instability in the Middle East.

Why it worked.

The film conveyed a good sense of danger and duplicity. In nearly every scene, nothing was as it appeared. Bennett Holiday is charged with finding out if any laws were broken when a small oil company lands drilling rights in Kazakhstan just before they are bought out by a large oil company. The truth he discovers is superceded by the interests of the corporations and the judiciary. Yes, some laws were broken, but find a high profile scapegoat and sweep it under the rug for the greater good. But just who decides what the greater good is?

Why it didn't work.

I had a hard time keeping track of all the different story threads. Bennett's investigation was the main one. Bryan Woodman's friendship and counsel to Prince Nasir, heir apparent to an oil fortune and idealistic reformer was another story. Bob Barnes CIA mission to Beruit and finally the transformation of a young man into a suicide bomber.

Confusion arose for me in Bennett's investigation because it seemed he was following instructions from Jimmy Pope, Dean Whiting or a mysterious man in the back of a limo. Prince Nasir already intended to put in place social reforms so I didn't understand why his relationship with Bryan Woodman was important. What exactly was Bob's mission to Beruit, how did he screw up and why did he need to go to the Persian Gulf?

All these threads are building to the Range Rover caravan in the desert. Prince Nasir has just received word from his father that he will not inherit the kingdom. Bob Barnes has fought his way back to the Middle East to catch up with Prince Nasir only to die with the Prince in a smart bomb explosion sent by the U.S. before he has a chance to do what he needed to do. This scene, while horrific, did not feel inevitable nor tragic but arbitrary. Why would the U.S. government kill a political figure who had no power? Storywise, he didn't die at the worst possible moment, indeed, the bomb could have been sent minutes earlier and achieved the same emotional effect. Looking back at all the various story threads, I couldn't see who's agenda this act fulfills.

Using Bob Barnes CIA mission to Beirut as an example: Bob meets an old man to arrange a meeting with Mussawi. Later, Bob is kidnapped by Mussawi, tortured and is about to be killed when the old man intervenes. CIA HQ receives word that Bob has blown his cover and concocts a CYA story about him being a rogue agent. Then Bob is back in Maryland recovering at a military hospital. The sequence of events is clear, each scene logically follows, however, it's never stated why he was there. What was he supposed to do? We knew the mission was important to him but because of his misanthropathy, we never fully sensed he was "our guy." Without knowing or even having a sense of this, the torture becomes mere spectacle illiciting little more than sympathy at the sight of another person's pain.

I can see why this film has garnered its acclaim. It's ambitious and challenging with no clear cut themes or traditional heroes and villains. It uses a lot of morally gray characters and hidden agendas to convey the sense that Middle East politics and economics is byzantine, controlled by a handful of men. It achieves its intent by not serving up easily digestable fortune cookie solutions to complex problems.

However, following (more like, assembling) the story becomes such an intellectual exercise that the emotional impact is lost. Who are these people and why should I care about what they're going through? Because it depicts a world of backroom deals, corporate, governmental and international sleight of hand, a world that is far removed from my everyday experience, then I need to know how all these machinations affect me within the world of the story.


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