Tuesday, February 12, 2013

And Then What? – The Oscars and the Power of Suspense

As I write this, the manhunt continues for Christopher Jordan Dorner, the vengeful ex-cop suspected of gunning down three innocents. Now, though Dorner seems to have vanished without a trace in the snowy mountains of Big Bear, tensions continue to rise. Where will he surface next? Who will be his target?

This kind of real-life suspense is something movies are always aiming to capture. Filmmakers know that viewers can be kept on the edge of their seats if they’re deeply invested in the fate of a film’s central characters. It helps if they find themselves surprised by plot twists and turns they didn’t anticipate. But what if the outcome is known in advance? Three of the nine films nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar -– Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty –- are based on actual historic incidents. In each case, when I walked into the theatre, I knew (at least in general terms) what would ultimately happen: that the beleaguered American Embassy personnel would safely escape from Tehran, that Lincoln and his allies would rally Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, that a squad of Navy SEALS would breach the Abbottabad compound and kill Osama Bin Laden. The success of these films lies in their ability to grip viewers like me, even when we know what’s coming.

Smart screenwriters dealing with historic episodes ratchet up suspense in several ways. Writers can create rich, complex charcters whose behavior is not always predictable. Tony Kushner’s script for Lincoln got me interested not only in the results of the Congressional vote but also in the diverse personalities who –- for their own reasons -- chose yea or nay. Writers can introduce heart-pounding chase scenes. Chris Terrio added to the climax of Argo a (doubtless exaggerated) pursuit on the airport tarmac that contributed hugely to the audience’s excitement level. Writers can flesh out an action sequence with so many real-seeming details that we can’t help but be caught up in the moment. All of us know the results of the Abbottabad raid, but it becomes much more powerful when Mark Boal’s script immerses us in its second-by-second chaos and confusion.

Back in 1995, Ron Howard and his screenwriting team faced a similar challenge when transforming the memoir of mission commander Jim Lovell into the film Apollo 13. The abortive Apollo 13 moon mission had blasted off in 1970, but in 1995 most moviegoers probably still remembered that it -- alone among America’s lunar missions -- hadn’t gone as planned. Due to crippling technical difficulties, the moon landing had to be scrubbed, and the astronauts barely made it back to earth. Because the astronauts’ survival was well known, screenwriters Willam Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert heightened their film’s suspense through character interaction. As the stakes grow higher, viewers shuttle between the apparently doomed astronauts in their capsule and the engineers at Houston’s manned space center, desperately relaying ideas to help fix the damaged spacecraft. Another key component of the film involves Jim Lovell’s wife, holding tight to her husband’s love as he yearns to return home to her and their family.

Apollo 13 was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture. But there was no nomination for director Ron Howard. That fact seemed to doom the picture, even though it had won top honors from Hollywood’s acting, directing, and producing guilds several weeks earlier. On Oscar night, Braveheart was the big winner. Given the current Oscar snub for Argo’s director, Ben Affleck, is Argo fated to go the route of Apollo 13? That’s a question that will make for real suspense on February 23.

This post is dedicated to Roxanne Lane, a film industry veteran who’s one of Argo’s most loyal fans.

Note: Here’s a surprising editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times, pointing out Tony Kushner’s deliberate falsification of the voting record of four congressmen from Connecticut, in order to heighten the drama of the film Lincoln.


  1. It's a shame Affleck wasn't nominated, and it probably means Argo won't win best picture. I'm kind of feeling a Silver Linings Playbook upset.

    I agree that Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty do a great job of building suspense. It's a real testament to the writers and directors.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Tim. I hope to "see" you here again. A Silver Linings Playbook win would really surprise me, despite the promotional skills of the Weinsteins, because it's been Argo that has won virtually every award in the last two weeks: Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Award, Directors Guild, BAFTA, etc. True, it's very rare for a film to win best picture when its director isn't nominated by the Academy's directing branch, but it DOES sometimes happen, and Ben Affleck has done a great job of winning hearts and probably parlaying sympathy into Academy votes for his film. Actually, I'm very fond of Lincoln, but the general feeling I keep hearing is that it peaked too soon.

  3. What a tough job - to make a known story exciting - but you bring some fine examples to light here. I haven't seen Argo yet - but I'll track it down sometime - any story featuring an escape, makeup star John Chambers, and Marvel Comics' artist Jack "King" Kirby is something I have to see!

  4. What? You STILL haven't seen Argo, Mr. Craig? I think you're the last living movie buff in the western hemisphere who can say that.

  5. Not enough hours in the day! Plus these days there's no rush to see a movie - my giant TV and Blu-Ray player will give a worthy rendition of it when I rent it - I am getting out to the theater more in the last year or two than I did the previous five or seven - but nowhere near as much as I did in the 80's and 90's - but back then a home presentation was a different proposition (widescreen movie reduced to pan and scan on 480 dpi VHS on a 27 inch mono television). So there was more of an impetus to get out to the theater to see the movie.

  6. Good point. But I'm an old-fashioned gal, and I do appreciate the moviegoing experience. Ever see the original "Rocky" in a theatre? Electric!

  7. Oh I do love the moviegoing experience too - when I can get there...I just this past week spent 12+ hours seeing all of the Die Hard movies in a marathon leading up to the premiere of the new movie. It was terrific experiencing the older movies with fellow fans in a movie theater again - the group laughing at the funny lines and gasping at some of the action and stunts - thrilling. I did not see Rocky in the theater - but I did see parts 2-4 on the Big Screen. And if they do one of these movie marathons of the Rocky films at my local cineplex I will try to make it there.