Rulebook Casefile: Predictable Dialogue in Bridge of Spies

By far the best performance in Bridge of Spies comes from Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, but even he can’t sell some of the goop they put in his mouth. At the end, he’s on the titular bridge with Hanks’s James Donovan, awaiting his prisoner exchange, when he tells Donovan that he’s left a gift for him in his cell. Donovan chokes up (for the 50th time in the movie) and abashedly says he left no gift behind for Abel. At this point, Abel looks out over the expanse of the bridge and says, “This is your gift.”

Okay, that’s fine. A little cheesy, but Rylance is a great actor, and he can easily sell us that as a genuinely emotional line. But Spielberg can’t leave well enough alone: He then has Rylance quietly reiterate, “This is your gift.” Even worse, if I recall correctly, Spielberg had already used this sort of meaningful-repetition twice before in this same movie.

Has Spielberg ever noticed that door at the back of his soundstage? The one that says “Exit”? When was the last time he set foot in the real world? At that time, did her ever, ever, even once, hear someone meaningfully repeat something? I mean, it’s one thing to reiterate something louder for greater emphasis (“Have you no decency?”) but that’s never how Spielberg does it. It’s always quiet, earnest, and ludicrous.

Dialogue, of course, should not always be realistic. It should be more concise and have more personality than real talk. But that doesn’t mean that you can fall back on verbal ticks that only happen in the movies. Dialogue must seem startlingly fresh on first listen, even if we later realize that it’s actually just an old turn of phrase in a new dress. And only-in-the-movies clichés such as this one cannot be redeemed.

Spielberg, alas, has been churning these things out for 45 years now, and each year he gets more stuck in his ways, more and more reliant on the same shopworn tricks. Each movie has different credited screenwriters, but (with the notable exception of the two scripts credited to Tony Kushner) the scripts all sound the same. His script doctors know exactly what he wants, and they make good money by giving it to him.

At one point, early on, Donovan is astounded by his client’s sang froid and asks, “Don’t you ever worry?”, but Abel only shrugs and drolly asks, “Would it help?”, a line which got a nice laugh in the theater. Twenty minutes later, however, they repeat exactly the same exchange, which got a much smaller laugh the second time around. I was baffled: “Why would they repeat that gag again word for word?” But then, with a wince, I figured it out: “Oh, I get it, they’re going to have yet another ‘call back’ to this dialogue at the end, and they feel they must fulfill the ‘rule of threes’.” I then glumly waited for the inevitable call back and sighed ruefully when it finally came along.

This isn’t your audience’s first time at the rodeo. If you know a rule, then they know it too, and they’re now using your rulebook against you. They know that you want to emotionally manipulate them (as all great writers do), but they’re determined to protect their feelings from your grubby paws. You have to disarm them, and the only way to do that is to make them forget that they’re watching a movie.

As with so many other tricks, set-up and pay-off dialogue callbacks can be emotionally powerful, but only if the audience doesn’t notice what you’re doing. If you lazily push your audience around like an unwanted brussel sprout on your dinner plate, they’re going to notice, and loathe you, whether consciously or subconsciously.
I was going to also discuss The Martian this week, but I’ve decided to save it for my “Best of the Year” round-up. For now, I’ll just point one thing that makes it so remarkable: Ridley Scott is another ancient “prestige” director coasting on audience goodwill (and stylistic ticks) built up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As dubious as I tend of be of new Spielberg pictures, I actively avoid Scott’s…until stellar reviews finally drew me back into the theater, and wow. Not only is The Martian a great movie, but it’s thoroughly devoid of all of Scott’s trademarks. For once, he said, “Hey, they’ve given me another $100 million dollars to spend …maybe this time I should actually give a damn? Maybe I should reshape my style to fit the material instead of reshaping the material to fit my style?” The old dog suddenly showed us entirely new tricks.

Can Spielberg do this? Even Lincoln had many of his worst ticks, undercutting the valiant work of Day-Lewis and Kushner. Can he ever actually break free and do something startlingly new? It’s hard to imagine, but if Scott can do it, then surely anybody can.

Rulebook Casefile: Selfless Motivation in Bridge of Spies

One element of my story checklist that has gotten some pushback is my insistence that the hero’s motivation must be not-selfless, at least initially, and even possibly all the way through. To my mind, there’s only one difference between a well-written villain and a well-written hero: The villain pursues a self-interested goal with which we can empathize but not sympathize, while the hero pursues a self-interested goal with which we can both empathize and sympathize.

Can’t heroes just selflessly pursue heroism for heroism’s sake right from the beginning? No, because it’s totally alien to human nature, and never convincing. Bridge of Spies ably demonstrates this.

The scene that introduces Tom Hanks is the movie’s best, and promises a great movie that never arrives: Our hero is at his dayjob as a hard-nosed insurance lawyer, denying a large claim using legalistic pedantry in a cold-blooded-but-friendly rapidfire monologue. The hope is generated that Hanks will finally grow some teeth, for once, but no, he soon falls back into dopey good guy mode and gums his way through the rest of the movie.

It didn’t have to be that way. Here’s a quick summary of the movie:
  • Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is arrested, and the judge randomly selects a respected non-criminal lawyer (Hanks as James Donovan) to “defend” him, assuming that he’ll give no pushback. Instead, Donovan gives a surprisingly strong defense and refuses to push his client to work with the CIA. Abel is convicted, but Hanks saves him from execution. A few years later, the Soviets shoot down American spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers so the CIA has Donovan negotiate a trade of Abel for Powers. As they brief him for the trade, they advise him that the Soviets may try to keep Powers and offer up instead an American student who got stuck on the wrong side of the Wall. Donovan suddenly decides that the kid deserves to get out, too, and defies the CIA by insisting that the Soviets turn over both prisoners in return for Abel.
This is all well and good, and it could have made for a fine movie, but where it falls apart is motivation. In both halves, Hanks is defying the CIA and everyone else in a way that seemingly puts his country at risk, in order to “stand up for the little guy.” Why? Because galldurnit, it’s the right thing to do. The Donovan we met in that first monologue instantly disappears, and instead we get speech after speech about American ideals. His motivation is simple: he’s simply doing what any right-thinking American would do.

Spielberg, as always, refuses to acknowledge the moral ambiguity of Donovan’s actions, but more importantly, he fails to acknowledge the character’s volatility. Yes, Donovan’s taking a stand for the little guy in both cases, but he’s also acting out of spite, and it’s that sense of spite that’s sorely lacking.

Donovan has spent his life screwing over accident victims, and so the judge thought that he would be willing to go along with the show-trial, but he underestimates Donovan. Does he underestimate Donovan’s American idealism? Of course not, he underestimates Donovan’s obsessive need to win. Not just win, in fact, but to humiliate, as he does in that first scene. He himself feels humiliated by his new role, and he won’t put up with that. When he ends up with a loss on the books, he smarts about it until he gets a chance to settle things with the CIA, by not only springing his guy but defying their orders again and saving another little guy they want to throw under the bus. Yes, he may incidentally be doing the right thing, and he may use “America the Great” speeches to accomplish that, but ultimately, this is revenge.

But all of this rich subtext is simply ignored by Spielberg and Hanks, both of whom sell the hell out those catch-in-the-throat speeches as if they were convincing. They earnestly present a selfless, generically idealistic hero, ignoring the version that would be more compelling, more believable, more ironic, and, ultimately, more genuinely heroic: one in which our hero just so happens to do the right thing by pursuing his own self-interest in a uniquely volatile way.

By divorcing Donovan’s actions from his personal feelings, Spielberg puts himself in an impossible position. Why does Donovan care about doing the right thing by Abel, if not for the sake of spite? Well, Spielberg just has to make Abel a likable guy, so we get some cutesy dialogue between them. But wait, why does Donovan later take a stand for some student he’s never met? Here Spielberg falls back on that lamest of all possible justifications: Donovan hears just enough about the student to say that he reminds him of someone else he does care about (his assistant back home).

Never, ever, ever, do this. People do decent, heroic things every day, but they don’t do them solely out of their passion for decency and heroism. With a few exceptions (see the comments), heroes are simply people whose self-interest happens to coincide with the public interest. As a writer, your job is to make that self-interest come alive, because it is the heart of what makes us human.

Rulebook Casefile: The Way the World Worked in Bridge of Spies

Okay, let’s take a little break from the checklists. This week we’ll cover one recent movie I loathed and one I loved.
You’ll recall that a few years ago I said of Lincoln “How could a director this bad make a movie this good?”, which led to quite a bit of pushback in the comments, both at the sentiment and the snide tone. Leading the counteroffensive was James Kennedy. Now I’ve moved into James’s neck of the woods, and he, puckishly, invited me out to see Bridge of Spies. A fun time and much lively discussion was had, but, alas, our Spielberg summit failed to achieve détente: Boy oh boy did I hate this movie.

I could write a book about everything I thought was wrong with this movie, but I will magnanimously constrain myself to three blog posts, and attempt to draw lessons therefrom.

Problem with Bridge of Spies #1: That’s Not the Way the World Worked

In deference to my host, I constrained the urge to guffaw several times, and, to my credit, failed only once:
  • Tom Hanks is on the chaotic streets of West Berlin in 1962, happily bickering with his CIA handler. As they argue, Hanks asks to borrow a few coins and heads over to a phone booth. They’re still exchanging quips as he plops the coins in and dials. Finally Hanks holds up a finger for quiet as his wife picks up the phone, in upstate New York, and he assures her that he’s still on his Poconos fishing trip.
If you have any years on you, your eyes have probably rolled right out of your head at this point. Even 35 years later, when I was in college, you couldn’t walk up to a payphone in Indiana and call another state simply by plopping in a few coins. In 1962, If you wanted to call the US from a German pay phone, it would require several operators on both sides of the Atlantic, at least one of whom would inform his wife she was getting a call from Germany, and even if they didn’t, she would be well aware simply because it would sound like it was traveling all that way. Long distance at the time was essentially a series of tin-can phones. Most intercontinental business was still handled by telegraph.

So who cares? Can’t we cut period pieces a little slack? What does it really matter? Indeed, I could practically hear the off camera discussions, in which several people on set quietly insisted to Spielberg that this made no sense, and he blithely responded with a chuckle and that old chestnut: “If they notice that, we’re not doing our job!”

They did, and you weren’t.

There was a reason that, back when I used to direct, I banned that phrase from the set. It originated in the editing room as a way to philosophically accept unavoidable continuity errors when it was too late to reshoot anything. At some point, however it drifted onto the set itself, even though there was still time to fix the mistakes, but they just didn’t want to.

If you have contempt for your audience, you can’t hide it. They’ll know.

The Coen Brothers are the credited rewriters of the film, and there are a few scenes that bear their stamp, but clearly many uncredited rewriters (or perhaps the original writer) smothered their wit and acuity with slapdash layers of Spielbergian goop. Indeed, this movie is in stark contrast with the Coens’ own period films, with their meticulous eye for detail and endless fascination with the fabric of the past. Inside Llewyn Davis was set in the same era, and felt startlingly real in all the same ways that this movie felt lazily false.

But which era is that? The movie begins with “1957” emblazoned on the screen and that’s the last date we get. At that point we meet Hanks’ standard trinity of adorable tykes, and their gee whiz fascination with his work. At the end of the movie, after a long twisted path of international diplomacy, Hanks extracts Francis Gary Powers from behind the Berlin Wall and returns to his family. Again, they think he’s been fishing, and they have no idea that he was involved, but when he comes home he finds all three kids, who haven’t aged a day, watching TV in the middle of the day, and hopping with joy to see a news report that Powers has been released.

Where to begin? First of all, if they don’t know their dad is involved in this case, why on Earth do they care? As I said to James afterwards, this would be the same as me coming home to find my kids shouting, “Daddy, Daddy, Bowe Bergdahl’s been released!”

But the bigger issue is the children’s unaged vampire state! Okay, I get it, Spielberg couldn’t be bothered to recast, but come on! Clearly, he was just assuming, “Whatever, nobody will be able to do the math and figure out that at least five years have passed at this point. Nobody will remember that that the Berlin Wall didn’t go up until the ‘60s, and I’m not certainly not going to tell them!”

Spielberg desperately grasps at every heartstring he can find in an attempt to force us to care about the events of the past, all the while flipping off anyone who actually cares. At this point, he is so confident of his ability to create his own world that he believes that reality is an inconvenience reserved for lesser directors.

Don’t do this. Don’t do what the final writer of this movie did, whoever he or she may be. Yes, a great writer can make any audience care about any situation, but that only works if you care first.

Stay tuned for more anger!