Storytelling in the movies – Hidden Figures, Manchester by the Sea, and Arrival

This is the last in my series about what makes a story worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. In this post I’ll be covering three movies I’ve seen before.

SPOILER ALERT – In order to discuss what makes these stories work, I’m going to ruin them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Go see these movies and then come back.

The Movies

Hidden Figures

I’m going to skip the synopses for this one. As usual, the Metacritic version is much longer than the IMDB version, but both do a great job of summing up the plot. When the time comes to prepare my own tagline and query letter synopsis, I could do a lot worse than to study the summaries on these site.

Hidden Figures is about three brilliant black women who were mathematicians at NASA when we first went to space. It takes place in Virginia in 1961. At the time, Virginia was still segregated and ignoring the Supreme Court’s Brown vs the Board of Education decision, and NASA was still the domain of men in white shirts and dark ties. The reality of segregation and condescension towards women runs through the movie, manifested by things like a “colored” ladies room that’s half a mile away, a dress code that requires women to wear heels, and NASA’s refusal to promote Dorothy to supervisor although she’s been doing the supervisor’s job for a year. More subtle is the constant use of first names, while people higher in the chain of command are always referred to as Mr. or Mrs. But things are clearly changing: Mary is encouraged by another outsider – a Polish Jew – to become an engineer, and when she learns the rules have changed so she needs to take classes that are only offered at an all-white school, she goes to court and wins the right to enroll. And John Glenn insists on having Katherine check the new computer’s calculations before he’s sent into orbit.

We meet Katherine when she’s a child, reciting prime numbers as she walks through the forest. We see her being selected for an advanced school, the only one available to black children, and find out her teachers have taken a collection to help with the expenses. The next scene sets us up to know all three women and their distinct personalities. They’re broken down at the side of the road on their way to work. Dorothy is fixing the car, Katherine is staring into space thinking about something, and Mary has to be cautioned not to say anything to annoy the state trooper who’s pulling up, lights flashing.

The plot is complex. There’s the main plot about the U.S. space race with the Soviet Union. Obviously, we all know what happened, but the movie manages to make it suspenseful anyway. Then each of the women has her own plot about her career at NASA, and we also get a subplot of Katherine’s family life and romance with a handsome officer, and glimpses of Mary’s husband’s involvement with the civil rights movement and Dorothy’s life with her sons. The movie manages to weave all these parts into a coherent whole. It doesn’t use a parallel structure like Hell or High Water did. Rather, we mostly follow Katherine, but we get a scene about one of the others dropped in when it comes around on the timeline.

Much of the movie’s impact comes from the visuals. There are clips of actual footage from the time, including tv reports, people watching the launch from the beach, and reporting on civil rights protests, as well as Kennedy’s speech about going to the moon and the shots of John Glenn’s launch and splashdown. Katherine’s daily run in heels, carrying her work, to and from the only ladies room she’s allowed to use, is a powerful recurring scene.

What did I learn about storytelling? Once again, the importance of establishing the main character and getting the reader to care about her right away. And letting the facts speak for themselves. There’s not a lot of comment about the unfairness of the segregated system; it’s just there, the way things were in that time and place, and the implications are obvious. Focus is important here, too, even though or maybe because the plot is so complicated. In each scene, we know what to pay attention to, so even though the point of view changes, we’re not lost.

Manchester by the Sea

I was surprised to find out that this one didn’t hold up to a second viewing as well as Hidden Figures and Hell or High Water. (Or I suppose maybe it’s seeing nine movies in seven days, exhausting my emotions.) It’s still a spectacularly beautiful movie, with its New England waterfront locations, and the performances and storytelling are still terrific, but it just didn’t have the emotional impact it had the first time around. That emotional impact was a big part of what made me love this movie the first time I saw it.

SPOILERS FOLLOW  

So the big question about this movie’s storytelling is how did it create that emotional impact? We first see the main characters in a flashback to a scene on the water where Lee is horsing around with his nephew Patrick while his brother Joe pilots the boat. It sets the stage by showing the closeness of the family, and immerses us in the setting. From there, the movie jumps to the present, where Lee is a stoic handyman living in a one-room apartment in the city. We see him working hard, uninterested in the tenants, even when he overhears a beautiful woman telling a friend she has a crush on him. We get a glimpse of his anger at the world when he blows up at a tenant who’s rude to him, and see it in full swing when he picks a fight at the local bar because he thought a couple of guys were looking at him.

The movie sets us up to wonder what happened to make the fun-loving uncle into the miserable bar brawler in a dead end job. His brother’s death is the catalyst for the movie’s action, forcing him to go back to his hometown, where he learns to his surprise that he’s been named as his 16-year-old nephew’s guardian. We get a flashback to later the same day of the opening scene, and now we get to see Lee with his wife and children, continuing the happy family theme; another flashback to a hospital scene where we learn what was wrong with Joe that led to his death; and still another showing why Joe’s wife isn’t there to take care of Patrick. The movie reveals what happened to Lee in one long flashback to the terrible accident that killed his children. It was an accident, but it was also his fault.

The movie’s realism gives it power. You can easily imagine having something like that happen to you. It’s the kind of thing that makes people obsess over whether they locked the door or left the iron on, and go back to check over and over – because the consequences could be so dire if just this once you didn’t check, and you left something cooking on the stove. So a big factor in the emotional impact is showing us what if, what if this did happen in our lives, what would we become.

The part that was missing the second time around was the suspense. The movie builds the question up in our minds, and when we finally learn what happened, it’s simultaneously a relief and a tragedy – it’s a relief to know at last, and I think that adds a bit of punch to the incident itself. Not to get too psychoanalytical or anything, but the lower impact on me could be because I had to work hard to recover from the tragedy the first time I saw the movie, so I came to it already a bit numb. Or as I said in the first paragraph, maybe I’ve just passed my limit for emotional reactions after a week that included Moonlight, Lion, and Fences.

Lessons for writers: Use the reader’s own experience to connect emotionally to the character, and use different emotions to magnify the impact. Show how the most mundane and well-intentioned decision, like building up the fire to keep the house warm and walking to the store instead of driving after drinking, can lead to disaster. Salt the drama with some humor, like the subplot where Patrick is trying desperately to get some time alone with his girlfriend. And once again, as in the other movies I’ve seen this week, introduce your main character’s good, relatable qualities early on, so they’ll stick with him later when you show him at his worst.

Arrival

I am one hundred percent positive this one won’t win the Best Picture Oscar. It’s a science fiction movie. No science fiction movie has ever won, and not many have been nominated. This one falls into my personal category of “cerebral science fiction movies” that are more like written science fiction than the action movie variety.

Now watch me be proven wrong.

SPOILERS FOLLOW – I MEAN IT – READING THIS WILL SPOIL THE MOVIE FOR YOU

This is a movie that benefited from a second viewing. It has a complex plot that only becomes clear near the end of the movie, and knowing the story made it fun to see how everything fits together.

The movie begins with a montage of Louise and her daughter, from babyhood to her death as a teenager. Throughout the movie, we get more flashes from this period of Louise’s life. This beginning establishes her as a loving mother, and the next scenes establish her language expert credentials by showing her in front of her college classroom and in her book-lined office. We meet her physicist counterpart, Ian, in the helicopter that takes them to Montana where one of twelve alien ships has landed. We know how to think about him because we’ve all seen Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.

It’s not such a character driven movie as, say, Moonlight or Fences. The plot is what’s important here. We have mysterious alien ships and spend the whole movie learning what they’re doing here, and the human interest story of Louise and her daughter turns out to be an important way the main plot is disclosed. As it turns out, to the aliens, “there is no time,” meaning not “hurry up, we’re almost out of time” but literally time doesn’t exist as the linear stream we all think we live in. They pass this perception on to Louise, who doesn’t understand it at first – she can’t figure out why she keeps dreaming about this child – but she eventually figures it out, just in time to save the world and the aliens. They’re here because in 3,000 years they are going to need humanity’s help, but humanity needs to learn to work together, hence the twelve scattered ships interacting with twelve different governments. Louise figures it out when she remembers an event 18 months in the future when the Chinese leader tells her that she called him 18 months ago on his private number and told him his wife’s dying words (and gives her the number and the words so it will be possible for her to have called him). The final scene of the movie closes the loop on the first scene; Louise marries the physicist and the little girl will be theirs, and the physicist will leave her when she tells him about the girl’s early death.

Lessons for writers? In order to make the complex plot comprehensible, the components had to be simple enough to follow and recall, like the mother-and-child scenes, and a scene with a guy watching a Rush Limbaugh-like character on tv. Pace the science-y stuff. To show the science of learning to communicate with the aliens, the movie started slow and detailed, then skimmed over the bulk of the work, just showing little snippets to convince us that work was still going on. Keep your eye on the main plot. The parallel plot, where the public is panicking, other governments want to attack the aliens, and our own military people are being pressured for quick results, is mostly conveyed through tv news in the background and interactions between the scientists and the military. It sets the tone of urgency, the ticking time bomb (and there’s literally a ticking time bomb in one scene), but it’s always clear to us that the aliens and the efforts to communicate with them are paramount.

Well, that’s the end of movie watching for us until after the Oscars. I’ll be watching the ceremony this year with more interest than usual, now that I’ve seen these nine films. According to the Internet, the smart money is on La La Land to take the prize. I think Moonlight has a shot, too.

How about you? Have you seen these movies? What did you think of them, and if you’re a writer, what lessons would you take away? Please tell me in the comments.

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