Saturday, December 29, 2007

My Dinner With A Master

By Brian C. Mullen

Okay, we didn’t actually have dinner. I had some potato chips and bottled water, though. I don’t think he was eating anything during our conversation. Well, okay, technically it wasn’t a conversation. It was more like a lecture. Well, let’s just call it what it was…

A running commentary.

A director’s commentary, on one of my favorite movies I own: A Few Good Men (directed by Rob Reiner).

I LOVE listening to director’s commentaries during movies. Sometimes I like them more than the actual movies because that is where you really learn storytelling and get insights into people’s minds and thought processes.

Rob Reiner’s commentary on A Few Good Men, which I literally just watched/listened to before typing this blog is not what I would call a model commentary: there are large pauses where he doesn’t speak – just watching the movie alongside me – and there are many places where the subject matter is more of a reminiscing, but even those are interesting. But the story-telling information, well, let me tell you…

If you haven’t seen the movie, I hope to not spoil much, but I do ask you to watch the film for the story premise. But let me tell you that any one else, myself included, would call it a military courtroom drama. But Rob Reiner made me see it as a coming of age story.

Our first introduction to Tom Cruise’s character (Kaffee from here on) is him plea-bargaining another case while practicing softball. We see that he’s very good at it and learn that he’s successfully plea-bargained 44 cases in 9 months. This is his expertise. We also learn that his father, now deceased, was a tremendously good trial lawyer – and that Kaffee may fear trials because of that. He tries every which way to plea bargain his way out of this current trial only to be forced by those involved to take it to trial. He even considers dropping the case. But after words are said and he gets a good look at himself by observing others (i.e. overhearing a lawyer in a bar bragging about a maneuver very similar to Kaffee’s earlier one) he decides to try to make his dad proud and embraces the trial.

And embrace it he and his colleagues do. They make a few minor mistakes here and there, but they go at it with everything only to meet obstacle after obstacle and soon some of the mistakes get much bigger. And Kaffee, after a booze-augmented argument, begins to see the poor choice he has made: he has tried to be like his father. He needs to be himself. And he takes a huge gamble – one that his father would not approve of.

The consequences of this gamble, should he fail, are huge (court-martial) and for a moment it looks like he isn’t going to succeed. But he commits and goes all-in to the gamble. And he achieves a victory – sort of. The trial is decided better than the plea-bargain would have gotten him but less than an A+ (his clients are found guilty on one of three counts – ironically the only one that mattered to his clients – forcing them to the end of their own character arc as well).

As Rob Reiner saw it, Kaffee went from hiding in his father’s shadow to finding and embracing his true self. A coming of age story. Hidden within a military courtroom drama. Who’d a thunk it?

It’s easy to be blind to the heart of a story with all the distractions that are thrown at an audience like plot twists, hidden clues and overlooked facts coming back to bite, lawyerly chess-moves, emotional monologues, and especially Jack Nicholson’s commanding presence. But inserted neatly, maybe even seamlessly, is a simple, by-the-book storyline.

And that’s what I need to remember every time I sit down to write.


Anonymous said...

It's wonderful that technology lets us hear the director's commentary. I like to listen to them, too.

I haven't seen this film -- I tend to avoid movies and tv shows with courtroom scenes. Since I practice law in real life, I have trouble focusing on the story-line, acting, etc. while they're getting all the technical stuff wrong (as they often do), so I find myself on the edge of my seat, muttering, "You can't say that to a jury. That would be a mistrial," instead of paying attention.

Movies, though, do provide a wonderful medium for studying how stories can be developed and presented.

Anonymous said...

Brian, the "You can't handle the truth!" courtroom scene from A Few Good Men is my all-time favorite movie scene. I LOVE that movie -- I can watch it anywhere, anytime, over and over.

I think it is perhaps Tom Cruise's best acting performance, and although Jack Nicholson has many more great performances to his credit than Tom (IMO), also one of his best. It is a stellar example of the villain being the hero of his own story, and that's part of what makes it such riveting drama.

I hadn't consciously thought of it as a coming-of-age story, but, yes, I can easily see that it is now that you and Rob Reiner have pointed it out.

I have that movie on DVD, now that I think of it. I may just have to watch it today while I do laundry. Thanks, Brian!

"I'll rip out your eyes and piss in your dead skull!" :-)

Anonymous said...

I wanted to add a section on my all time favorite director's cokmmentary which is Ron Howard's on A Beautiful Mind. He provides so much input and really points out things that are not only subtle but essential clues. If you like that movie, you MUST listen to the commentary!!!

Joyce Tremel said...

A Few Good Men is one of my favorite movies too, but I've never listened to the commentary.
Jack Nicholson has some of the best movie lines ever in that movie.

Gina, you might be okay with this one since it takes place in a military courtroom, which seems to be a little bit different than a civilian one.

Annette said...

I give writers' commentaries on movie DVDs a great deal of the credit for getting me back to writing after that loooonnnggg dry spell I had a few years back. My favorite commentary (and I confess I haven't seen A Few Good Men yet) is the one for the movie SNEAKERS. Love the movie, love the stars (Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, Dan Ackroyd to name a few) and LOVE the commentary. It's like a mini course on writing.

Anonymous said...

Brian: It's great to hear someone else who gets as excited as I do about commentaries on DVDs! I love the Director's and writers' commentaries. I find actors' commentaries virtually useless, as they rarely talk about their craft, more about funny things that happened on the set.

I LOVED A Beautiful Mind but have it on VCR, not DVD. Darn! (One of the few ways, IMHO, that technology has really improved our life.)

I remember being underwhelmed by A Few Good Men when I saw it on screen, but that may have been during my Quaker phase, when I was anti-military in general. Maybe time to see it again?

Anonymous said...

Brian, you might also enjoy watching The Actor's Studio on Bravo. The actors are often idiots (I agree with Tory---they're often useless cyphers of the director) but the directors are enlightening. And some actors--I'm thinking Cate Blanchette--are often articulate about their craft and the way characters act to reflect what they're thinking and feeling. Good material for writers.

Great blog!

Anonymous said...

Inside the Actors' Studio is my favorite show, but I have to disagree with Nancy -- most of the actors are articulate and it's fascinating to listen to the choices they've made to build various characters. Acting is a whole lot more complicated than it looks.