Let's dissect this puppy.
The movie begins with an epigraph over black:
"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction
for war is a drug."
- Chris Hedges
SEQUENCE 1 - EXACTLY TEN MINUTES TO THE SECOND (15 pages in the script)
The opening image is a POV of a bomb robot on its way to a bomb. A cool image! I actually wonder if there is an additional meaning that could be exploited here: the fact that the main character SEEMS to be likewise forward-charging and devoid of emotion. (Note: if that was the writer's intention, a well-placed, "Dude, you're a machine" could have brought that meaning home.)
We meet J.T. Sanborn, the "type-A jock...cocky...think Muhammad Ali with a rifle."
We also meet Owen Eldridge, "the youngest of the group, impressionable, vulnerable..."
At 4:50, the mid-point of the sequence, the wheels on the bot break and complicate the situation. This forces the Thompson character, the team leader of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), aka bomb squad, to put on "The Suit."
We learn about EOD procedures, the blast radius (the 'kill' zone), the limitations of the suit and that the suit is never the first choice.
Sanborn is a careful guy, watchful and protective of his group. But events unravel too rapidly, and the situation spins out of control. Moments after Eldridge spots an enemy character with a detonator, but is unable to get a clear shot on him, the bomb explodes and kills Thompson.
SEQUENCE 2 - INTRODUCTION TO MAIN CHARACTER - WHAT HE DOES AND HOW HE DOES IT - 10:00-27:00
Sanborn puts Thompson's dog tags away in white box in a mortuary warehouse.
It is time to meet our hero, Sergeant First Class William James. In his introduction, he is smoking a cigarette to blasting heavy metal music; his hands never stop fidgeting. In the script, there is the all too familiar character intro "cheat": "... seems markedly self-absorbed ... after so many years down range, racking up kills and disarming bombs ... lost some of the ability and most of the need to connect to other people."
Three minutes into the sequence, a new bomb situation comes up. This is still part of James's introduction as we get to see his way of doing things, and the sequence builds in revealing steps before he even gets to the bomb.
Unlike Thompson, James goes right to the suit. He wants to be in the thick of things. He audaciously sets off a few smoke bombs to cover himself from the enemy, but thus also reduces his visibility to Sanborn, whose job it is to watch and protect him. Right from the start, James defiantly isolates himself from enemies and friends alike, complicating the situation and creating conflict.
There is an intense three-minute scene that involves a cab that bolts into the middle of the street next to the defusing site. James pulls a gun and literally plays a game of chicken: his suit and gun versus the cab. He eventually shoots the window out and forces the cabbie to retreat and surrender.
James gets to the bomb 13 minutes into this sequence at 23:00. His methods are so specific to him, that this may be considered a separate sequence in and of itself. This section is a big chunk of time to be occupied by one "strand" of story, and you might even break it down into two sequences. This sequence is a handy reminder that to keep the audience's interest for close to twenty minutes you need some twists and turns. Note the separate strands: introduction to the protagonist, his daredevil approach, the standoff with the cabbie and the defusing of the bomb.
The defusing of the bomb is a taut vibrant four-minute scene that demonstrates to us how James thinks, thrills us with his virtuoso moves and quirks and then caps it off with a compelling character moment - the adrenaline-fueled "game of chicken" - where he shows off the blasting cap (proof that he defused the bomb) to the guy ready to detonate it.
Disgruntled, Sanborn calls him on his recklessness: "it's my job to keep you safe."
SEQUENCE 3 - REACTIONS TO JAMES AND SHORT INTERLUDE - 27:30-30:30
Eldridge zones out playing video games; he is an emotional mess. His psychologist/counselor friend Cambridge (the name suggests a book-smart, not street-smart, guy) tries to console him. Eldridge feels responsible for Thompson's death and is obsessed with death as such.
James has a cute moment where he buys some DVDs from a feisty young Iraqi kid named Beckham.
Sanborn confronts James again, this time more emphatically, about his methods.
The character orchestration is now evident. James has no fear; he is reckless and devoid of emotion in the face of mortal danger. Emotionally, Eldridge is the polar opposite, almost entranced and immobilized by fear and prospect of death. Sanborn is courageous, but disciplined and compliant; he exercises proper caution based on the established procedure and protocol.
Up next is a short sequence. It can be seen as a buildup to their next gig or as part of it.
SEQUENCE 4 - NEW BOMB - EXACERBATION OF CHARACTER CONFLICTS - 30:45-44:45
Once again, we have lengthy suspenseful scenes in a dangerous setting. Having broken down dramas and comedies like Liar Liar, My Best Friend's Wedding and The Prestige, I find that crisp twists and turns come in increments closer to eight minutes in lengths. Later, I will ponder some of the limitations to longer sequences from a thematic standpoint. But remember how I mentioned 'European' structure in American scenes...
Bigelow does an amazing job in these action sequences in terms of layering and coordinating different planes of action. The intense scene of James disarming the bomb also tracks Eldridge and Sanborn's struggle to control the environment. James takes off his suit because he knows it is, in fact, not going to protect him. Sanborn tries to control James and stop him after everyone has been evacuated, but James is too obsessed with the challenge of defusing the bomb. The sequence has two strong changes/escalations/turning points when Sanborn identifies suspicious onlookers, yet James explicitly defies his orders and rips off the headset.
When James approaches Sanborn after defusing the bomb, Sanborn punches him and scowls: "Never turn your headset off again." But, despite this act of self-assertion, it is clear that cautious and controlled Sanborn is not the one who has the upper hand. A psychopath Colonel Reed (a possible future version of Sanborn?), who allows an insurgent to die, congratulates James on his audacity, refers to him as a 'Wildman' and celebrates his statistics, the number of bombs he has defused.
Reed asks him the best way to disarm a bomb and James replies, "The way you don't die." This is one of the lingering questions in our minds as we watch the film. Does he truly mean that? Or does his need to stimulate himself by risking his life exceed his sense of self-preservation, making him in effect suicidal?
To James's Wildman, Sanborn's philosophy of controlled caution is nothing but defeatist.
SEQUENCE 5 - FIVE-MINUTES THEME/CHARACTER FOCUS - ESCALATING THE CLASH IN POINTS OF VIEW - 44:45-50:30
Cambridge urges Eldridge to find positive sides and things to enjoy about his stay in Iraq: "Going to war is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It can be fun." Apparently, I wasn't the only one who appreciated the line. It's one of the few underlined passages in the script. Ironically, he is more or less encouraging Eldridge to adopt some of James's perspective. Although Eldridge does have some thing to learn from James, Cambridge's selling it to him is a bit too neatly packaged and naive. That's why Eldridge challenges Cambridge to ride along with them sometime to better understand their world.
Another endearing exchange between Beckham and James follows. Beckham asks him if the "bomb squad" is dangerous, "fun" and "gangster" and James says, "Yeah, I think so."
There is a huge explosion, but it is merely a training session in progress. And, because it's not for real, James is totally bored, as is evident in his sitting down on the ground slumped against the truck, completely disinterested. After a moment, he jumps up, says he left his gloves "down there" and drives the Humvee down to the blast site. Is he messing with Sanborn or testing him? Well...
Sanborn suggests to Eldridge the "what-if" of them "accidentally" detonating the charge to kill James. He really tests him to see if he would be in on it. His seriousness implies that he genuinely questions whether or not their own lives will one day be placed precariously in James's hands and endangered by his recklessness.
SEQUENCE 6 - 19-MINUTE ACTION SEQUENCE CULMINATING IN CHARACTERS MOVING TOWARD HARMONY - 50:30-69:40
Here again we have a long action sequence, however, it is broken up into three little segments.
- They approach and verify that a group of men is not hostile.
- They are under attack; a few minutes of standard shootout ensue.
- A sequence of stillness/waiting follows. Sanborn is the sniper and James is spotting him and Eldridge.
This last section runs about five minutes and in it, James helps Eldridge clean bullets and gives him the courage and authority to make his own decision to kill an enemy sniper. James also acts in support of Sanborn by getting him a drink, fixing the clip of bullets and talking him through his shots using binoculars.
We see that Cambridge's pep talk was BS but Eldridge can learn some things from James: to be courageous, independent and decisive.
Sanborn's removal of his helmet mirrors James' taking off the suit earlier. He, too, can appear to throw caution to the wind when the situation calls for it.
If up until now we were questioning whether or not James's antics were based on ego or competitiveness, we see that they are not based on either. Under pressure, in the rush of a battle, he is the exact warrior he has to be, completely ready and willing to serve and assist - embracing the more "boring" job - if the stakes are life and death.
After they shoot the last sniper, Sanborn says, I think we are done.
SEQUENCE 7 - PERSONAL MOMENT - ENJOYING TEMPORARY HARMONY - SEVEN MINUTES
They are drunk and in the middle of a spontaneous party celebrating their victory and their current harmony.
Eldridge commends James for being a warrior. James commends him for doing well today. When Eldridge admits he was scared, James says, "Everyone's a coward about something."
Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! Then...
Eldridge and Sanborn dig into James's possession and they find a box of "stuff that almost killed me": bomb parts and ... his wedding ring. His divorced wife still lives in his house with their son.
Sanborn talks about how he is not ready for kids.
After they bond, they get into a silly fight that turns sour. In their wrestling match, James actually gets on top of Sanborn and rides him like a bull. Sanborn gets mad and pulls a knife on him. It's not melodramatic, it feels like an appropriate way for these two guys to jockey for power.
Eldridge and James carry Sanborn back to his bed.
Alone in his bed, James puts on the mask to his suit and then, in another underlined passage in the script, he puts his helmet on "... so that is snaps down over his face and his entire head is sheathed in the protective metal."
In the script, this is one of the few instances of a "cut to" but the film itself fades out.
MID-POINT, POINT OF NO RETURN, A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME ...
SEQUENCE 8 - MISSION THAT GETS MORE PERSONAL AND EMOTIONAL - 76:25-89:30 - 13 MINUTES
16 days left on their rotation.
After the midpoint in a goal-oriented movie, the stakes go up and there is an act of re-committing one's self to the goal at hand. Yes, this movie is episodic in some sense, but the episodes have been building and they must take a dramatic turn soon. They do very quickly in this next task, which, ironically, Eldridge calls "a standard mission".
Their mission is to gather some bomb-making materials in a bombed-out building. This sequence is also divided into a few segments. It starts with a few minutes of them creeping their way into the building, followed by them discovering bomb-making materials and evidence that insurgents were there recently. But, instead of physical danger, the sequence takes a turn toward emotional danger.
James discovers a dead boy who has a bomb sewn into his stomach. James thinks it is Beckham. He places C-4 on the dead body and then has a change of heart at the dead-center of this sequence (once again, an ersatz midpoint). The script even has a bit of a "cheat" in italics: the war has finally reached him. Instead, he takes the bomb out of the boy's body and carries him outside.
The other little thread that adds some humor and thematic intrigue is that Colonel Cambridge decides to come along to get some real war experience. He comically tries to persuade some men to move their donkey cart. The sequence culminates with a bomb blasting him into nothingness.
Eldridge is freaked out and James consoles him. It's easier for him to console Eldridge than for to tend to his own feelings as we will see in the next sequence.
The sequence ends with a brief shot of him calling home to his wife. His wife answers and it's a bit cliché the way he says nothing but she "just knows" it's him.
SEQUENCE 9 - DEALING WITH THE KID IN HIS OWN WAY - 90:00-96:00
This segment masquerades as a plot-driven sequence, but is it? On the surface, James's extracurricular quest seems legitimate and goal-oriented. He wants to find Beckham's killer, so he forces a merchant to take him to the boy's house. He finds a peaceful man and his wife, who throws a fit and runs him out of the house.
He runs back toward the base and there is a funky "intellectual montage" where the film intercuts between him and a cow carcass.
There is a big ruckus as he has to stealthily re-enter his camp from outside.
This sequence wasn't really about furthering the plot at all. It was an episode willed into being by James's emotional revolt against the child's death and his need to make sense of it. It externalizes the character's frustration over his inability to protect the boy (and his own son?)
We also learn that not all things in his life can be solved by an act of bravery and a leap of faith. There are looming injustices that cannot be tackled by adrenaline-fueled action. But it is in the next sequence that we will find out if James has learned his lesson.
SEQUENCE 10 - SEARCHING FOR THE BOMBERS - DECISION, PURSUIT, CONSEQUENCES - 1:36:20-1:50:00
The trio arrives at the aftermath of an explosion where a huge building is on fire. James eventually motivates the men to follow him and chase after the perpetrators. The long sequence breaks down into a few distinct strands:
- 4 minutes of taking in the scenery: a page in the script becomes a four-minute wordless series of shots of the destruction and devastation that culminates in James pondering and making a decision.
- 3 minutes of James convincing the others to go: James believes that the bad guys are hiding "out there" in the dark and coerces Sanborn and Eldridge to accompany him in chasing after them.
- 5 minute action sequence: a well-shot, cleverly captured scene where the characters are disoriented and move forward like in a bad dream, out of sorts, frustrated and helpless. Eldridge is shot and being dragged away. Sanborn and James catch up to the bad guys and gun them down. Eldridge is in excruciating pain, having been shot.
- 2 minutes of consequences: in the bathroom, James looks at himself in the mirror. Wearing full gear, he takes a shower to cleanse himself of blood and then drops to the floor and weeps. He sees that Beckham is actually alive. Then visits Eldridge, about to be taken up in a med-evac chopper, who responds to James's apology with: "... fuck you, Will. Really, fuck you. Thanks for saving my life, but we didn't have to go out for trouble so you could get your adrenaline fix, you fucking war monger."
Note how the unconscious desires are driving this sequence. It is one character leading the others into a situation where their differences will clash and their flaws will manifest themselves. Not only has he brought on the situation that got Eldridge shot, but seeing Beckham visibly befuddles him, throws off his understanding of himself and his motivations.
I guess the questions that remain are:
Is he so reckless that he is dangerous to everyone else, not just himself? Why is he doing this? Is this just recklessness? Or is he addicted to risking his life, thereby perhaps seeking to fill a void within himself?
We can see which ones are most important to the filmmakers by the questions that get answered in the next sequence.
SEQUENCE 11 - LAST BOMB SEQUENCE - 7 MINUTES - 1:10:00-116:30
We are thrown into the next random bomb squad situation in media res. A body bomb is locked onto a local villager, but the interpreters on the scene immediately identify him as a family man who has children. He is an innocent victim.
Sanborn tells James that the Eldridge situation is behind them, but that this is a suicide mission. The script gives a little cheat to let us know how the writer wants us to take it: "Like a moth to the flame, this is what he does." In the script, he goes directly to the guy. But in the film, despite the interpreters' vehement vouching for the man's decency, James is circumspect in his approach. He goes through protocol to ensure his safety before he will let his guard down. It's not totally clear if this is supposed to be a new trait in him, something he has recently learned or something he is forcefully imposing upon himself in the aftermath of the Eldridge snafu.
It is clear, however, that Sanborn has grown and adapted: he takes on more risks, or at least is more lenient and loyal to James, because for the first time in the movie, he is in the kill radius together with him. At the point when the explosion is imminent and they need to leave immediately to make it to safety, Sanborn urges James to stop what he is doing and leave. James tells him to go, and Sanborn does. James gives it his best shot and stays a bit too long, but, when he realizes he has no chance of saving the guy, he apologizes and runs for his life and survives.
Whether the capacity towards caution and self-preservation was there all along or is something he recently picked up from Sanborn or is merely propelled by Sanborn in this particular moment, he walks away to safety, albeit in the nick of time. The question of whether he is suicidal or over the edge has been answered. James's is not a complete blind obsession.
By now, Sanborn and James have resolved their differences, got on each other's wavelengths and truly bonded. They may have incorporated a bit of each other into themselves and have definitely developed mutual loyalty and respect. As we will see in a moment, they remain complete opposites in some regards even now, but they are more at peace with the fact.
The fact that the bomb victim was a father seems to resonate with Sanborn, as we will see in the next sequence. And, since I started writing this article not knowing where it was going to take me, I realize, that I have more to say about this moment than will fit here today. As a bonus craft article in next issue or a blog, I will discuss this moment in more depth to show how the fact that the victim was a dad could have been used more extensively.
SEQUENCE 12 - HOME IS WHERE THE HUMVEE IS
This sequence includes a conversation with Sanborn, a three-and-a-half minute section at home and a quick few shots as he returns to a brand-new 365-day tour of duty.
After seeing the bomb-swaddled Iraqi father die, Sanborn is shook up and realizes that he wants to have a son, that he is done risking his life and wants out. He becomes a foil character to James, which allows us to assume the opposite for James. In vain, Sanborn tries to understand why James risks his life over and over.
JAMES: Do you know why I am the way I am?
SANBORN: No, I don't.
An amazing three-minute sequence follows that is pure cinema: grocery store, rows of doors; James overwhelmed by the legion of cereal boxes; he removes leaves from a gutter; the beautiful simplicity of his ex-wife washing mushrooms, which leaves him cold.
He then tells his son, basically, that he only loves one thing.
Cut to: He is back in Iraq. He walks off a plane. Soon he's wearing the bomb suit and a grin and struts down the middle of some unknown road.
WHAT'S THE SEQUENCY, KENNETH?
Well, I am happy to see that my initial assessment was fairly on-target. There is a rhyme and reason to the seemingly arbitrary episodes. Up till the mid-point, the crisp, if not totally original, character orchestration allows for the three guys to clash and bounce off of each other in an ever-escalating way. The two sequences that follow - finding the dead boy and storming in on Beckham's parents - continue to expand our understanding of who James really is, pointing to his inner turmoil.
Coincidentally, a writer/author friend and I had a problem with the same area of the script, but for different reasons. Although the sequence to Beckhams' parents stays on track in expressing the character's internal desire, it doesn't seem realistic, in my friend's opinion. He had the same problem with the sequence, or mini-sequence, where they chase the bad guys into the night. He thought there was no way that military soldiers would act as impulsively and haphazardly as these three. In my assessments, I primarily focus on dramaturgy as opposed to veracity, but if you are writing a serious piece, such as this, that portends to capture gritty verisimilitude, you do have to mind your tone and make sure you do not take too many liberties lest you resort to Hollywood clichés.
I actually have a bigger issue with sequence 10, which culminates with Eldridge being shot. I feel it is actually a bit of a non-sequitur in the chain of carefully linked sequences. James's argument for embarking on this unsanctioned mission is vague, generic and unclear as to the driving motives. He declares that there are bad guys out there and they are "laughing at us." Sanborn's sensible rebuttal is "It's not our job." And Eldridge conflicts with him after the fact with "fuck you... adrenaline junkie."
I feel like the clash of ideas here is a regression. This conflict is no different from what was playing out on page 40. He likes ACTION. Been there done that. Is it risky? Sure. If their response showed that they picked up some other motive, then that would be a different story as this would allow for a deeper insight. Now, whether or not you agree with me on this, stay with me for a second longer, for two reasons.
First of all, if you write a non-goal-oriented movie, this is exactly the kind of scrutiny under which you must put your scenes and sequences. You are not going to be evaluating them by the linear cause-and-effect of a Hollywood blockbuster. You have to be finely attuned to the inner life of the characters in the scene. For instance, a major turning point in a non-goal-oriented story that I have written is that a character realizes a relationship has reached the serious love stage because her lover reads the newspaper in the other room. In the next scene she is drunk at a party. No story software is going to tell you that the next scene must be at a party. But it unobtrusively and casually puts her in a setting which may reveal to us the essence of her conflict/insecurity: being open to love scares her so now she must anesthetize.
That's why this form of storytelling is hard to wrangle and hard to track. In an action movie, you might have a concrete task at hand, e.g. my character has to get across that guarded bridge. I can generate a gripping sequence of actions and events that will lead him to his goal. But in character-centered stories, you have to create a scene from absolute thin air that reflects that character's inner being. And your scenes might all be gems dramatically, structurally and visually, but in the end what truly matters is how well they work to evoke that which lies beneath, to map out the inner landscape. It is tricky to accomplish; it is trickier yet to make the execs "get" it.
Secondly, let's look at the subtle craft that might allow us to dig deeper and find out what is really driving James. As I mentioned Eldridge and Sanborn's responses are a bit lax and generic. I do believe that James's lines could be tweaked, too. However, what could really effectively expose James's intent - the nature of his "itch" - is a carefully gauged and revealing rebuttal from Sanborn or Eldridge. One of them would have to be orchestrated as a character with great finesse so that he is able to sense or deduce James's unconscious motivation and then shed light on it with his response. Consider the following possible motives driving James and appropriate responses that would call him on it and point us to the heart of the matter.
- Like an addict, James is lying/rationalizing to get his "action fix" - response: "You're making shit up" or "That makes no sense"
- James can't stand losing to the "bad guys" - response: "It's not a fucking game" or "There is no winning all of it"
- If he wants to compensate for the suffering of the people at the site -- response: "You can't save them" or "You can't be a hero"
There you have it. Sanborn and I have just safely guided you through this lesson.
Next issue, I will be James.
James P. Mercurio
, that is. I will take the risk to explore in more depth why I think that sequence 10 is off-track and sequence 11 is underused. I always tease my friend who has an Emmy for writing for Jeopardy because it's only a daytime Emmy. And he teases me because I only have Oscar-nominated clients. Well, next issue, I am going to play script consultant to this year's Oscar-winning script and suggest a way to improve it. The worst that can happen is that you learn by watching me fail. I just hope the bomb suit protects me.
Jim is accepting two or three new coaching or mentoring clients this year. All of them will be invited to a free weeklong or three-day class near the end of the year.