In Steven Soderbergh’s film The Informant!, Matt Damon plays a pitch perfect Power of Ambition protagonist. Although some critics and arm chair commentators have complained that the movie moves too slow or is boring– I disagree.
I found the fevered unraveling of Matt Damon’s character and his deceptions and lies fascinating to watch. There are no big actions sequences, no shoot-outs and no chase scenes. If you come to the theater looking for an action-packed thriller like the Bourne series or the sharp witty seriousness of whistler-blower Erin Brockovich you will be disappointed. SEE THE TRAILER IN VIDEOS
This is a meticulous character study about the bland banality of corporate greed, the endless self-justification of scheming executives and the deluded self-seeking that’s eating away at the American Dream. The upbeat jangle of Marvin Hamlisch’s insistently perky elevator music underscores Whitacre’s deluded optimism. Steven Soderbergh deliciously deadpan comedy is a brilliant, subtle and painfully funny expose of the empty calories (literally and metaphorically) that’s been making America both overfed and undernourished at the same time.
Damon’s character is biochemist and ADM Division President, Mark Whitacre, the highest-ranking corporate official in U.S. history to expose wrong-doing in his own company. Whitacre sets off a massive FBI investigation into a global price-fixing conspiracy filled with secret meetings, concealed taping, wire taps, pay-offs and laundered money in Swiss and Bermuda off-shore accounts.
The object of all this intrigue is lysine, a sweet corn-based food additive, that is in nearly everything we eat or drink. As the movie opens, Whitacer glowingly describes the many lucrative uses of his company’s products (“corn goes in one end, profit comes out the other”). When a virus derails the company’s production of lysine, Whitacere is forced to come up with a solution fast.
He lies and tells management there’s a mole in the company, a corporate saboteur from a Japanese rival who wants a payoff to stop injecting the virus into the production line. Whitacre is shocked when the company calls in the FBI. Special Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), catch Whitacre in the lie about the mole and the fun begins as Whitacre spins an even bigger story. He accuses ADM of fixing prices and divvying up the market for the corn-based food additive by ADM and other international corporate giants.
Whitacre begins an increasingly bizarre journey where lie enfolds lie. The dorky but puppy dog charming scientist with the floppy pompadour toupee likens his situation in ADM to Tom Cruise in The Firm. It’s an apt, if over-weaning, comparison to another Power of Ambition character. An even closer movie comparison would be to Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie that also explores dark and twisted side of the Power of Ambition character.
Like Ripley, Mark Whitacre is a bland but eager to please guy who is obsessed with being liked and inflating his own importance. Whitacre believes he should be running ADM and uses the price-fixing conspiracy to oust his superiors. He is obsessed with assessing the relative friendliness of everyone he meets. Despite his double-dealings, greed and moral transgressions he believes that he is one of the “good guys” and his many “good friends” at ADM will welcome him into the top spot after he has taken most of the company management down. He lies about a key biographical fact because of a study about personal likeablity. He justifies every twisted manipulation of the truth or of others with an incessant internal dialogue filled with odd facts, off-kilter observations and self-promoting rationalizations.
Like all Power of Ambition characters Whitacre is exceptionally adept at self-justification and at distracting himself from his own crimes and ethical short-comings. Always the eternal optimist Whitacre enthuses, “There are so many really nice people in the world.” even as his web of deception is unraveling around him and one last lie earns him three times the prison sentence the other executives face.
A character driven by the Power of Ambition is a staple of American movies. This Character Type can be a hardworking, eager, charming optimist with a “can-do” spirit (Tom Cruise as the title character in Jerry Maguire)—or a lying, manipulative, backstabbing striver who will do anything to get ahead in life (Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington in All About Eve). Jim Carrey in Liar Liar is another comedic version of the type.
Power of Ambition characters can be aspirational characters who want to rise from a lowly station to a more exalted one. Or they can be prostitutes, frauds, fakers or con artists, always on the hustle. In either case, their personal vanity, status, popularity and social importance is key to these characters sense of self.
SEE THE TRAILER IN VIDEOS
Everyone who has heard me speak or teach knows how fundamental vulnerability is to making a movie or television show memorable. The way an audience BONDS with a character is through scenes where the character is vulnerable. Here are some of my favorites– what are yours?
SOMETHING ABOUT MARY: The scene starts with Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller) gazing out a bathroom window, it appears he is window peeping, he panics and then his zipper gets embarrassingly (and painfully) stuck.
MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING: The scene starts with Julianne Potter (Julia Roberts) stirring up trouble by taking Michael O’Neal (Dermot Mulroney) and fiancee Kimberly Wallace (Cameron Diaz) for a drink at a Karaoke Bar. Kimmy is pressed into singing possibly the worst Karaoke debut in history. She completely “owns” it and turns everyone’s groans into cheers. This is also a great example of a comedic turnaround.
BRIDGET JONES: The scene starts with Bridget (Renee Zellwegger) showing up at a party in an embarrassingly tight Bunny costume scene. No one else is wearing a costume. She was never told the party plan was changed.
TOOTSIE: The scene starts with a montage of Michael Dorsey’s (Dustin Hoffman) audition scenes. He is told he is too short, too tall, too young, too old etc.
JERRY MACGUIRE: The scene starts as Jerry (Tom Cruise) is frantically watching the lights blinking out on his phone as all his old clients hang up and avoid him.
WITNESS: The scene starts as Det. Capt. John Brook (Harrison Ford) stumbles on Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) bathing in her room. She drops her towel and he turns away. The next scene finds him in agony in his room.
ET: The scene starts with Elliot (Henry Thomas) spotting the strange creature E.T. No one believes him and his brother makes fun of him.
TITANIC: Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) is framed for stealing a jewel. He protests his innocence. No one believes him except Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) He is taken away in handcuffs.
HOME ALONE: The scene starts with Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) fighting with his brother. He is blamed for creating a mess, despite his protests, he is sent to his room.
WIZARD OF OZ: The scene starts with Mrs. Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) reporting Toto attacked her cat. Despite Dorothy’s (Judy Garland) protests Toto is taken away.
CASABLANCA: The scene starts as Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is waiting for Ilsa. He gets a goodbye note from her and is left at the station to board the train without her.
ET: The scene starts as the Mother Ship leaves and ET is left behind.
The 40th anniversary of Woodstock, which took place from August 15 to August 18, 1969 is being marked forty years and eight days later by the release of Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock. Reviews are not quite groovy. I concur with the downbeat analysis. Here’s what the major critics had to say:
Lou Lumenick in The New York Post complains that Lee “turns the fabled music festival, a key cultural moment of the late 20th century, into an exceedingly lame, heavily clichéd, thumb-sucking bore.” Likewise Rafer Guzmán in the New York Daily News calls the movie “frustratingly sedate, more opiate than hallucinogen.” Taking note of Lee’s assertion at the Cannes Film Festival last May that “I wanted to make a comedy after making so many tragedies,” Claudia Puig in USA Today comments, “He has done that, but he also has made a surprisingly bland film.” She concludes: “Lee’s movie captures the mellow mood and mud-caked faces of the crowd but misses the reverberations of the counterculture revolution.”
But Stephen Holden, who calls the movie “likable, humane,” suggests that such a task was never the object of the filmmaker. “Taking Woodstock,” he writes, “is a gentle, meandering celebration of personal liberation at a moment when rigid social barriers were becoming more permeable, at least among the young.” Several reviewers also find much to praise about the movie even while giving it barely passing grades. Betsy Sharkey comments in the Los Angeles Times that the movie amounts to “a meticulously rendered and achingly authentic portrait of a time and a place that is, by turns, sweeping and intimate, poignant and painful, funny and flat, emotional and emotionless. It’s a frustrating complication of a movie with a sprawling story and grand ambitions — and some truly grand acting — that stumbles almost as often as it soars. Bummer.”
I agree. Take away the residual nostalgia factor and the story just doesn’t stand on it’s own. The main character simply meanders through his Coming of Age choices. His choices cost him very little so his actions (or actually reactions) are robbed of meaning. To see how examples on how Coming of Age films should be constructed check out the article in the Power of Idealism section.
The Queen, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen, is a pitch perfect Power of Conscience character study.
Anyone interested in writing complex, interesting characters that are fully formed three-dimensional human beings must see this film. The Queen is a masterful example of character development.
The film takes place in August 1997, in the days after Diana (divorced from Prince Charles), dies as the result of a car crash in Paris. At the same time, Tony Blair settles into his new position as Labor Prime Minister. Blair makes a stirring and immensely popular speech in tribute to Diana, no longer the Princess of Wales but forever “The People’s Princess.” Read the full story »
John Hughes died today at age 59. His movies Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club are iconic Coming of Age Films. Below are some great quotes from these two films and why this particular dialogue represents the emotional power of this kind of story.
I just want them to know that they didn’t break me. Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink
Richard Vernon: You’re not fooling anyone, Bender. The next screw that falls out will be you.
John Bender: Eat my shorts.
Richard Vernon: What was that?
John Bender: Eat… My… Shorts.
Richard Vernon: You just bought yourself another Saturday.
John Bender: Ooh, I’m crushed.
Richard Vernon: You just bought one more.
John Bender: Well I’m free the Saturday after that. Beyond that, I’m going to have to check my calendar.
Richard Vernon: Good, cause it’s going to be filled. We’ll keep going. You want another one? Just say the word say it. Instead of going to prison you’ll come here. Are you through?
John Bender: No.
Richard Vernon: I’m doing society a favor.
John Bender: So?
Richard Vernon: That’s another one right now! I’ve got you for the rest of your natural born life if you don’t watch your step. You want another one?
John Bender: Yes.
Richard Vernon: You got it! You got another one right there! That’s another one pal!
Claire Standish: Cut it out!
Richard Vernon: You through?
John Bender: Not even close bud!
Richard Vernon: Good! You got one more right there!
John Bender: You really think I give a shit?
Richard Vernon: Another! You through?
John Bender: How many is that?
Brian Johnson: That’s seven including when we first came in and you asked Mr. Vernon whether Barry Manilow knew that he raided his closet.
Richard Vernon: Now it’s eight. You stay out of this.
Brian Johnson: Excuse me sir, it’s seven.
John Bender (Judd Nelson) Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) in The Breakfast Club
Andie Walsh and John Bender are Power of Idealism characters. Young Power of Idealism characters play the role of the rebel, the romantic, the outsider, the iconoclast, the artist, or the maverick. They are the angry young man or the passionate young woman in a Coming of Age Film.
These characters struggle to grow up, distinguish themselves as individuals and find their place in a world where they just don’t seem to fit. They wrestle with the question of how to fit into an established society that always values conformity, cooperation and continuity over what is challenging, new or different.
Adults want to impose discipline, counsel moderation and contentment with one’s lot in life and urge conformity to the traditional norms. But adolescence is defined by an intense longing to burn brightly, change and challenge the world and follow one’s own destiny regardless of the risk or cost. Both of the iconic films written by John Hughes are perfect examples of Coming of Age Stories.
This is from The New York Times— It’s a spot on description of the Power of Idealism Coming of Age character.
“Molly Ringwald, the ginger-haired teenager who, from 1984 to 1986, was for Mr. Hughes what James Stewart had been for Frank Capra at the end of the Great Depression, and what Anna Karina had been for Jean-Luc Godard in the mid-’60s: an emblem, a muse, a poster child and an alter ego. Especially in Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink (directed by Howard Deutch from Mr. Hughes’s script), she represented his romantic ideal of the artist as misfit, sensitive and misunderstood, aspiring to wider acceptance but reluctant to compromise too much.”
The Taking of Pelham 123 is a fast-paced stylishly-directed thriller with riveting performances by Denzel Washington and John Travolta. It is also deeply unsatisfying. I felt the same way about Duplicity starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen– great performances and a great disappointment. The endings of both movies left me shrugging and saying “Huh?” Both were box office duds. The lesson from both films is “earn your ending.”
In The Taking of Pelham 123 Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, an ordinary man caught in the extraordinary circumstance of a subway hijacking. The film moves briskly along until the ending. Washington has absolutely no motivation and no compelling personal reason to go after the hijackers once he escapes the train. The car with the hostages exits the tunnel and races toward Coney Island. He can do nothing further there. He immediately alerts the cops to the hijackers’ whereabouts as they escape. The cops are already swarming the area. He no longer has any personal stake in their apprehension. He has a wife and family who depend on him. Earlier in the film, we learn is willing to do anything (even commit a crime) to provide for them. Suddenly, that is of no concern to him? After he hijacks an SUV, he gets to the remaining hijacker just as the cops are closing in. He has no purpose in the scene.
It’s incredibly easy to commit “suicide by cop.” All Travolta has to do is wave his gun around or fire at the on-rushing cops. That in fact, is what the other hijackers do and they are blown to bits. There is no reason for Travolta to fear jail time– the cops will gladly shoot him if threatened. The final discussion between Washington and Travolta is false, contrived and doesn’t ring true on any level.
The original film, released in 1974, starred Walter Mathau in the Walter Garber role. Mathau is a transit cop, also an ordinary man caught in the extraordinary circumstances of a subway hijacking. He uses dogged police work to capture the remaining hijacker (the only one who isn’t killed in the heist). Mathau is motivated, methodical and clever. He gets his man with skilled investigative work and his knowledge of the subway system. The original had a ending that was clever, satisfying and well-earned.
In Duplicity the ending comes out of no-where. In the last few minutes of the film, a larger conspiracy is revealed that was hidden from the mutually double-crossing-duo of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. Neither one saw it coming and neither did the audience. All of the duo’s scheming, plotting, lying and effort is undone at last minute by invisible forces, leaving the audience wondering why we watched the two jump through meaningless hoops (to no apparent effect) during the film. A simple test applied by the insurance company quickly spotlights the ruse. None of the characters thought to ask this question over the course the movie’s 125 minute running time. This makes them look stupid and make the audience feel stupid for watching a plot that goes nowhere and sideswipes the us with a trick ending. It’s the same fury-inducing effect as the infamous shower “it was all a dream” season of the television series Dallas.
To learn how to write endings that feel authentic, earned and true check out The One Hour Screenwriter eBook. Learn everything you need to bring your story to a deeply satisfying conclusion.
I am a Will Ferrell fan. I found Land of the Lost goofy and absurdist but certainly not his best effort. But there is an important lesson to be learned here about Character Types— Intelligence is not a specific attribute of any Character Type. Let’s look at this in relation to Will Ferrell’s character in the film.
Ferrell stars as discredited has-been scientist Dr. Rick Marshall. He has written a book on “quantum paleontology.” This new branch of science is a way to explore and find energy sources in an alternate dimension in which past, present and future mix. In an appearance on The Today Show, Matt Lauer reports that respectable scientists think Marshall’s ideas are mad. Like who? ” Marshall asks. “Stephen Hawking,” Lauer replies. Marshall goes nuclear: “You promised you wouldn’t mention that!”
Dr. Marshall is a Power of Reason character like scientists Dr. John Nash (Beautiful Mind) Dr. Gregory House (House), Dexter Morgan (Dexter) or Mr. Spock (Star Trek). Marshall is an expert in his field, even if it is a seemingly crack-pot area of inquiry.
Power of Reason characters tend to be portrayed as extremely intelligent. Dr. Marshall doesn’t have the usual penetrating insight, incisive wit and intellectual firepower present in those other character examples. What’s the lesson here?
Intelligence, like altruism or the capacity for evil, exists on a continuum in each Character Type. Any character, regardless of type, can be an idiot, of average intelligence or a genius. Any character, regardless of type, can be a force for good, apathetic or outright evil.
Seemingly idiotic or “mad” Power of Reason characters, like Dr. Rich Marshall, are often crack-pots whose theories just happen to be right. These characters usually work alone in a field no one is interested in, has dismissed, is discredited or is of dubious value. In Marshall’s case his social awkwardness and inability to read the subtleties of social or cultural situations combined with his arrogance and superior attitude (typical Power of Reason problems) tend to make him look even less intelligent than he is (and provides much of the humor in the film).
On the drama/horror side, Dr Jekyll (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) is another Power of Reason character. He works alone in his lab mixing up chemical cocktails that will help him explore the nature of evil. He is warned against pursuing such a “mad” area of inquiry. Likewise, Dr. Frankenstein (Frankenstein) works alone on theories about the origin and transferability of human life. His work is held in contempt, distaste and ridicule by other scientists of the day.
When pressed about his “mad” ideas, Dr. Frankestein explains: “Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”
Issues concerning the boundaries of sanity, the limits of order or of reason, the genesis of evil, the ever-present potential of chaos of time or nature and the perils of technology are very much at the center of all Power of Reason films, even comedic ones.
The Power of Reason eBook explains these characters in great detail. It discusses how all the character examples above are alike and how they are made distinctive or different.
I had an interesting question forwarded by a reader on FaceBook. I described John Connor (Christian Bale) in Terminator Salvation as a Power of Conscience character. Power of Conscience characters are most deeply concerned about rightness, fairness and the higher duty involved in anything they do. (See Conscience Blog Posts). The question was: Aren’t all characters to some degree “fair.”
The answer of course is, yes! But the key factor is: How does that particular Character Type define “fair.” That definition varies widely. Each Character Type views the concept of fairness very differently and acts accordingly. Let’s look at Terminator Salvation and Star Trek for examples.
A Power of Conscience character (John Connor in Terminator Salvation) values doing good, the higher duty and moral correctness most highly. Fairness for this character is doing right by others. Fairness means taking the moral high ground in any decision.
A Power of Idealism character (Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation and James T. Kirk in Star Trek) values individuality, personal excellence and authenticity most highly. Fairness for this character is persevering the unique rights of the individual. Fairness means allowing each person to decide his or her personal destiny according to one’s own uniqueness and standards of excellence (even if the individual choice rebels against the rules, norms or morals of society).
A Power of Reason character (Spock in Star Trek) values objectivity, expertise and rationality most highly. Fairness for this character is deciding purely according to the facts and not being swayed by emotion. Fairness means looking at a situation objectively and proceeding logically (even if that decision is personally or socially painful).
A Power of Will character (Nero in Star Trek) values strength, power and territory most highly. Fairness for this character is what preserves the strong, culls the weak and decisively leads the pack. Fairness is the law of the jungle and survival of the fittest. Fairness means the biggest most powerful dog wins. (“Win or die there is no compromise”).
These are four very different ways of looking at and defining “fairness.” Each of these characters would make a very different determination about what is fair and would take very different actions given exactly the same set of circumstances.
It is very tempting, individually, to believe that everyone views “fairness” exactly as “I” do. In fact, different Character Types view philosophical concepts like fairness, love and social or personal responsibility very differently. They each have very distinct ideas about how the world works and very specific ideas about what is owed to the self and to others. It is this distinctiveness which will clarify, sharpen and set your characters apart from general stereotypes when you are clear about your character’s type.
Terminator Salvation is a solid satisfying summer hit. It’s also a great illustration of the difference between a Power of Idealism character, Marcus Wright (played by Sam Worthington) and a Power of Conscience character, John Connor (played by Christian Bale). Although both men (and both Character Types) are honorable, how each views honor is different. Each man’s emotional journey therefore is distinct.
We first meet a morose Marcus Wright on death row. Dr Serena Kogan (played by Helena Bonham Carter), a researcher who is dying of cancer, makes a passionate appeal to him to be part of a larger project or greater vision. Marcus agrees to “sell” his body to science for a kiss. He kisses Dr. Kogan deeply and says, “So that’s what death tastes like.” This doomed romantic moment is exactly what appeals to and defines a Power of Idealism character.
When Marcus awakes decades later, he finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by a vicious, relentless, red-eyed mechanical army churning through the remains of human-kind. Marcus begins a long tortuous journey to discover who and what he is and how he fits into this horrifying new world.
Power of Idealism characters are most deeply concerned about authenticity, personal identity and the individual vs. society. These characters strive to find their place in the world— Who am I and where do I fit in?— while being acknowledged as unique, special and one-of-a-kind.
When Marcus discovers his extraordinary but horrific nature, he rebels. Dr. Kogan tells him he was designed for a unique purpose and that there is only one of him. He is indeed one-of-a-kind. Marcus refuses to be defined by his circumstance or situation. He will not submit to a larger crushing authority or an inescapable technological imperative. He will define himself.
In true Power of Idealism fashion, Marcus defines himself and becomes the stuff of legend through sacrifice. What makes him human is his heart— both metaphorically and literally. He sacrifices his heart so that the Resistance might live. It reminded me of one of the Psalms: “I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me.” Marcus Wright’s heart melts and he pours his life into John Connor and the hope of the Resistance.
We meet John Connor as the voice and moral authority of those fighting against the machines. At the climax of the movie, the larger Resistance leadership argues to strike a death blow against Skynet when Skynet’s defenses are down. John refuses to do so because such an attack would result in the deaths of masses of human prisoners trapped inside Skynet’s fortress city. John argues that if the Resistance fights with the same cold calculation as the machines– they are no better than machines.
Power of Conscience characters are most deeply concerned about rightness, fairness and the higher duty involved in anything they do. Although he wants desperately to end the war, John is not willing to do so at the expense of what he believes is mankind’s higher value of respecting human life. No one is expendable. All human life is precious. He tells those under his command to stand down. They respect John’s moral vision and choose to obey.
Power of Conscience characters believe they are their brother’s keeper. They feel responsible for the greater good and for doing good. These characters wrestle with how far they should go in seeking justice and fairness for others or in standing up against evil. They worry about and struggle with what is the higher duty and what exactly is required of them in response.
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