Avoiding Turbulence Leads to Plot Trouble

Lisa Rosenberg July 19, 2011

Many films open well, engaging our senses and sympathies, piquing our imaginations, making us hungry for more. But some fall short of the expectations they create: that their creative constructs will take us on a mind-expanding journey, and that the longings and torments of their characters will play out in a cathartic resolution. They may lose track of their characters’ troubles or of the dramatic tenet that their characters’ lives be fundamentally impacted by the action of the film. In doing so, such films pull their punches, cutting short the lasting impact they might have made on their audiences.

Bride Flight (director Ben Sombogaart, writer Marieke van der Pol, 2008), a 1950s era romantic drama recently released in the States, begins on a flight to New Zealand following Holland’s World War II devastation, where Ada, Marjorie and Esther, three young Dutch women promised as war brides, meet each other and Frank, a young man headed to New Zealand to start a farm. Beautifully photographed and grounded in the restrictive mores of the time, the story is rife with the high drama of deep loss, great need, and forced pretense.

Marjorie, upbeat and sensible, can’t wait for married life. Esther, Jewish and bold, will soon ditch her Jewish fiancée because she can’t get past the horrific history that fuels the need to reconstitute the Jewish people. Frank, dashing and confident, and Ada, innocent and lovely, are also haunted—he, by the loss of his family to the war, and she by the fact that she indulged in “mercy sex” in Holland and now, pregnant, is enroute to marry a repressive man she does not even like. Frank and Ada fall for each other on sight, and their attraction nearly ignites before they land and Ada is whisked away in the back of a pick-up truck, while the minister of her husband-to-be rides in the sheltered cab.

As the story continues, these characters’ lives become increasingly entangled. When an ectopic pregnancy destroys Marjorie’s dreams of a big family, Esther comes to her with an unwanted pregnancy, and a secret is born that will plague both women. Ada relieves her loveless marriage for a decade by maintaining a covert correspondence with Frank, until her enraged husband discovers it.

The hitch is that the dramatic build that should take us just to the middle of the story actually consumes almost the entire piece. Ada flees her husband for a passionate few days with Frank, but is forced back to her prison of a life in order to keep her children. Marjorie abruptly moves with her husband and child (Esther’s son) back to Holland to escape Esther’s cloying need for the boy.

But instead of allowing the messy emotional ramifications of all of these choices and events to continue to develop onscreen, the story skips to the arrival of the women many years later at Frank’s funeral, where the past feels miraculously distant and benign, and all is forgiven without a fight. In not exploring the repercussions of its wrenching choices, the story has asked key questions that we never see answered, especially the core question: What does it mean to live a lie, or a series of lies? The watered-down conclusion is no replacement for seeing the characters through their turbulent lives to a truer finish.

Inception (writer/director Christopher Nolan, 2010) opens with grand ambitions: an intricate psychological construct, spectacular visuals and a main character, Cobb, who is dogged by past sins that have robbed him of a personal life. The set-up—that Cobb is a psychological meddler and thief who can access the minds of others through dreams—is intriguing enough, but his character is also rendered weightier because of the personal tragedy that keeps him on the run and away from his children, whom he desperately wants to reclaim.

The film’s visuals take us on a dazzling run into the lands of manipulated dreams, where whole cityscapes and mountains materialize and crumble at an instant, and characters are often not real—they are instead projections of the psyche—but can appear to behave as deadly combatants nonetheless. But as the action devolves into an increasingly elaborate and repetitive series of chase and shoot scenes, it falls short of the promise to take the viewer on a scarier ride.

This road not taken would be the journey of losing oneself through one or another shifting door to the unconscious, or perhaps inside the unconscious mind of someone else, whose own twists and turns may prove lethal to the sanity of the invader. The film provides ample physical suggestions of such disorientation—gravity shifts, buildings collapsing, pursuers emerging out of every crevice—but not much of the mighty psychological struggle that such disorientation would seem to invoke in the characters.

The underlying story thread that excavates Cobb’s back story—his “visits” within his own psyche to his late wife, a siren who committed suicide and repeatedly entices him to do the same—offers the story’s best chance to understand what drives and gnaws at him. Late in the story, we learn that her suicide resulted from Cobb having used her as a lab rat to test and perfect his powers of psychological manipulation. She jumped from a building she thought was only an illusion.

Once this truth is in play, we have a piece of the story that casts a damning light on Cobb’s actions throughout, especially his willingness to use anyone and anything, while trying to outrun the guilt he needs to face. It offers a way to integrate the perils of the main character’s personal journey with those of his hazardous professional one. But at this point, the story thread is largely dropped without further exploration. Because this piece of the story remains ignored in the film’s resolution, except to seemingly allow Cobb to outrun his wife’s memory at last, it undermines the gifts the rest of the film might have offered. Cobb can’t legitimately earn a catharsis in the end, because some of the most important doors to his subconscious demons have been forced shut.

Charlie Wilson’s War (director Mike Nichols, writer Aaron Sorkin, 2007), based on the nonfiction book by George Crile, presents an amiable tale of an otherwise undistinguished Texas Congressman, whose secret dealings in the 1980s with foreign nationals, aided by a disgruntled CIA agent, enabled him to arm the Afghan mujahedeen to fight the occupying Soviet forces—with weapons that they would later turn on American forces. The script frames a remarkable true story as an elaborate caper, a lark involving, among many surprising players, a wealthy, conservative, Bible-thumping female supporter of Wilson’s, who invokes Christian principles and twists many influential arms as she exhorts him to meddle in international affairs.

The dialogue is witty and ascerbic, and the story includes a startling primer of how readily back-end deals are made, not only in the halls of Congress, but with representatives of nations that would seem to have few shared interests with the U.S. Wilson is portrayed as enthusiastic, charming, and determined. The film entertains, and especially fine is Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of the frustrated, blunt, wardrobe-challenged CIA agent, Gust Avrakotos.

What’s missing, however, is his Wilson’s personal investment in the potential consequences of his actions. He glides along without a care because he has so little to lose and nothing in the situation that will force him to grow. In the end, the story feels uncomfortably lightweight for the subject matter and its real-world consequences. It doesn’t reach the depth of such earlier satiric political works as a catch-22, and doesn’t make us care enough. It is again a surprising but ultimately diminished story, filled with potential dramatic richness but miserly in its final take for the viewer. To put it simply, the story pulls its punches.

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