Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Bridge

Genre: Biopic
Premise: The story of how Washington Roebling built the Brooklyn Bridge.
About: You might know Tomasi, writer of “The Bridge,” from all his comic book work. He started as an editor at DC in 1993, working on Green Lantern and Batman. A decade later, he was promoted to Senior Editor. A few years after that, Tomasi left his post to pursue a writing career, working on such titles as “Green Lantern Corps,” “Outsiders,” and “Nightwing.” During that time, he also wrote a screenplay titled, “The Bridge,” that ended up on the 2005 Black List. Whenever I passed over the synopsis, I was always intrigued. I’m not a huge biopic guy (as we all know) but I love stories about impossible pursuits, and there aren’t many pursuits that seemed more impossible than the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was the largest ever conceived bridge at the time by 50%, and took thirteen years to complete.
Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Details: 123 pages (undated)

As I pushed through the first 30 pages of “The Bridge,” one script kept coming to mind: “The Muppet Man.” Now if you go back to my review of that script, you’ll remember I had a big problem with the first couple of acts, that problem being I felt like I was reading a history book, that important information and events were being provided, but not dramatized. Sure, we were learning all about Jim Henson, but the education wasn’t nearly as entertaining as it could’ve been. That’s the same way I felt here. We learn about Washington as a child. We see him in the Civil War. We watch him interact with his father. But outside of some rare flashes, there's something too straightforward about it all. Once again, I felt like I was cracking open the history books. However, this script really finds its groove at the midway point, and like Christopher Weeke's script, entertains in its own way, turning a simple life into a complex and sometimes impossible journey.

Back in the late 19th Century, John Roebling was one of the premiere bridge builders in the world. He had built some of the biggest bridges in the United States. So when New York wanted to do the unthinkable and build a bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn, Roebling was the first engineer they called. The assignment would be the most difficult in history, requiring skills and methods that, up until this point, had not even been attempted. In many ways, it would be just as much of an experiment as it would be a job.

Unfortunately, John had his foot crushed in a boat accident and died after refusing to have it amputated (thus incurring a severe infection). With construction on the biggest bridge in history not even yet begun, the committee had to make the impossible choice of finding a replacement to complete John’s vision, even though his vision was revolutionary to the point where others might not understand it. Did they start over? Did they scrap the project? With heavy reservations, they went with plan C, hiring John’s son Washington, to realize his father’s vision. Although young, Washington had studied under his father for years and was the most familiar with the design his father had created.

“The Bridge” is about Washington’s pursuit to get something done that, for every reason in the world, couldn’t be done. It’s about how impossible pursuits can break a man down, both mentally and physically, about never compromising your morals and methods, and most of all, about never giving up. And for those reasons, it’s a pretty damn good story.

Once we get past those first 50 pages, which are plagued by that “history text” feel, the building of the bridge begins. And that’s where the story really takes off. I think the moment I got roped in was when I realized just how fucking crazy building a bridge is. Particularly with 19th century technology! One of the things they had to do was use a relatively new method of digging with huge inflatable structures called “caissons,” which would stretch from the surface to the sea floor, blocking out the water, which allowed the workers to dig into the rocks sans scuba gear. In addition to this method being extremely dangerous (a sudden fire or flood could kill everyone instantly) nobody knew about decompression sickness back then. So men were climbing up and down constantly through sea level, and terribly sick and dying as a result. And nobody understood why. And that was just the first of many obstacles Washington had to find solutions for.

On top of the physical building of the bridge, it’s 19th century New York, so of course every politician in town is angling in pursuit of their own interests. So you had ferry businesses paying politicians to try to scrap the bridge. You had steel companies paying committee members to choose their steel for the bridge. You had a bridge being built through multiple terms of mayors and committee members, each elected official posing their own unique challenges for getting the bridge finished. Because of all these unforeseeable problems, what started off as a 5 year endeavor, turned into a 13 year ordeal.

But where the script really shines is in the story of Washington himself, who became so physically ill because of the decompression sickness and overwhelming requirements of the job, that he eventually couldn’t be on site anymore. He retired back to his house, where he observed and advised the building of the bridge from his window through a telescope! The fact that the builder of the biggest bridge in history was doing so from his living room window was, not surprisingly, quite controversial at the time.

Much like The Muppet Man, which has a great third act, this script also has a great finale. If you don’t tear up when Washington Roebling, beaten down and crippled after 13 years of the hardest work any man has ever had to endure in a lifetime, walks across his bridge for the first time, well then dammit, you don’t have a soul.

Check this one out. (fun fact: The reason that the Brooklyn Bridge still stands over 130 years after it was built, while every other bridge from that time has been destroyed, is because Washington accidentally overestimated how strong it had to be, building a bridge 6 times stronger than is required by today's standards)

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I’ll start with something technical, since I rarely use this section to do so. I’ve noticed, after reading as many scripts as I have, that when you’re jumping forward in time a lot, simply telling us the current year isn’t enough. Because we don’t remember what the past year you listed was. It was 20 pages ago. So when you write, “1863,” on page 17. Then “1871” on page 37, I don’t know how much time has passed unless I begrudgingly go searching back through the script to find the previous year. A better option, unless the previous year you listed was a few pages ago, is to maybe put in parenthesis “1871 (8 years later).” That way, I immediately know how many years have passed. May seem trivial but it’s a big difference if 2 years have passed as opposed to, say, 7.

But the big lesson here is obstacles. The best stories provide a character with a strong goal, and then throw obstacles at that character in his pursuit of that goal. The obstacle has the effect on the reader of, “Oh no. He's screwed! There's no possible way he can beat this!" "The Bridge" has building methods that don’t work, impossible delays, not enough money, politicians trying to kick our hero off the project, ill-health, fires, death, everything you can imagine. 12 years into the building of the bridge, the mayor of New York tried to say Washington was mentally unfit to finish the bridge, recommending a new engineer come on. At that moment I practically burst out of my chair. Are you fucking kidding! After 12 years he’s not going to get to finish his bridge! How’s he going to beat this?? That’s the power of the obstacle.