Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Screenplay Review - Baltimore

Genre: Period/Historical
Premise: Only twice in history has a city in the continental United States been attacked by a foreign enemy.  September 11 was one.  This is the other.
About: As most of you know, today's writer (actually co-writer), Chris Terrio, wrote my most recent Top 25 entry, The Ends Of The Earth.  Obviously, after reading that, I had to check if I had any other scripts of his.  I ended up finding Baltimore, which actually made the 2007 Black List.  I don't know much about the co-writer, Jesse Lichtenstein, but I think he works primarily as an editor and production designer.
Writers: Chris Terrio and Jesse Lichtenstein
Details: 123 pages (June 07 revision)

This is why I don't like reading historical scripts.  They make me feel stupid!  And guilty.  I didn't know anything about the War of 1812.  I mean I'd heard of "The War of 1812" of course, but I always assumed it had to do with Indians or Mexico or something.  The Alamo maybe?  Or did we fight Canada?  Have we ever warred with Canada?

But at the same time it was kinda cool.  An entire American war I didn't know about?  Neat.  I mean, not neat for the people who died in it of course.  But neat to read about.  But that is the question, isn't it?  Was Baltimore worth reading about?  

Sam Smith is a Maryland Senator who's known as the resident worrywart.  I guess during that time, the British would line ships up off the U.S. Coast to block goods from getting through.  Apparently, the U.S. was okay with this.  We sit in on a Cabinet meeting early in the script and everyone's shrugging their shoulders going, "Oh, it's just those wily Brits again.  They'll get bored."  

Well Sam thinks there's something more to this ship-blocking scam.  He thinks the Brits are planning an attack - on HIS city, Baltimore.  Which there's no way he's going to let happen.  But everyone he tells just rolls their eyes.  The sky is always falling with Sam.  Pay him no mind.

So Sam goes home to do what all of us do when we're pissed: complain to his wife.  And it's here where we learn a little more about ole Sammy.  He lost a son to disease a few years back and his only other son is embarrassed to show his face around town because he's seen as "that crazy senator's son."  

Except Sam's not crazy.  The British do attack, but not where he thought they would.  Why conquer the stomach when you can go for the heart!?  Yup, the British march on Washington D.C.  This move is so unexpected that NOBODY is waiting for them.  Within minutes of entering the city, they're burning it to ashes.  And there's nobody to do anything about it.

In fact, the imbeciles in the Cabinet continue to shrug their shoulders and even consider surrendering!  Gosh, our early leaders suck.  But not Sam.  He knows that the British will eventually have to take Baltimore in order to win the key port which will allow the British to properly invade.  So in a series of clever moves, Sam anoints himself as Baltimore's military commander, before rounding up an army to defend against the British attack.  

But it's looking bad.  At the time, the British had the most sophisticated and technologically advanced military in history.  And they'd sent their their most badass unit.  Not only that, but Baltimore would be squeezed on two sides - one side by the soldiers and the other by the British ships off the coast.  And the Americans would have to do it with a bunch of farmers with pitchforks and squirrel-shooters.  Well, at least according to this screenplay that is.  :)

I don't know what it was about this script but it just didn't click with me.  I know I was really tired when I read it but that shouldn't matter.  I've been on the verge of collapsing while opening a screenplay before it grabbed hold of me so fast I didn't blink for two hours.  But yeah, these period pieces are tough to read when you're tired.  No matter how you slice it, you do feel *a little* like you're reading a history book.

With that said, there was some good stuff here.  I liked the way the writers established Sam as this "clown" from the Cabinet's point-of-view.  Nobody's paying him any attention, which gets us all stirred up.  This is our guy!  This is the person taking us through the story.  We don't want to see him get ignored and laughed at.  So we're pissed.  And that makes us want to stick around because we can't wait to see when he's right.  Never underestimate the power of an audience wanting to see the "I told you so" moment.

The structure was pretty good too.  For an American historical script, there's little if any of those script-killing scenes with wigged bureaucrats monologuing about morals and liberty and freedom and politics (I'm looking squarely at you, Anthony Hopkins scene in Amistad).  This was all about the invasion, sort of like a Star Wars film via 19th Century America, if that's possible.

In fact, as if to support this point, one of the stranger things about the script is that it has all these Star Wars lines in it.  For example, the evil British commander says to his frustrated American spies at one point, "Perhaps you think you're being treated unfairly?" Which is a carbon copy line from The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader says to Lando.  There were like half-a-dozen of these.  I don't know if they were on purpose or by accident but it was weird.

But yeah, the script was always moving.  At first Sam's trying to convince the Cabinet to prepare a defense.  Then the British storm Washington.  Then Sam builds up an army and prepares for a defense. And then we have the actual battle.  So there's very little down-time, which I found impressive in this kind of story.

And yet I still felt detached during it.  I rooted for Sam for the reasons I mentioned above, but we get this sort of half-thought-through storyline with him and his son that was sooooo generic.  "I don't like daddy.  Daddy doesn't like me."  Blah blah blah.  Terrio's obviously come a long way since then as the relationship between Ernest and Lydie in The Ends Of The Earth is one of the most complicated and intriguing I've ever read.

I think a lot of writers make this mistake actually.  They think that simply making two people not like each other constitutes a compelling relationship.  Not so.  You have to figure out WHY they don't like each other and how that contentious relationship evolved and what kinds of events shaped it (there's usually never just one) and see if you can find irony or uniqueness in that conflict.  I mean when Ernest falls in love with the one person in the world he can't fall in love with - that's a compelling relationship.  Having to make the decision to publicly marry her, with all the scorn that would bring - that's a compelling situation.  "Daddy and I don't get along" is too generic and therefore not compelling at all.  

So I'm torn here.  I mean yeah, there were little problems in Baltimore.  But overall, there's more good than bad.  And yet, I just couldn't get into it.  Therefore, the only thing I can do is give it a "wasn't for me."  

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn't for me.
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The "Bully Effect."  We'll always sympathize with a character who gets bullied.  So early on, Sam gets laughed at by the entire Cabinet for thinking the British will attack.  Not surprisingly, that's the moment where we truly bond with him.  If you want the reader to like your character, showing him get bullied, laughed at, or pushed around, is a surprisingly easy way to do it.