Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Screenplay Review - The General

Genre: Historical/Action
Premise: George Washington must lead a dying army to fend off a band of British mercenaries intent on destroying America.
About: A couple of interesting things about this one.  First of all, Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) is set to direct it.  Now THAT could be interesting.  Also, the writers here are traditionally comedy writers.  Their credits include the Olsen Twin classic (heh heh), New York Minute, the college comedy, Accepted, and I believe they wrote the original spec for the tonally strange Tower Heist.
Writers: Adam Cooper and Bill Collage
Details: 115 pages

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  Scripts about the birth of America are boring.  I don't know if it's the cheesy wigs.  I don't know if it's the fluffy clothes.  But there's something about Washington and Jefferson and Adams that just screams...BORING!  There, I said it.  I let the bayonet out of the bag.  But it's true!  Lots of speeches about happiness and liberty.  Declarations of independence.  Hey, it's all great for history.  But for entertainment purposes, I'd rather watch a weeping willow grow.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that we, as Americans, hold these men up as flawless heroes.  Washington couldn't even tell a lie!  But if you want us to care about your characters, you HAVE to show us their flaws.  Flaws are what make them real.  Nobody's perfect.  And nobody should want to be perfect.  Perfect people are BORING!

So the only way anyone's going to write a good story about this period is if they dare to challenge our heroes.  They have to stop idealizing them and show us the things that made them human.  Well, we finally have a script for that.

When we meet 46 year old George Washington in The General, he is not yet the president we know.  He's the Commander In Chief of the American army.  And the American Army has their hands full.  They've lost Manhattan to the British, and they're losing many more territories by the day.

Worst of all, the army's about to get a lot smaller.  They only have like 30,000 troops as it is, and many of those are the walking wounded.  But higher on the Suck Chart is the fact that the deadline on those soldiers is running out.  Their tour of duty is about to end.

So instead of going out there and fighting battles, which is what Washington wants to be doing, he's stuck touring the nation, begging Congress and rich people for money to keep the defenses strong.  It's not going well.  Many people are just like, "Fuck it, let the British have their country back and let's just be done with this war."  Washington is becoming the lone voice in a sea of surrender.  This man will die trying to keep this nation free.

And he almost does.  When the British attack the very fort named after him, Washington is nearly killed, and carried away onto a row boat to begin what would easily be the best pre-20th-century chase scene ever put on film.  Washington and five men in a row boat are chased by three giant British war ships down the river.  This is the kind of shit you need if you're going to write a movie about the birth of our nation - shit that's actually cool!

Another great decision the writers made was not focusing on the redcoats themselves as the enemy, but the MERCENARIES the British hired to invade America.  Wait a minute.  Did I just say we have mercenaries in a Wigs and Whistles costume pic?  Yup!  A heartless German gun for hire named Johann Rall and his Hessian army do not play by the rules.  They pillage.  They burn.  They kill civilians.  They just don't care.  And these are the men Washington is going to lose his country to.

Whereas the British believe that securing land is the key to victory, Rall has a different opinion.  He believes you don't win this war until you kill "The Virginian," until you kill Washington himself.  So that's all Rall cares about - chasing Washington down and turning him into bayonet stew.  His obsession, however, becomes a little unhealthy, and in the process he becomes blind to the unthinkable - that Washington might actually come after him first.

LOTS of cool things about this one.  Where do I start.  First, the character flaws!  Yes, Washington has some actual flaws in this screenplay.  He's arrogant.  He's stubborn.  He's even a little jealous.  This is not the Washington we know, and thank God.  Our first president becomes a million times more interesting under the guidance of Aronofsky.

It's got a great bad guy!  This Rall bastard is the real deal.  Such a great idea to focus on the mercenary angle.  Also loved how they made Rall's pursuit of Washington PERSONAL.  Remember, you're always looking to specify conflict.  If it's too general, the audience won't connect.  But if you focus on one person's obsession with taking down another person, now we have something clear to latch onto.  We actually care what's going to happen because what's happening is SPECIFIC.

The writers even brought in a ticking time bomb!  Yes, I loved the focus on the army's soldiers about to end their tour.  It instantly adds stakes.  You could feel that if Washington didn't make his move now, he'd lose his army and America was done for good.  I love when writers tackle these tough period subject matters but still fall back on sound storytelling principles.

Yet another smart move was constantly reminding the audience how impossible the odds were.  When you think of that time, you assume that with all our land and us defending our own country, that we were probably going to win no matter what.  But the writers constantly reminded us how many of our soldiers were injured, how low morale was, how amazing the Hessian army was.  This created a sense of desperation, of America being the huge underdog.  And who doesn't root for the underdog!?

There was really only one problem in the script for me, and that's when Washington and army camped out across the river from Rall for 30 pages.  I hate hate HATE when characters just sit around for extended periods of time in scripts.  It means they're not being active.  It means they're not doing anything.  Sitting around is almost ALWAYS boring unless you have a ton of conflict to deal with inside the protagonist's party.  And they didn't really have that here.

Also, the ending wasn't as good as I was hoping for.  I didn't really understand what Washington was trying to do.  He was trying to cross the Delaware River and take over a town called Trenton, but I had a hard time figuring out if Rall was there or someone else.

That was the thing.  The writers did such a good job setting up that personal showdown between Washington and Rall, that, in the end, that's all I really cared about.  It does happen but, I don't know.  It just felt like it could've been done better.

Still, this one surprised me.  And I think Aronofsky is going to do something really cool with it!

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

What I learned: Make it difficult for characters having an argument to have their argument.  Remember, straight up arguments with people yelling at each other are boring.  You need ways to make them different or interesting.  A great way to do this is to place people around the arguing party that prevent them from being able to argue.  In the opening scene of The General, Washington is raising money at an event when a congressman challenges his approach to the war.  Washington is furious and is readying to scream at the guy - but everywhere around him are potential financial contributors, so he must have his argument in a quiet restrained manner.  I just always find these confrontations more interesting than the blatant, "You scream at me, I scream at you" arguments.