How do movies based on real events, such as "The Social Network," "Secretariat" and "Fair Game," wrestle with a preordained ending?
Early on in “127 Hours,” which opens in Seattle-area theaters on Nov. 19, James Franco, who has fallen into a canyon and stands awkwardly trapped with one arm beneath a boulder, pulls out a cheap pocket tool, a multiuse thingamajig with a particularly dull knife. He pokes tentatively at his right arm with the rounded edge. He never breaks the skin, though. Not yet, he doesn’t. The audience recoils anyway.
Which, in an odd way, feels reminiscent of the opening moments in “Secretariat”: We hear Diane Lane’s smooth, crisp voice reading from the Book of Job as we watch a magnificent animal being loaded into a starting gate, its ears twitching, its nostrils flaring.
Which itself recalls, to a degree, a very different moment, early in “The Social Network”: Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg sits with his lawyer across a table from his best friend and lawyer. Nobody is smiling.
How do these scenes connect? Each hints at a future.
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Then there’s “Fair Game,” which opened Friday, which, in a nutshell, is the Valerie-Plame-Joe-Wilson-leaked- CIA-spy-identity tale. Director Doug Liman makes a curious decision: Rather than telegraph many details of the outcome, an outcome we knew we would get before entering the theater, he takes the “All the President’s Men” route and simply offers the story, piece by piece. Relatively speaking, compared with “Social Network,” “127 Hours” or “Secretariat,” “Fair Game” seems to play out in real time.
And raises a question: How do movies based on real events wrestle with a preordained ending?
Spoiler alert: If you want to go into these films (figuratively) in the dark, you might want to stop reading now.
What’s the story? Plame-gate. The White House, in retaliation for a New York Times editorial written by Plame’s husband that dismisses claims that Iraq was trying to buy uranium, leaks Valerie Plame’s identity: CIA operative.
Are the details well known? The details of the scandal, of course. Beyond that, not really.
How does the film handle the audience’s awareness of its inevitable ending? Director Liman said the decision was made early on to do a lot of original reporting about Plame and “focus on the part of Valerie’s story that wasn’t known, the part that was still classified, and that became the bulk of the story. People forget, but she swore an oath, so when all this stuff happened, she could not talk about things. She could not say what she was doing on a day-to-day basis.” He said he started with the outcome, then worked backward.
Is there ever a feeling that we’ll get something other than the ending we’re expecting? No, but then there are no winks at that ending either.
‘The Social Network’
What’s the story? Mark Zuckerberg creates Facebook. Or does he? Either way, the result is many lost friends and litigious Harvard classmates.
Are the details well known? Yes, the vague outline.
How does the film handle the audience’s awareness of its inevitable ending? By being upfront. By framing Facebook’s birth as a business thriller by way of a character sketch — a thriller less reliant on a different kind of cliffhanger: How many friends will Zuckerberg be left with? Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher tinker with time, switching between Zuckerberg working on Facebook and the cold legalities that followed; Jesse Eisenberg’s motor-mouth delivery feels like an act of foreshadowing, so glib and devoid of niceties that you just know harsh ramifications will be inevitable. They also tinker with the details, to great effect: “I dramatized the fact that there were conflicting stories,” Sorkin told New York magazine — leaving the audience not with just an expected outcome but an argumentative one.
Is there ever a feeling that we’ll get something other than the ending we’re expecting? If you really wondered, you must be on Friendster.
What’s the story? In 2003, Aron Ralston, a young but experienced climber, fell into a canyon in Utah and was trapped beneath a boulder for more than five days with little water. He cut off his right arm to escape (and later wrote a memoir).
Are the details well known? Somewhat. (And if you’re not aware of Ralston’s story, the film’s marketing plays up its true-life angle.)
How does the film handle the audience’s awareness of its inevitable ending? The title screen, “127 Hours,” doesn’t come up until the moment Ralston is trapped. Which creates a clock in your head. Also, there’s a lot of foreshadowing — a dripping faucet, a last-minute grab of a second bottle of Gatorade — some of it subtle, some not so much. The suspense is there; it’s just not focused on his arm.
Is there ever a feeling that we’ll get something other than the ending we’re expecting? Frequently. Or at least, the feeling that perhaps it didn’t play out exactly as you heard.
What’s the story? In 1973, 3-year old Secretariat wins the first Triple Crown in 25 years, setting records that remain unbroken.
Are the details well known? Yes. (And our collective awareness of the history of uplifting sports movie does it no favors.)
How does the film handle the audience’s awareness of its inevitable ending? In two ways: No. 1, by shifting the story’s focus to Diane Lane’s Denver housewife, who inherits a fledgling horse, then lets her family relationships suffer. No. 2, with races so involving the traditional mechanics of suspense simply take over.
Is there ever a feeling that we’ll get something other than the ending we’re expecting? The first scene quotes biblical prophesy. So, uh, no.