AFI Part 2 – Substance Issues
As I tell my students, you can learn a lot from stories that don’t work well. I was reminded of that in two of three other films I saw at the AFI Fest film festival. So many elements go into a well-told narrative that it can feel impossible to get it right when writing.
Two main questions guide me when I’m at work: am I being truthful in the scene, and where’s the next turn? This doesn’t mean the magic will always happen. Taking in the many elements of narrative, including motivation, character goals, rising action, and everything else, the story still may not come together. But sometimes it does.
As I moved up the escalator from the underground parking lot, heading for Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, two young men on the stairs ahead of me looked at the festival pass I wore around my neck, and one in a suit asked, “Are you a filmmaker?”
“No. I’m just seeing the movies.” I figured he asked perhaps because he was in the business, so I said, “Are you?”
He said, “My dad’s a producer. I’m Jack Abramoff’s son.” I shook his hand and his friend’s and tried to remember why the name Jack Abramoff was familiar.
I soon learned when I met up with my own son and we attended the gala premiere of Casino Jack, directed by George Hickenlooper. It’s the story of the rise and fall of Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Yes, Abramoff produced some films along the way, but he’s best known for lobbying for a number of Indian casinos and charging the tribes tens of millions of dollars. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to three felony counts of defrauding American Indians and to corrupting public officials and was sentenced to six years in Federal prison. He’ll be released next month.
Although Abramoff isn’t the producer of this film, he may as well have been for the positive spin on the man. Kevin Spacey imbues Abramoff with a love for making things happen and making friends of influential politicians, while pushing the boundaries of what he does for clients, legislators, and himself. As a drama, however, Hickenlooper offers very little character arc or reflection by the protagonist.
At one point Abramoff’s wife, Pam, played by Kelly Preston, achingly asks why the hell did he do what he did and why doesn’t he confess? “Maybe I should,” Abramoff says. That’s the closest he gets to exploring his own motives.
Later in a holding tank when he’s first arrested, Abramoff speaks with a muscled, tattooed criminal named Snake who asks Abramoff why is he there. Abramoff says he doesn’t know, and he looks puzzled. After all, he’s the good guy. I never felt any sympathy or empathy for him.
Director Hickenlooper was fascinated by politics as shown in his documentary ‘Hick’ Town about his cousin John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver during the 2008 Democratic national convention. In Casino Jack, he’s mainly interested in showing our political system as highly flawed, and Abramoff’s curious contradictions suffer. I wanted to know what drove the guy. How did Abramoff’s supposedly deep religious beliefs and love of his family allow him to get involved not only in politics but also in a sleazy casino boat operation that betrayed his deeper values, his business connections, and his family?
This is rich territory, the kind Shakespeare mined in King Lear, yet Hickenlooper shows Abramoff was simply misled by his associate into overcharging. Later Abramoff, from the movie’s point of view, was a sacrificial pawn squashed ruthlessly by politicians who he had helped—and by John McCain whom he’d earlier outmaneuvered. The boat thing? Just a bad idea.
One can’t help wonder what screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) or Peter Morgan (The Queen) might have done with the story, parsing the morality and thinking behind Abramoff’s moves. Then again, maybe screenwriter Norman Snider was stuck. Most likely Abramoff had no soul searching.
There is a satiric tone to many of the scenes, especially when Jon Lovitz as Adam Kidan appears. What people do under pressure can indeed be funny. Still, it would have been interesting to see Abramoff in his darker private moments. In fact, this is what puzzles me most about the film. If Abramoff’s motivations and character arc weren’t of primary concern, then who is the film for? It’s not a young person’s film.
As we came out of the theatre, headed for the reception at the Roosevelt Hotel, a Jewish character actor I’d recognized was chatting with his wife on the corner. I asked if he liked the movie, and his response was, “In no way did Kevin Spacey make a convincing Orthodox Jew. No way.” Jon Lovitz at the "Casino Jack" reception in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel
The Princess of Montpensier
To see foreign films in a film festival is part of the fun because such movies are not likely to be distributed in America. Then again, The Princess of Montpensier has the qualities that a distributor might want. It’s a huge period piece with lush production values, taking place in France’s 16th-century War of Religion. It is directed by the venerated Bernard Tavernier, and it’s a grand love story involving multiple suitors of a beautiful young woman with heart and passion.
All in all, it’s pleasant. However, it unspools at more than two hours and should probably be cut to 100 minutes. Take out all the horse galloping, overly extended yearning looks, the battle scenes that go on too long, and the princess forever waiting, and this might become a great film.
In other words, pacing is critical. It’s what I’m working on the most in the novel I’m writing. In this case, the audience is most often ahead of the story, so what happens is no surprise. Pacing can improve that.
There’s more! It’ll be in the upcoming Part 3.
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