Structuring the Facts

Turning real events into a working screen drama is a hell of a challenge. Whether it be a historical movie, biography or docu-drama, the smart screenwriter remains true to the spirit of the subject rather than an accurate report of the events. Plus: the principals of drama must dictate how the story is (re-)structured. UNITED 93 turns out a phenomenal success on all fronts.

Have you noticed the almost unnerving consensus that this is great movie? The SMH gave it 9/10 in yesterday’s paper, Roger Ebert hands out four stars, on IMDb it scores 7.8/10.

Who believes that the sheer magnitude of the events guaranteed the movie would work, should check out the TV dud “FLIGHT 93” and think again. I believe here’s a hell of a great script at work.

I watched Paul Greengrass’ movie last weekend and was truly impressed. When I had recovered from the emotional rollercoaster ride, something quite unexpected dawned upon me: this story boasts an amazingly conventional structure.

If you go with me that the protagonist in this movie is made up from the collective passengers of the flight, you’ll agree the film reflects the following 3-act structure:

– ACT ONE: Boarding until cruise altitude; hijackers take control.
– ACT TWO/A: Passengers try to notify the ground.
– REVERSAL: News of the WTC attacks – this is a suicide flight.
– ACT TWO/B: Passengers prepare to fight back.
– ACT THREE: Attack on the cockpit and crash.

An important subplot dominates the first half of the movie and intertwines with the First Act: Ben Sliney’s struggle at the FAA to stay in control of the US air space. Here I’d like to refer to my very first post and my structural note on SCHINDLER’S LIST and THE INSIDER. Both movies start with a major subplot, in the case of THE INSIDER possibly even a second protagonist. Once we’re in the Second Act of the subplot, the main story kicks in. Same here: we’re well into Ben Sliney’s Second Act before the action on board United 93 starts.

For all above reasons – and I know this one is hard to prove – I believe the movie would have worked fine for anybody completely unfamiliar with the 9/11 events. While we sit through the relatively uneventful First Act (if you don’t know what’s coming up), we empathise with Ben Sliney whose air traffic controllers are steadily losing control.

You may argue that this structure is a mere reflection of the facts. Don’t forget filmmakers have always made their own choices about how and which events are presented over the course of the available screentime.

With this subject matter I initially didn”t believe Greengrass really HAD to be this rigorous in his structuring for the movie to have an adequate effect. Still he did. Why? To create maximum empathy with the protagonists. And boy it pays off!

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