Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How a Movie Gave Me Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

The challenge that Alan J. Pakula faced in directing All the President's Men (1976) was that he had to craft a gripping political thriller out of a story devoid of spies, assassinations, bomb explosions and car chases. Pakula basically had a story about two guys talking on the phone and typing. But Pakula was working with two charming superstars, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, and he had a script from William Goldman that played up the tension and paranoia involved in two young reporters digging up facts to topple the leader of the most powerful government in the free world.

In 1957, at a time when people mostly went to the movies to see giant radioactive monsters or widescreen Technicolor epics, Sidney Lumet had to turn Twelve Angry Men into a spellbinding courthouse drama without relying on a single reliable dramatic device. The script did not include a hysterically sobbing mother or a shocking surprise witness. It did not include a cantankerous judge banging his gavel to declare a passionate defense attorney in contempt of court. It did not have a last-minute confession dragged out of a guilt-wracked witness during a heated cross-examination. Instead, Lumet had twelve tired, sweaty, rumpled jurors gathered around a conference table inside the sort of drab room that could only be found in a government building. But Lumet had as his hero the legendary actor Henry Fonda, who audiences had come to regard as noble, intelligent and true. Fonda expressed doubts that the man on trial was guilty of murder and the audience was willing to go along with his cautious examination of the evidence to assure that an innocent man didn't go to the electric chair. Drama came out of the complexity of the jurors' personalites and the deep conflict and prejudices that came from the jurors' tense interactions. Lumet kept the pacing taut and he adjusted lens and camera angles to make the room seem increasingly claustrophobic.

I could not help but be reminded of All the President's Men and Twelve Angry Men as I was watching The Social Network, a film that mostly consists of characters staring at computer monitors (sometimes while listening to music on headphones) and characters gathered around a conference table to come to a legal finding. The characters are not charming, sympathetic or complex. Henry Fonda, noble, intelligent and true, is not present to lead the audience to a just outcome. In place of Fonda, we are presented with a sour-faced, arrogant jerk as the film's protagonist. He hardly says much and, when he does, it is a snarky remark. I kept wanting one of the other characters to beat him with a sock filled with manure. It is unnecessary to examine the evidence as we know that the jerk is guilty. Reporters have no need to use their fact-digging skills to track down sources or uncover incriminating documents. We have no need to worry that a G. Gordon Liddy-type bogeyman will sneak up behind someone in a dark room to strangle them with fishing line. The outcome of this gathering will not bring about the downfall of a government or the execution of a man. Simply, large sums of money will be transferred from one greedy spoiled rich kid to other greedy, spoiled rich kids. Our protagonist, win, lose or draw, will leave the room a billionaire. Wait, before he leaves, I need the large polo mallet.

This movie made me feel icky as if I had watched torture porn. I felt like, to make myself feel better, I had to go to the opposite extreme and watch something inspirational and uplifting like The Sound of Music.