Sunday, January 13, 2008

Midnight Run

Almost a year ago I received this analysis from a reader in Greece, George Chatzigeorgiou. My delay in moving his comment from the comments section of this blog to a main entry proves only one thing. I keep "to do" lists, and some of them are long.

I have since seen the movie, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Indeed, George's analysis is correct, although I may not agree with everything he says, there is no need for my dissection of it. What he writes stands on its own. I'm honored, George. Great job. This film has a wonderfully strong moral premise.



Mr. Williams:

I've been looking for ways to illustrate themes in my stories, and also studying movies that had a strong effect on me, trying to discover the techniques the writers used to make the themes work so well. I read your book, but I'm not particularly fond of any of the movies that are offered as examples in it. So I decided to test the book by applying its principles on a favourite film of mine. I had studied this film ("Midnight run") in the past, but I still couldn't figure out how the premise worked in the narrative so well. Studying the movie from the 'Moral premise' lense, I was astounded by how perfectly the book's conclusions applied to the movie. The results were amazing.
I'd written down some notes, and I decided to turn them into an essay regarding how the book's conclusions apply to this film. I think it'll be of interest to anyone who has read your book and seen the movie.

Okay, here it is: The movie's called 'Midnight run', written by George Gallo, directed by Martin Brest, starring De Niro and Charles Grodin. The plot goes like this: Jonathan Mardukas (Grodin) is an accountant who embezzled millions of dollars from a Vegas mobster, gave them to charities and then jumped bail. Jack Walsh (De Niro) is the protagonist, a skip tracer who arrests Mardukas and tries to deliver him to his boss, so that he can collect a big payment. But their cross-country trip is not that simple. The mob who wants Mardukas dead is after them, and so is the FBI. Not to mention another skip tracer who wants to steal Mardukas from Jack... So basically, the movie's about a skip tracer who tries to evade the mob and the FBI, and deliver a prisoner across country; if he does that, he'll get a big payment which will allow him to fulfill his dream of opening a coffee shop.

But what the movie is REALLY about? It's really about a guy who learns to open himself to understanding. As a result of making this moral choice, the protagonist has a new hope and embarks on a new beginning in his life.
Now let's articulate the premise that's present throughout the movie and within each character's arc:
Understanding leads to hope and new beginnings.
Lack of understanding leads to chaos and demise.

We can see that the protagonist's goal and the desirable consequences of the moral premise are related. The protagonist wants to quit his job, open a coffeee shop, and make a new beginning in his life. In William's words, the story's physical and psychological spine meet. Moreover, as the movie unfolds,the physical story metaphors the psychological story: Every time the protagonist takes some weak steps toward accepting the truth of the moral premise, there is progress. When he rejects it there are complications and problems. Finally he makes the moral choice to accept it, and achieves his goal.

Now let's see some examples on how the premise is reflected and proven through each character's arc:

Jack Walsh (the protagonist)

In his book, Williams says, 'I was tempted to write a chapter on how the Moral Premise is reflected in character names'. Well, this character's no exception. The name of our protagonist (Walsh) sounds very close to the word "walls". Jack Walsh has shut out understanding; he's the hero who raises 'walls' between himself and others. Jack refuses to understand the people around him and to let others understand him. At some point Jonathan says to him, 'You have only two forms of expression: Silence and rage.' Jack exhibits his lack of understanding by being cynical, sarcastic and condemnatory toward other people.

An important note though: These aren't Jack's only traits. If these traits were the only things we see in Jack then we wouldn't be able to identify with him and root for him, cause no one likes to root for a jerk. But that isn't the case; Jack's a complex character (for an action comedy at least). Very early in the film we realize he's an honest person. When Jonathan tries to bribe him, Jack snaps back at him, 'I never took a payoff in my life and I'm not gonna start with you.' In short, Jack is a man of integrity. Later on, when we find out what happened to him back when he was a cop in Chicago, we begin to suspect that this terrible experience he had is the reason why he has shut out understanding and why he exhibits these negative traits. So we start to sympathize with him even more and we want him to achieve his goal, despite all his character flaws.

From the very start Jack's prejudiced against Jonathan. He refuses all communication by constantly telling him to 'shut up' and is unwilling to hear Jonathan's side of the story, Every conversation starts with Jonathan asking Jack questions. As the story progresses, Jack shows some willingness to understand Jonathan and to open himself up to him, but it's a back and forth motion. Jack has shut out understanding cause he has become disenchanted with people due to what happened to him back in Chicago. Jonathan says to him, "There's good and bad everywhere, don't you know that?" Later in another scene Jonathan points out to him, "See? For every shit in the world there are six nice people."

Jack has his first moment of grace when he visits his ex-wife to ask her for money. During this subplot we see Jack resorting back to his usual sarcasm and a fight ensues. However, the emotional stress of seeing his ex- wife again makes him change his ways: "I just need some money to... and get out of this miserable business forever. Can't you understand that?" He tears down a wall and tries to be understood by his ex-wife. Because of this breakthrough Jill decides to give him the keys to her car. When Jack asks her what her husband is going to say about this, she just looks at Jack and says, "He'll understand."
As he leaves, his daughter who overheard their conversation exits and offers him her baby-sitting money. She undersatands his predicament and the suffering he goes through, although she hasn't seen him in nine years. There, Jack gets a second moment of grace by his daughter's example. She shows him the way; what he needs to learn.

Jack's still reluctant to embrace the moral premise, and more complications ensue. However, his behavior toward Jonathan gradually changes. We see Jack conversing more with him and their relationship changes. A few scenes later another moment of grace occurs. Jonathan jokes that if circumstances were different they'd still hate each other. But Jack responds, "We might've been friends..." He doesn't condemn Jonathan anymore; he respects him and is able to sympathize with him.

But due to his reluctance to fully employ the premise, Jack has Jonathan taken away from him and he also gets arrested by the FBI. This is the story's main crisis and a major turning point. It's then that Jack drastically changes his ways and embraces the moral premise. He tries to reach an understanding with Mosely (the FBI agent) and make a deal with him. This leads to success in saving Jonathan's life. Even the plan Jack comes up with is based on what Jonathan has told him; if Jack hadn't reached a level of understanding with Jonathan, he'd never know about the discs and would fail in his quest. Finally, Jack gets more money than he'd imagined, gives Jonathan the broken watch and embarks with a new hope in his heart. (By the way, it's amazing to me that this scene takes place in an airport. What better setting to enhance the idea of Jack embarking on a new beginning than an airport?)

We can see how the truth of the moral premise is consistently applied to other characters too:

Jonathan Mardukas succeeds because he practices the virtue of the moral premise. In the beginning he deceives Jack by telling him he suffers from aviophobia, but his behavior soon changes. He tries to understand Jack and get to know him; he's also eager to make Jack understand him. He explains his motives and what led him to steal money from his boss and give it to charities. Understanding is essentially the feeling of shared suffering; the knowledge that suffering's shared by everyone. Jonathan senses Jack's suffering. Early on he asks Jack, "What happened to you?" He's also totally honest with him. He even says, "Sooner or later I'm gonna have to give you the slip." When Jack chuckles, he says, "I'm glad you find it humorous." The fact that Jonathan practices the moral premise's virtue is very important because in the end he succeeds thanks to his virtue. If Jonathan had succeeded by practicing the vice, the moral premise wouldn't be consistent.

Alonzo Mosely, the FBI agent, practices the vice. When he first meets Jack he's critical toward him and doesn't try to come to an understanding with him. As a result, not only he loses his badge, but also fails throughout most of the movie. It's only when he listens to what Jack has to say and decides to strike a deal with him that Mosely gets his man. When he and Jack plan on how to nail Serano, we can clearly see how strikingly different is both men's attitude toward each other than it was when they first met. They no longer look down on each other; they both practice the virtue of understanding. Mosely appreciates Jack's ability ("Get a wire on this man"), and Jack respects Mosely's responsibilities as an FBI agent.

Jack's employer, Eddie Mascone, (Mask-Con, a name of significance if there ever was one) has shut out understanding by being deceitful and dishonest. He has no qualms about lying to his associates if he thinks there is something to be gained. He practices the premise's vice through the whole movie, and in the end he loses the bail bond and he's out of business. Nobody respects him, not even his assistant who secretly works with the gangster's goons. On the phone, we see Eddie yelling in frustration, "Everybody's tellin' me to go f..k myself!"

Whereas Eddie shuts out understanding by being two-faced, the villain Jimmy Serano (Sir-no) has shut out understanding by being arrogant and disrespectful toward even his closest associates. He disregards his lawyer who advises him not to go to the airport. When he goes and meets Jack, he practices the premise's vice by being sarcastic, critical and by trying to hurt and humiliate Jack. He's somehow a mirror image of how Jack was before embracing the virtue of understanding.

1 comment:

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