You may remember that in Black Panther (2018) the Wakandan army had an all female unit called the Dora Milaje, women who were very proficient at kicking butt. They were a fictionalized equivalent of the Agojie, who served the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th Century. The Woman King is a more-or-less historically accurate story about the Agojie. The focus is on the leader of the Agojie, General Nanisca.
Except it’s not really. Stevens has expanded the story to focus on other characters. Chief among those is Nawi, a young girl who joins the Agojie and goes through their rigorous training. Nanisca is her commanding general during the basic training.
Now think back to other movies you have seen about basic training. The training officer is always a flashy role for such as Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) or R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket (1987), but they are not the stars of their films. That’s because the training officer is nearly always a one-note character, and the movie is following the trainees.
The training officers are usually strong actors, and that is true here. Nanisca is played by the great Viola Davis and she is compelling for a while. But the training officer can get tiresome real quick. Even when we get into real combat, Davis’s Nanisca is still one note: fierce. The picture is overlong, at least partly because we have a lot of repeated close-ups of Davis looking, well, fierce.
Stevens does begin to develop another side to Nanisca, but it is very late in the picture. By then we are following Thuso Mbedu’s Nawi, because the script gives her more of a story. I am not sure I would want to say Mbedu steals the picture from Viola Davis, but the character arc Nawi has all through the film carries our interest more than the early lack of a storyline for Nanisca. The late addition of a storyline for Nanisca does not quite make up for it.
The film does have some good battle scenes, although some of them are so disguised by dust it is hard to tell what is going on. When we can see clearly, the result of the training the actors had in combat pops off the screen. If you are a feminist like me, you will be entertained by how often and how much the real Agojie kick major league butt.
Minor League Fun.
This is vaguely reminiscent of the great old Ealing Studio comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955), which deal with crime (mass murder, robbing the Bank of England, and mass murder, respectively) with a typically light British touch. Run is not a patch on any of them. The writing and direction are not up to that level.
It’s 1953, and Police Inspector Stoppard (you get he’s named after British playwright Tom Stoppard? I did not even chuckle) and Constable Stalker are called to the Ambassadors theatre where a murder has taken place. And what is playing there? Agatha Christie’s famous play The Mousetrap, 100 performances into its legendary forever run.
So we get a lot of back and forth about theatre, Agatha Christie, and movies, since the murdered man was Leo Kopernick, who was going to direct the film version. He annoyed everybody, although I think his suggestion for changing the ending of the play for the movie made a lot of sense. Adrien Brody is over the top in the scenes before he is killed, which suggests to me he had not read the rest of the script where he gets a lot of flashbacks. He figured he had to give it his all while the character was still alive. Actors are like that.
So the two police investigate and finally discover the murder, but the script is not as lively or as sharp as it needs to be. Two scenes show the problem, one is the best scene in the picture, the other the worst.
Constable Stalker is young and inexperienced. She is played by the great Saoirse Ronan, who hits exactly the right tone for the piece. At one point the Inspector tells her to wait in the car and keep her eyes peeled. So Stalker does, with Ronan opening her eyes as wide as she possibly can. And keeps them open. Tom George, the director, and film editors Gary Doliner and/or Peter Lambert hold on Ronan as long as they can, so they can get two laughs out of the shot, one when she first opens her eyes and when they finally cut away. And then they get a third laugh when they cut back to her a bit later with her eyes still peeled. It is a great example of collaboration between writer, director, actor, and editors. (And if you have just seen part of the scene in a trailer on your TV or computer you don’t get the full effect of Ronan’s BIG eyes.)
The movie’s big finish involves the suspects gathered by the murderer at Agatha Christie’s country house. So obviously we are going to meet the great author. Yes, we do, but we get no sense of her smarts and her talent. She does one thing you would expect Christie to do, but neither the writer, director, or actor have figured out how she would do it, so you don’t get the entertainment value the “eyes peeled” scene gives. To make your script and movie work, you have to be consistently good, not just in a scene or two.
The Return of a Lot of Scenes From Other Westerns.
The first half hour of this film will remind you of The Professionals (1966). In that one four adventurers are hired by a rich man to rescue his wife from a Mexican bandit. In the new film, on a lower budget, the rich man hires one bounty hunter. In the earlier film screenwriter Richard Brooks saves the big twist (she was not exactly kidnapped) until the worst possible moment for our guys. Here we pretty much know from the beginning that she went willingly with, in this case, a Black soldier. Brooks’s version is much, much better.
So Borlund, the bounty hunter, captures both the wife and her lover, and they ride back to a border town and they wait for the arrival of the husband. Now we are in Rio Bravo (1959) land, and one slight advantage of the newer film is while we wait we do not have to listen to Ricky Nelson sing or Walter Brennan gum his lines without his teeth.
When the final shootout comes, it is like most shootouts we have seen, including Rio Bravo and every other version of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. There is a lot of great stunt work, a lot of corpses, and not nearly as much blood as The Wild Bunch (1969).
For all the previously viewed elements, Hill has not written very interesting characters, like Brooks did and Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett did in Rio Bravo. The bounty hunter is played by Christoph Waltz, the wife by Rachel Brosnahan, the spare gunfighter by Willem Dafoe, and the script does not let any of them work in their top forms.
Not in Time for the Next Cycle.
Marvin Borowsky, my screenwriting instructor at UCLA, said that he once brought a baseball story to Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century-Fox, and Zanuck passed on it without even reading it. He told Borowsky, “It’s too late for the last baseball cycle and too soon for the next one.”
There have been a lot of very good films about the Vietnam war, and there have been some bad ones, but we are not getting many anymore. As you can see of my review of it here, I thought Da 5 Bloods (2020) was one of the worst. Part of the problems there and in Beer Run are similar: they do not have that much new to tell us about Vietnam. The next cycle will have to do better.
As you can tell from the credits, this is based on a true story, and I suspect that the more outrageous elements are the most truthful. Chickie Donohue is a sailor in the Merchant Marine. While hanging out with his buddies at their local bar, he decides to take a bag full of beer to Vietnam to pass out to his other buddies who are serving there. The script is very smart in getting Chickie to Vietnam very quickly. Look at the scenes that set up his trip as good examples of how quickly you can establish a situation like that.
As you can imagine, the situation in Nam is chaos. Some people just want Chickie to leave, some are willing to help him get around the country. Eventually, he gets back to the cargo ship he is working on, only to find it has left a day early. That leaves him stranded in Saigon…on the night of the Tet offensive.
That takes us away from the character scenes we have had, and we get a lot of action scenes. The character scenes before have had nice textures, but the war scenes have more than a bit of been there/done that.
Eventually, Chickie gets back home and the dialogue with the folks back home gets at least a little preachy. The best moment occurs when The Colonel, a World War II vet, says that war is “controlled chaos,” and Chickie tells him that Vietnam is “uncontrolled chaos.” The Colonel quietly says, ”I stand corrected.” It helps that The Colonel is played by Bill Murray and it helps not only this scene but the whole film that Chickie is played by Zac Efron, one of our truly underrated actors.
Daughter of Spotlight.
Tom McCarthy co-wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Spotlight (2015), one of the best films about investigative journalism. He is back in that territory with Alaska Daily. Eileen Fitzgerald has been fired from her New York newspaper job and ends up at the Alaska Daily. She has been hired by her friend, the editor Stanley Cornik, specifically to investigate the unsolved murder of an Indigenous woman.
Hilary Swank’s macho toughness is perfect for the part of Eileen, and the supporting cast is great as well. Stanley is played by Jeff Perry, who has spent most of his career in comedy, but hits the right serious notes here. The series also gives us a great look at the Alaskan cultures, both white and Indigenous. Give it a watch.
Hasn’t This Been a Great Year for Screenwriting Books?
Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success (2022. Book by Jon Krampner. 372 pages) and The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit. Book by Ron Shelton. 241 pages)
I can remember the years long ago when very few, if any, books about screenwriting (other than the how-to books we always have with us) were published. This year I have already reviewed two: Reginald Rose and the Journey of Twelve Angry Men, which I reviewed here; and Beyond the Hero’s Journey: Crafting Powerful and Original Character Arcs for the Screen, which I reviewed here.
And now we have two new great ones. First up is Jon Krampner’s biography of Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter of North by Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966). Full Disclosure here: I mentored Jon on the screenwriting and general film side of the book. His experience has been as a biographer (biographies of television producer Fred Coe and actress Kim Stanley), which he excels at. The Lehman biography was a tough job, since a lot of people who knew Lehman refused to talk about him. Jon had to use his biographer’s skills to dig deeper and talk to people you would not expect to have to talk to in this situation. I certainly would not have had the patience he had.
As Jon points out early in the book that while most Hollywood people were larger than life, Lehman was smaller than life. He was rather passive-aggressive, so he could wait out the bat-shit behavior of Mike Nichols on Virginia Woolf. Lehman got along much better with Robert Wise, who directed four of Lehman’s scripts. They were both wonderfully civil to each other.
Lehman did a lot of adaptations, and often they were better than the original, although the original authors never felt so. Lehman condensed Virginia Woolf, which ran three hours on stage to a 129-minute movie. Edward Albee never forgave him, nor did Stephen Sondheim for some of the changes he made in West Side Story.
Ernest Lehman will give you an understanding about how you can have a great screenwriting career and still stay reasonably---notice I say reasonably--- sane.
Ron Shelton’s marvelously entertaining book is about one film, but it is just as informative. Shelton starts with his life before the movie business, especially his days in professional baseball. He never made it to the majors, but he observed a lot that made it into Bull Durham (1988).
As potential screenwriters, you will probably be most interested in the section where he takes you step-by-step through his writing of the script, showing you what was kept and what was cut. Late in the book he gives you a complete scene that he assumed would always be in the film since it was what he felt the film was about. But the scene never worked in the film and they cut it. Read the scene and see if you can figure out why.
And if you have decided you want to direct your own script, make sure you read the section on his directing the film. It is one of the best accounts I have read about what a director actually does, as opposed to what he tells interviewers he does and what critics think he does.