I watched Sneakers again on Saturday, out of a desire to learn more about screenwriting.
(In unrelated news, how great is the Internet? Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have learned how to write or format a screenplay without schlepping to the public library, checking out one of their four dog-eared books on screenwriting – which would itself be eight to ten years out of date – and then taking copious notes. Today, I Google “three act screenplay structure” and I’m up and running. Now all I need is a lucrative license, a bankable star and extensive contacts within Hollywood)
Though the rise of indie auteurs have given it a shake, the three-act screenplay structure is still the most recognized language of movie storytelling. Act One (the first quarter) introduces The Hero and The Problem and compels the Hero to address the Problem. Act Two (the middle half) throws obstacles at the Hero, bringing him to a low point roughly midway through. Some revelation helps him climb back up to the final confrontation. That’s Act Three (the last quarter), where the Hero engages and overcomes the Problem in a momentous climax.
Understanding that’s easy. Seeing it in practice is difficult.
Let’s use Sneakers as an example (warning – COPIOUS SPOILERS to follow):
- Act One: This gave me the most trouble. Sneakers is a job movie: Martin Bishop (Redford) and his gang of sneaks are hired to retrieve a MacGuffin from mathematician Gunther Janek (Logue). If the end of Act One is when the Hero decides to tackle the Problem, then Act One ends at about the 19:00 mark, when Bishop convinces his team to take the job. Right?
I don’t know. Act One doesn’t just set our Hero on the path; it also bars the gate behind him. Working for the (supposed) NSA is a big step for these guys, but it doesn’t feel momentous. Our heroes aren’t really locked onto their path until they discover that Janek’s been murdered and walk away from the hand-off with their employers. But that would make Act One forty minutes long – roughly 1/3 of the movie’s entire running time. That’s atypical, but not impossible.
Job movies are tricky. If the movie starts with our heroes hired to do something they do every day – assassinate a politician, rob a bank, drive a Dodge Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco – then there’s nothing really compelling there. Does Act One end when the first complication is introduced? The twist that makes it clear that this job won’t be like all the others?
So I’m going to compromise: Act One ends when Bishop convinces Liz to take him to Janek’s lecture. Though he’s agreed to take the job a while ago, it’s not until this point that The Team is assembled (even though Liz protests she’s not part of The Team). We now have every player we’ll need to accomplish the mission and overcome the Problem. This happens at roughly the 25-minute mark.
- 17-Minute Mark: One of the sites I read on screenplay structure observed that whatever’s happening at the 17-minute mark usually speaks to what the Hero needs to change, personally, in order to overcome the Problem. This is because the subplot (the Hero’s personal development) alternates with the main plot (overcoming the Problem), and the main plot has to come first to whet our appetites. So the first chance we get to breathe is roughly halfway through Act One: the 17-minute mark.
I don’t know how universal this is. But the author gave the example of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (one of the top 10 adventure movies of the 80s). Young Indy is being shushed by his father at the 17-minute mark and is having the Cross of Coronado taken back by the thieves he rescued it from. Indy’s stilted relationship with his father is the personal obstacle he has to overcome throughout the movie.
In Sneakers, Bishop is revealing his past – the outstanding warrant under his original name – to the team at the 17-minute mark. Sneakers is about trust. While this isn’t shocking for a movie about cryptography, every character we sympathize with grows when they learn to trust the folks around them. Bishop rebounds from his Act Two crisis (q.v.) by apologizing to Liz for not trusting her. Crease (Poitier) distracts the guards holding him at gunpoint by finally opening up about why he left the C.I.A. (“my … temper.”). Whistler (Strathairn) saves Bishop, Liz and Carl by trusting Bishop to navigate him through a parking lot.
- Act Two: The bulk of the running time. Our heroes surveill Janek, break into his office and acquire the MacGuffin. Then, complications begin arising.
First, the MacGuffin is much more powerful – and therefore dangerous to them – than they realized. “There isn’t a government on the planet that wouldn’t kill us all for that thing,” Crease observes. This also leads to a crisis of trust between Bishop and Liz.
Second, it turns out that the people who hired Bishop and his spooks aren’t who they claimed to be. This leads the team to start acting out of desperation, not careful planning – “I’m going to a concert,” Bishop explains, loading a revolver. Our Heroes’ actions become more frantic and tense.
- Midpoint: The mastermind behind all these schemes is Bishop’s old college buddy, Cosmo (Kingsley). Cosmo offers Bishop a chance to join him, which Bishop rejects flippantly. As a result, Cosmo ruins Bishop’s life with a few keystrokes, implicating him in the murder of a Russian consular officer. This is the Act Two midpoint – at almost exactly one hour in. It’s the low point for our Hero. He’s lost the MacGuffin, he’s been beat up, his friend from the Russian embasssy is dead and his alias is compromised.
Our Hero spends the rest of Act Two climbing back toward the top. He and the rest of the gang make incremental gains throughout the Act: reaching out to the NSA, learning where the goons took Bishop, surveilling Playtronics headquarters, setting Liz up on the blind date, etc.
- Act Three: Infiltrating Playtronics to retrieve the MacGuffin. We have about 30 minutes left in the film at this point. From here on out, the tension never ramps down. The Heroes can overcome obstacles, but they can never feel truly safe until they get out and home free.
Is that a fair summation? Did I miss anything? Am I doing this right? I know I have some more experienced movie pros in my readership; help me out, guys.