The Screenwriters Corner
Sully, How to Kill Narrative Drive
By Ronnie Tharp-Garber
With hats off to two of my idols, Clint Easteood and Tom Hanks, unfortunately, even these two icons could not save this script.
Sully is a Drama, and in screenwriting parlance, it is a Memoir/True Story methodology, which has a definite structure. It’s not like the writer decided to break the rules and explore new territory and therefore achieve great work. What the writer did was ignore a very simple rule: Never mess with Narrative Drive.
For example, in The Blind Side, a Memoir/True Story/Drama, we have a storyteller, a.k.a. Narrator who tells us the origin of the blind side and also the theme, on page one. We then move to the Battle scene, which normally occurs in the third act of the story. The Hero, Michael Ohr has been called in to the college football league rules and regulations offices to answer to a claim that his adoptive white parents coerced him to play for their favorite team, to the exclusion of any other. Michael Ohr, true to character, can barely get his emotions squared away, despite being questioned by “one of his own,” a woman of color. She is baiting him to turn against his parents, thinking they take a backseat to what this unusual young man really wants. We, the audience, are purposely left hanging off the proverbial cliff BECA– USE:
We now take a time jump, with the Narrator once again, to the beginning of the story. The Narrative Drive will keep us on the edge of our seats as momentum will steadily build through Act 1 and Act 2, and we will then END UP back at the BATTLE scene in Act 3 to go Ah ha! So that’s how it was resolved! What a beautiful and powerful show down. Then we will continue to the Hero’s Self-Revelation moment and we will end with a New Equilibrium. All of the emotion and drama will blow up with a powerful moral decision that occurs during and after the Battle sequence.
Now back to Sully and the kiss of death: Not following the aforementioned methodology for a Memoir/True Story/Drama. The story opens with the premise that we, the audience, already know. It’s not news that Sully, a seasoned pilot did the unthinkable: He landed his aircraft on the Hudson River in 2009; he saved the lives of 155 souls on board; no prior landing had ever occurred without everyone dying in a horrific crash. But we, the audience, want to be taken through that day- How did Sully pull this off?
There was more to the story: After saving everyone, Sully was subjected to a hearing, and his experience and judgment were severely questioned. This was the stuff of a great Battle sequence which we should have been introduced to in Act 1 from the get go. Instead, we are taken to many flashbacks to get to the back story of what led up to the Battle Sequence. We do get going at the end of Act 1, to what exactly happened on that day; we are taken into the aircraft; we see the trials of the passengers and crew, but wham! Just as we want to see this narrative move forward, we are jolted with another flashback to tell more back story and take us back to portions of the final Battle Sequence. We then return to the action of that fateful day, but the Narrative Drive has been interrupted so many times, that the story lags and drags. We finally get to the big hearing where flight simulation will show, unequivocally, that Sully indeed, made the right decisions when he had to fly that aircraft and avoid another Sept. 11 type horror.
To sum up, Narrative Drive is one of the key elements in making a story powerful and compelling; it enables the action and story to move forward with the Hero struggling against all odds to reach his goal. In Memoir/True Story/Drama, a narrator is a good thing to increase Narrative Drive- But flashback should be avoided. It should not be employed to show back story multiple times. It should be employed only to increase Narrative Drive and act as a “reference point” for more enhanced character development. For example, in “The Fugitive,” the Hero returns to the crime scene in flashback. This only increases his drive to find the killer of his wife.
What Could Have Been a Great Script: In Sully, Act 1: the Battle scene of the Hero getting ready for the showdown; all the allies surrounding him; his Opponents waiting inside to skewer him. THEN we do a time jump (not a flashback) to the beginning of the story. And the unspoken question which the audience wants an answer to: What transpired on that day to bring Sully to the Battle Sequence? This question will be answered as the story moves forward and builds momentum, through Act 2 and continuing on to Act 3. We then will seamlessly join back up to the Battle Sequence, the actual showdown at the hearing.
Because the formula for Memoir/True Story was not employed, some of the sequencing got out of whack. The film was 90 minutes long. It should have been about 110 minutes. Because Narrative Drive was lost, the story had nowhere to go. We are shown the final scene of the real Sully and his family, along with the survivors. This is good and part of the Memoir/True Story formula. But the opportunity to further develop Sully’s character was lost and the format of the story became an uneasy mix of documentary/feature film methodology. For, we had a missing 20 minutes. You never know: Budget or time constraints; actors who had obligations; limited shooting schedules, or simply a mediocre script that Clint Eastwood took, directed in his usually fine manner; and Tom Hanks pulled off Sully because he is a superb actor. But a mediocre script could have been a great script.