Los Angeles Times
Movies about real-life heroes navigate keeping them real.
To Kieran Fitzgerald, co-writer of “Snowden,” one of the most humanizing moments in the Oliver Stone-directed movie comes when Edward Snowden is at his most broken.
Literally: In real life, as in the movie, Snowden broke both legs jumping out of a bunk bed in boot camp, which ultimately set him down a very different career path. “It makes you cringe, because you feel bad for this guy who couldn’t make it out of basic training,” says Fitzgerald, who wrote the screenplay with Stone. “It’s humanizing because it’s specific. It’s not always about showing serious flaws.”
Flaws are important when telling the story of real-life heroes. By the time someone has done something that warrants a two-hour-plus major motion picture about his or
her life and accomplishments, it’s easy for filmmakers to gravitate toward brushing any dark, fragile moments under the rug. But such uncritical retellings are usually buried on basic cable as “movies of the week.”
A film released in awards season, on the other hand, has to have the bar set higher — which presents a challenge for screenwriters. With such movies as “Hidden Figures,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Sully” and “Loving,” writers must walk the fine line of explaining why this person or people were worthy heroes — while reminding us that they are not demigods.
Keeping the rose-colored glasses on, says Todd Komarnicki, “Sully” screenwriter, “would be boring. It wouldn’t resonate with the audience. In this day and age, everyone has skeletons. Everyone has scars. We’re all under a social media X-ray, and it does remind us that we’re all human, and we all suffer.”
In the case of “Sully,” Komarnicki had a particular challenge in that little, if anything, has been negatively said about Chesley Sullenberger, who piloted a disabled jetliner full of passengers onto the Hudson River safely. Inventing an antagonist to keep a movie about him interesting meant the script portrayed the NTSB investigation into the crash as the bad guy.
But by doing that, it put pressure on Sully the character, much as it did in real life. “What we end up seeing in the movie is self-doubt from a person who’s been in control his whole life,” he says. “How he navigated his post-crash life is very human and complicated.”
Then there’s a soldier like “Hacksaw Ridge’s” Desmond Doss, who saved 75 men from the battlefield, single-handedly hauling each to a cliff ’s edge where he lowered them down to safety — all without ever carrying a gun.
“It was important to me from the get-go to focus on the very human qualities as opposed to a comic book superhero,” says Robert Schenkkan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Knight and delved into the psychology behind the conscientious objector’s decision to go unarmed into battle. “Desmond’s rejection of the gun is directly related to his painful awareness of his own limitations, his anger and desire for vengeance.”
Not every version of heroism involves grand gestures, and the quieter ones present another layer of challenges to writers, who then must write character-rich scenes that underscore the heroic elements of their real-life protagonists.
For “Hidden Figures,” Allison Schroeder needed to tell the stories of three African American female scientists who helped launch the space program — but who couldn’t be seen as flawed while at work. “For me it was about showing how painful it was to put on this façade for the bosses, but the moment [the women are] alone together, you get to hear their problems,” says Schroeder. “Katherine straight up admits, ‘I’m not up to the task’; Mary struggles in her marriage. They’re not perfect. They’re nuanced characters — but they hid it from the world and showed it to each other.”
Gentle heroism from people who just want to live their lives also echoes in “Loving,” in which a couple are thrust into the Supreme Court spotlight when their interracial marriage is challenged by the state.
For director-screenwriter Jeff Nichols, “The cause was their nature — they were a threat to society by their nature.”
He wrote a scene from real life in which newlyweds Mildred and Richard Loving are rousted from bed and carted off to jail. “One producer came up to me and said, ‘Should [Richard] resist more? He seems so weak.’ And that was kind of my point — in a lot of movies, you’d grab a weapon and start fighting, but he understood the lack of power he had and acquiesced to it. It’s really easy to dive into dramatic embellishment, but I was more interested in how things really went down.”
Ultimately, though, screenwriters tend not to be interested in evenhandedness in their portrayals: They were hired to highlight the hero or heroine, flaws included, but not to make some kind of case for the other side.
“At the end of the day I was writing the script for Oliver Stone, and nobody accuses him of being a journalist,” says Fitzgerald. “He’s a man who’s interested in a point of view — mainly his. So to the extent that Oliver admired Edward Snowden, it’s in the movie. But I wrote a script that I believed fit the [Snowden] that I met — and I’m very comfortable with that.”
‘What we end up seeing in the movie is self-doubt from a person who’s been in control his whole life.’ — TODD KOMARNICKI, ‘Sully’ screenwriter