Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is the Dark Knight Rises a revision of The Tempest?

Here's The Tempest's character system:

The sorcerer Prospero is the ex-duke of Milan, thrown out by his evil brother Antonio, who is thrown by a storm onto Prospero's island.
Miranda is Prospero's daughter who doesn't know her past and falls in love with Antonio's son Ferdinand.
Prospero is helped by his slave Ariel, a spirit whom he's rescued from imprisonment (from a magical tree); he's hindered by his rebellious slave Caliban.
Once he accomplishes his aim, Prospero promises to abandon magic.

Here's the character system of The Dark Knight Rises:

The superhero Bruce Wayne is the ex-billionaire of Gotham, thrown out by his evil brother (from the fraternity, the League of Shadows) Ra's al Ghul/Bane, who storms into Gotham and makes it an island.
Miranda Tate (aka Talia al Ghul) is Ra's al Ghul's daughter whose past is secret and who pretends to fall in love with Thomas Wayne's son/Ra's al Ghul's adopted son Bruce Wayne.
Talia al Ghul is helped by her slave Bane, who she's rescued from imprisonment (from a giant pit); she's hindered by her rebellious servant Selina Kyla.
Once he accomplishes his aim, Batman abandons superheroics, leaving all of his toys for Robin.

So The Dark Knight Rises is not a remake of The Tempest, as you can see: for instance, there's no Tempest-analogue for Robin--no one takes up Prospero's power after he casts it off; and there's a slippage between characters in DKR that isn't there in Tempest. I mean, Bane occupies two positions in DKR, one for his supposed role as head of the new League of Shadows and another for his actual role of servant of the real head of the new League of Shadows.

(You'll notice I also left off several other named characters: the rival businessman Daggett and his servant-who-abandons-him, Stryver; Alfred; Lucius Fox; etc. With some work, we could find their parallels in the Tempest--scurrilous Daggett sure seems like the scheming Sebastian, hoping to overthrow his brother Alonso, while the helpful Gonzalo might be Alfred or Lucius, etc. But we have enough with the main characters to see the parallels.)

But when you take a step back from the movie, certain character parallels and reused (or repurposed) tropes do show up, especially as inversions: Prospero is confined to an island before the beginning, while Bruce is tossed off the (newly made) island at the beginning of the end (Act III); the confining tree (above ground) becomes a confining pit (below ground); etc.

There are enough echoes that I wonder if Nolan looked to The Tempest once he had decided that the ending for Batman was Prospero's ending.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Suckerpunch of the Unreal: Donald Antrim's Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World

Here are the opening paragraphs to Donald Antrim's Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World:
See a town stucco-pink, fishbelly-white, done up in wisteria and swaying palms and smelling of rotted fruits broken beneath trees: mango, papaya, delicious tangerine; imagine this town rising from coral shoals bleached and cutting upward through bathwater seas: the sunken world of fish. That’s what my wife, Meredith, calls the ocean. Her father was an oysterman. Of course, that trade’s dead now, like so many that once sustained this paradise. Looking from my storm window, I can see Meredith’s people scavenging the shoreline. Down they bend, troweling wet dunes with plastic toy shovels: yellow, red, blue. The yellow one, I know, belongs to Meredith’s mother. I want to call to Helen, to wave and exchange greetings, but I know she’ll never acknowledge me after the awful things that happened to little auburn-haired Sarah Miller, early last week, down in my basement.
How do we know this is going to be a darkly comic, slightly surreal book? Well, our first hint is in the title: "a better world" is a pretty big promise, the sort of thing that might not be deliverable by any single person, especially with the schlubby name of "Robinson." (Now, "Elect Batman for a Better World" seems reasonable.)

Now look how quickly the description turns ominous: the town is all wisteria and palms (aw, nice) and rotted fruit (oh, not so nice). The coral is bleached--like bones?--and cutting--like knives? The world of fish is sunken, which makes it sound like it should be above water and failed. The oyster trade is dead; the window he looks out of is a storm window--because in this town, we're going to face some bad storms.

So, sure: it's a dark book. But what tells us that it's unreal and comic? I think this weird funniness is signaled strongly by the odd juxtapositions, like the ocean water compared with bathwater or people combing the beach with toy shovels.

But the real dark, comic, unreality here comes in that suckerpunch of the last long line of the first paragraph and the tiny only line of the second paragraph. I mean "suckerpunch" almost literally here; just check out the two-step rhythm of the line, like a boxer quick on his feet:
I want to call to Helen,
to wave and exchange greetings,
but I know she’ll never acknowledge me
after the awful things that happened
to little auburn-haired Sarah Miller,
early last week,
down in my basement. 
That central clause can be broken up into smaller chunks of info, but it can also be read as a freight train without brakes, "but I know she’ll never acknowledge me after the awful things that happened to little auburn-haired Sarah Miller." "Awful things" is nice and vague; "auburn-haired" is nice and specific--and they balance each other nicely with that "aw/au" sound. And then we drill down into the location of those awful things that happened to the auburn-haired girl: "early last week, in my basement."
If this were simply a story about Nazis or other war criminals, we might class that "tragic" as cynical humor or unfeeling dickishness. But with all the care that went into the description of the town and the humanizing touch of the family--his wife's name is Meredith, her father was an oysterman, his mother-in-law's name is Helen--when we read "Tragic," we're confronted with a crazy emotional and logical distance here: Something terrible happened to a little girl in this narrator's basement and he still wants to wave at people and stay friends with the town.

Monday, January 28, 2013

St. Surreal vs. the Dragon; Or, Observe the Protocols

This January, I'm taking an online writing class taught by Mary Robinette Kowal, with seven other writers-in-training. (Sounds better than "wannabe writers," doesn't it?) Kowal writes mostly speculative fiction: she won a Hugo Award for a science fiction story in 2011; and her big novel series (right now) is historical fantasy that started from the premise of "Jane Austen with magic."

So it was understood that the people who signed up for this class would be mostly interested in speculative fiction of one sort of another. That's a pretty good description of me, at any rate.

But after a recent experience in class, I was reminded of the postmodern/science fiction divide. Put another way, if people expect speculation, surreality will be difficult to process. It's another example of how reading protocols/expectations have to be met. (See James Gunn, "The Protocols of Science Fiction.") Looked at another way, the experience was another reminder to kill one's darlings when they no longer work.

Apologies to my darlings
Our first homework assignment was to take a transcript of Nixon and Kissinger and change the context without changing the words. Mary wrote about this on her blog a while ago, so you can go see that there, where she gives examples of transposing the dialogue to s.f. and fantasy.

I didn't want to make this another s.f. or fantasy war story because that didn't seem challenging enough. (Although, that's not really the point of this exercise. The point is to work dialogue and context in such a way that we understand the characters--what they say and why they say it. In that way, it's a lot like that acting exercise where the actors get told some secret motivation that they can't reveal directly: How do you demonstrate, subtextually, that you really feel X when you're saying Y?)

So I made this dialogue into a surreal baseball comedy, a sort of Producers situation, with an overbearing and violent rich owner (the Nixon lines, the Zero Mostel role) and a nebbishy number-cruncher (the Kissinger lines, the Gene Wilder role). And it amused me in how over-the-top it was--statisticians being treated like performing monkeys actually devolved into monkey-like behavior, the rich person blacking out and attacking his underling constantly, papers flying everywhere.

And it failed miserably in class. People commented that it didn't seem realistic, which I enthusiastically agreed with, but I think was meant as a criticism. The caricature of the autist mathematician elicited guesses that he was a robot. And when the readers weren't sure what was real, even metaphors turned into stumbling blocks. (Which is a problem with lots of language in speculative fiction. When you said "her world exploded," did you mean "her assumptions were thoroughly overturned" or "her planet literally exploded"?)

You'd think I would know this by now--especially after teaching composition for many years where this was a central lesson--but you have to pay attention to your audience. Or as William Gibson says in Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, you have to observe the protocol.

Name Misrecognition
If you opened up a New Yorker with a story by Woody Allen or George Saunders, you might approach those authors with some flexibility about realism: both use a lot of humor, wordplay, exaggeration, unreality. But when they were first starting out, how did they get across that what they were writing was meant as surreal humor? Oh, that's a good idea for a blog post tomorrow.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sneakers, part 14: Lessons

Lessons from Sneakers

(a) The protagonist here is often not the agent of the action--he’s often saved or helped by his teammates, without any particular difficulty on his part. Or growth: he begins the movie by running away from a friend after pulling a prank; and he ends the movie after running away from the same friend in order to go pull more pranks. There’s a certain childishness to him that’s charming because, hey, Robert Redford is Robert Redford, even if he’s carrying a backpack. Still, for a fun movie that has resonant themes of information control, no one is going back to this movie because they’re interested in the character.

(b) Personality counts here, especially in the team scenes. When Mother and Crease are observing the heist, it could be a boring set-up shot just to show us where they are; but we’re more amused by the scene by the added bickering between them. (“Cattle mutilations are up.” “Don’t even start.”) Even in big team scenes where people don’t always have something important to do, the screenplay makes a point of including them: so Whistler is reading the code off the black box at the party, Mother is doing the hardware work, and Carl has his black book of impenetrable places (which probably includes a big section on women). Doesn’t Whistler have a black book of his own? No, because then what would Carl be doing?

(c) Every scene moves in some direction: caper films excel at parcelling out progress since the big heist often consists of several mini-quests. Sneakers does this as well with information, parcelling out enough to keep us going, making the audience feel as if its getting somewhere. (This also helps to reinforce important plot setup, as, for instance, when we need to understand what it is Marty’s team does. So we see them at work, the secretary explains it, and then the NSA agents question it.) This is especially true with the big issue of Cosmo: Scene 1) What happened to Cosmo? Scene 4) You don’t want to end up like Cosmo; Scene 11) Cosmo died in prison; Scene 14) Cosmo’s alive!

In a mystery/caper film, besides parcelling out the progress in every scene, the movie can also move forward with various obstacles, twists, and revelations.

But movement forward can also be movement down, towards some low moment. So, for instance, the party scene starts off with happy dancing (everyone dances, especially Liz!) and ends with the suspicious lockdown (everyone is a suspect, especially Liz!).

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sneakers, part 13: Cosmo

The villain plot: What does Cosmo want?
Here’s a fun thing to do on a rainy day: take a film you like, try to plot out the structure from the anatagonist’s POV, and watch it fall apart.

For instance, here’s Cosmo’s plot:

(1) Pull pranks, go to jail, hook up with Mafia, “die”
(2) Start second life as computer support for Mafia, recruit bad NSA agents
(3) Decide to use Marty to get Janek’s box (perhaps because he wants to screw with Marty, because, hello, Cosmo has a big organization that could probably pull this job off)
(4) Kill Janek, get box from Marty, and pay him back--whatever that means (seriously, when Buddy Wallace reaches into his briefcase for Marty’s payment, is he going for a gun or for a check? Does Cosmo want Marty killed at this stage?)
(5) Prevent Marty from talking to the Russians to prevent them from talking to the FBI... and then put Marty’s name into the system so the authorities will pick him up (because Marty won’t tell them all about Cosmo at this point if he’s caught? Sure, they might not believe him, but what if they do? Why would Cosmo take this chance?)
(6) Get the powerful black box and wait around for a while without using it
(7) Go to his office building but don’t go into his office for a whole day
(8) Discover the theft, promise to let Marty go, go back on his promise and tell the goons to kill Marty
(9) Track Marty down himself and beg Marty to stay and be friends again

So there’s a lot there that doesn’t make sense from a rational actor POV--but once we remember that Cosmo is a trickster and a game player, some of his actions do make more sense:

(3) Why involve Marty when he could just use his own goons to get Janek’s box? Because he likes manipulating and tricking Marty specifically.
(5) Why run the risk of Marty being picked up by the authorities and pointing to Cosmo? Because Cosmo knows that Marty’s worst fear is the system.

The only part that still gives me trouble is Cosmo’s on-again-off-again relationship with the idea of killing Marty. We can explain this away by saying that Cosmo himself is conflicted; and since we get this story from Marty, we don’t get to see Cosmo’s conflict up close. But still, there are ways to get this across, and “I can’t kill my friend. Kill my friend” doesn’t quite get at the nuance of this emotion.

So what is motivating Cosmo? Once you break down his plot like this, it seems like revenge is the top motivation for him, revenge and besting Marty. (Which also explains why he reveals himself to Marty: he wants Marty to know that he beat him.) Because otherwise, the whole “having the box and not using it AND not putting it away in your hidden safe” part starts to bug me. Which puts Cosmo in a long line of people who say they have grand plans to destroy the system, but really are just motivated by silly personal issues.

(Which, come to think of it, is entirely the motivation of Janus/006 in GoldenEye: he has a plan to destroy financial records to create some awesome dark age, but really, it’s just money and revenge he wants. Welcome to the end of the Cold War folks, where no one is motivated by any ideology other than capitalism and competition.)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sneakers, part 12

Scene 19: Darth NSA
A successful heist should be followed by a party, but the NSA decides to crash Marty’s team’s HQ. (Reversal #1 for this scene: success turned into arrest.) You might ask yourself how they found Marty’s HQ or why Marty, after deciding that the HQ was no longer safe in scene 12, decided to go back. I mean, you’ve just fooled a Mafia IT specialist who knows where your HQ is--maybe you should think twice about going back there.

But no, Marty goes back and walks right into James Earl Jones’s arms. Consider this revenge, a long time coming, for that joke Cosmo made in the prologue about getting his pizza shaken, not stirred; it’s as if the NSA said, “You think you can crash our party? We’ll crash yours.”

Abbott (Jones) wants the box, even though (a) the box would only be good to spy on Americans and the other agencies, since the other countries’ codes are all too different (as Gregor noted) and (b) Marty tells him the box doesn’t work.

Instead of just taking the box and killing or arresting all of Marty’s team for their illegal activity, Abbott gets suckered into negotiating with them, since the NSA doesn’t want anyone to know they have a non-working box that would help them spy on Americans. (Reversal #2 for this scene: arrest turned into negotiation.)

Yeah, that doesn’t entirely make sense, and yes, the US government gets accused of a lot of things--it’s not like Marty’s team would have evidence to back up their claim, so it’s hard to see how Newsweek would be interested in that story. But a lot of this is fridge logic, the kind of thing that bothers you after the movie is over. In the scene, all we know is that Marty and Abbott are rapidly changing position as the powerful one in the scene.

As with the party scene, which this scene echoes, everyone again reiterates what they want: Crease gets his vacation with his wife; Mother gets his Winnebago; Marty gets his record cleaned; Whistler gets to express his wish for peace on Earth (Abbott: “We are the United States Government. We don't do that sort of thing.”); and Carl gets the phone number of the young lady with the Uzi (oh, River). Liz says she doesn’t need anything, which is simple code for “Robert Redford and I are going to go have sex.”

The NSA leaves with the box that supposedly doesn’t work, and now we see why it won’t work. Marty pulled the same sort of trick on the NSA that he pulled on Cosmo--he kept the code-breaker chip for himself and gave them an empty shell. (Reversal #3!)

Which explains the final news report that tells us that the GOP is broke, but Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the United Negro College Fund are all recipients of large, anonymous donations. So, sure, maybe Marty and Cosmo were just pulling pranks, but pranks are fun, even for an adult male who (we presume) is also having sex on the side. In his little way, Marty still doesn't fully belong to the system.

Which is a happy ending all around: They all got what they wanted; they foiled both the bad bad guys (Cosmo) and the bad good guys (the NSA); no one suspects that they’ve got a code-breaker chip that others would kill for; and Marty fights on in little ways for a better, GOP-free future.

So what do we learn about scene construction and script structure from Sneakers?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sneakers, part 11

Scene 18: The imperfect heist, part 2--getting out with the girl
Well, of course, when Cosmo takes Liz hostage, Marty is going to do the gentlemanly thing and try to save the girl. (Though let’s zoom out: say Marty saves Liz and Cosmo uses the black box to destroy the world’s financial and other systems--how safe would Liz be then?)

But that low point is why I break this heist up into two scenes. In its own way, this (long) third act can be broken down into its own three act structure.

Using David Mamet’s form, we could get something like this: “Once upon a time (Act 1), there was a hopeless Marty. Then one day (Act II), his team rallied around him and helped him plan a heist, which went off perfectly, until Cosmo captured Marty’s girl and then Marty.”

Rather than a single bad moment, the low point of this heist is a rolling series of disasters: the plans Carl got from city hall on PlayTronics aren’t entirely accurate so Mother and Crease argue; a guard finds the surveillance tap Mother and Crease were using to spy on the building; Mother and Crease get detained by two security guards, one of whom calls Crease “Midnight,” which elicits another excellent look from Sidney Poitier, the kind of look that says, “I did not get invited here for dinner for this”; Buddy Wallace starts shooting at the ceiling where Marty is hiding, given away by the anomalously loud talking of his earpiece (which didn’t seem to bother Elena when Marty was using it in Janek’s office, but, you know, technology); and finally, Cosmo blackmails Marty into giving himself up because Liz is a hostage.

Oh, and that whole “I’ll let you go free” offer of Cosmo’s was b.s., leading to one of the best lines of the film: Cosmo: “I cannot kill my friend. [To Eddie Jones and Timothy Busfield] Kill my friend.” Then, in classic mastermind fashion, Cosmo leaves the room before his enemies are killed. (No computer nerd today would be so genre-unsavvy, but the 90s were a different time.)

Now that’s a low point. Not only are Marty and Liz held at gunpoint, with death looming, but the rest of the team is likewise incapacitated, right?

Well, no: Carl, in the ceiling of Cosmo’s office, jumps down on a goon, allowing Marty and Liz to overpower them, and giving Marty the chance to get back at Buddy. And Whistler, in the back of the van, gets instructed by Marty (now on the roof of the PlayTronics building) to drive to come rescue them, which startles the guards holding Mother and Crease at gunpoint, giving these two the chance to overpower those guards, especially the guy who called Crease “Midnight.” (Yay, righteous revenge for everyone. And though I’m being a little jokey here, I also mean it--we as an audience love to see a little comeuppance. Especially after all the little disasters that have befallen the team.)

Before Marty can get away, Cosmo confronts him on the roof and gets the black box back at gunpoint. Cosmo’s demeanor here is a little confusing: after all the times he tried to kill or ruin Marty, now he pleads with him to stay. And he makes some good, prescient points here, about how the world is run by data and how the data controllers have all the power. All Cosmo wants to do is have his friend with him as they destroy civilization. After all, they started this journey together.

But Marty’s all grown up now and he tells Cosmo that they were just pulling pranks, not really saving the world. The subtheme here is that Cosmo needs to accept responsibility for their actions, which is directly expressed in Marty’s comment that Cosmo will need to pull the trigger himself if he wants to stop Marty from leaving. And let me tell you, it’s hard to take a lecture on responsibility from Marty, especially with that backpack he’s been carrying. (When they stole from Janek, he had a briefcase, but for confronting his childhood friend, Marty uses a backpack.)

Of course, Cosmo doesn’t shoot and Marty escapes; and, double of course, the box that Marty gave Cosmo is just the empty shell, not the code-breaker. So, once again, as in the first scene, Marty runs off into the night (his VW bus replaced by his business’s van), leaving Cosmo all alone, with nothing but his weird accent.

And if you’re asking yourself, “Wait, there were lots of security guards in this building before, where are they all know?,” then the soundtrack is here to tell you that you’re missing the point of this wistful scene about a guy being left alone.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sneakers, part 10

Scene 17: The (im)perfect heist, part 1--getting in for the box
The heist starts off going fine, with tiny notes of worry to keep the audience engaged. But note that the script doesn’t burn us out with extended “oh no” moments.

For instance, disguised as a gardener, Carl slips into an air vent from a bathroom. One of the front lobby security guys gets a little suspicious at how long the gardener is in the bathroom, which automatically makes him seem more professional than the young guy at the bank in scene 2 and the harried guy at Coolidge in scene 10. But before he can report the strangeness, he sees the gardener outside again, so lets it go. (All while we see that this gardener is really Mother, but their outfits make them look the same.)

From inside the air vents, Carl slowly raises the temp in Cosmo’s office (and good thing Cosmo never goes to his office the whole day despite having this awesome new black box toy), but the rest of the heist takes place at night. Liz is on another fake date with Werner in order to steal his ID card, which goes smoothly until Cosmo’s robot dog accidentally spills Liz’s purse, and he learns that she’s not who she says she is.

There’s a lot of cutting here, between Liz on her downwardly spiralling date, Marty breaking in with Werner’s ID and voice-print, and the surveillance team of Don and Mother (almost getting into an argument about cattle mutilations). (Whistler is there too, but the movie doesn’t make a huge point of this, which helps us to forget him, which makes his appearance in scene 18 more surprising and satisfying.)

So everything goes smoothly, with Marty breaking into Cosmo’s office and moving very slowly. But then Werner shows up, dragging Liz in, claiming that she’s trying to steal from his office. Now we have another ticking clock scenario, with the bad guys coming to check Werner’s office while Marty is stealing from Cosmo. Very. Slowly. And here’s a ticking clock where we know the consequences will be dire.

But Marty gets safely into an air vent and Cosmo is just about to turn Liz free... until she says that this will be the last time she goes on a computer date. Cosmo knows what that means. (Does he get nervous any time computers are mentioned?)

So that’s quite a nice little rollercoaster ride, with some “oh no” moments (emphasized by the music)--the guard’s suspicion of Carl, the dog exposing Liz, Werner getting Cosmo’s attention, and Liz saying the wrong thing to Cosmo--and some relaxation of those moments--the guard stops being suspicious, Cosmo stops being suspicious.

But we end on a low note, with Cosmo recognizing that Marty stole the box--but he has Marty’s girl. (And as we know from the party scene, Marty may like hacking, but he loves women.) So what’s he going to do?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sneakers, part 9

Scene 16: Planning the heist
The classic heist structure includes two things: the planning and the heist itself. Now, we’ve seen two previous heists (or as this team calls them, “sneaks”), but they’ve always been abbreviated: the bank heist was all heist, no planning; the Janek heist involved some surveillance, but we skipped almost all the planning to get right to the (thin) action.

This Act 3 heist is the first time we get the classic “plan-rob” form. I would argue that the planning section of heists are almost always positive for the protagonist. Yes, there are obstacles to the successful heist, but the team always has some plan to get around those obstacles. So this is a nice way to get the protagonist on an upswing after the low point of Act 2.

So they need an identity card and a voice print saying a very peculiar phrase. Bingo: let’s get Werner Brandes (Stephen Tobolowsky), a lonely guy with the office right next to Cosmo’s, who is on the cutting edge of computer dating.

(This leads to another one of those group reaction shots: after they go through his garbage, Liz notes that Werner wants someone refined and cultured, not like any of the women they would normally use for this sort of job--and they all look at her.)

So Liz goes off on a terrible date with Werner (without making us suffer through a computer hacking scene because we already know this group has the skills to do that). It’s a fun scene, with Liz trying to maneuver Werner into saying words like “passport” and “verify.”

And while she’s doing that, Mother and Crease explain the second obstacle, which is that Cosmo’s office has sensors that detect heat difference and motion. But they have a solution to that too, which is to raise the temperature of the office to body temperature and instruct Martin to move really slowly. (Why send Martin, one of the oldest members of the team, to do the physical work? Personally, I’d hire a Chinese acrobat for that work, a la Danny Ocean.)

So Act 3 starts with lots of good news for Martin: they’ve found Cosmo at PlayTronics and they’ve got a plan. A plan which will no doubt get screwed up in some way (as is traditional with heists).

Friday, January 18, 2013

Sneakers, part 8

Act 3: From low point to conclusion
For David Mamet, the acts can be broken down into (1) “Once upon a time,” (2) “Then one day,” and (3) “But there was one thing they all forgot.”

So in Sneakers, we could sum up the acts thus:

(1) Once upon a time, there was a hacker/heist (or, yech, “tiger”) team led by a rogue with a secret;
(2) Then one day, his secret caught up to him and he heisted a code-breaker box--but it was all a trick set up by the enemy that used to be his friend;
(3) But there was one thing they all forgot, which is that... Well, how does Marty get up from rock bottom?

Scene 15: With a little help from his friends
Marty wanders the city streets alone for all of one shot before he knocks on Liz’s door. Instead of slamming the door on the ex-boyfriend who (a) used her pointlessly (did she really need to go to the Janek lecture?), (b) ignored her (letting her take a cab home alone so he could go surveil Janek), and then (c) expressed distrust (not letting her leave after the party), Liz opens her door to Marty and starts cleaning his wounds.

Like in Indecent Proposal, the casting of Robert Redford seems to make this go a little too smoothly. Who needs a million dollars to sleep with Robert Redford? Who wouldn’t open their door to Robert Redford in need?

Liz does more than just open her door to Marty. When Marty says “I can’t do this alone,” he doesn’t sweep Liz into her arms--he calls his boys’ club, who all come over to make Liz’s home into their new HQ.

So when Marty needs to make a call to the NSA to confess what he knows, Whistler bounces the signal around to make it harder to trace and Mother creates a “voice-stress analyzer” to tell if the NSA agent is lying. Here we get our first, honest-to-god, ticking clock scenario, as Marty tries to get answers from the NSA before they can trace the call. It’s a pretty thrilling scene, even if the stakes aren’t really clear. That is, if Marty gets taken in by the NSA and cooperates to take down Cosmo, what’s the worst that could happen to him? Well, for Marty, the worst is that he would be even more firmly in the system.

Since the NSA can’t help them, Marty will have to do this by himself. And when I say “by himself,” I mean surrounded by his intelligent and skillful friends. So how do they find Cosmo? Using Whistler’s excellent sound system, they reconstruct the path that Martin took while being in the trunk of the car. (No real worries about how long he was unconscious. I think if you made this film today, you’d just put a black hood on him. Ah, the changing fashions of kidnapping.)

There’s another “aha” moment here, those little moments that help to propel the film by giving the character’s small tasks to complete, often with some fun leap of logic. Here, Martin claims to have heard a cocktail party, which turns out to have been the ducks/geese at the reservoir.

Having tracked down Cosmo to an electronic toy company called PlayTronics, now the real heist begins. And we can also finish our Mamet breakdown of the acts: Act 3 is “But there was one thing they forgot, which is that Marty had a skilled heist team to help him recover the box and get him out of the system.”

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sneakers, part 7

Scene 13: The return of Gregor
Last scene ended with Marty’s gun, this scene opens with it, as Marty pulls Gregor away from the concert at gunpoint and brings him down to the poolroom of the Russian consulate. (Because every Russian consulate in the 90s had a poolroom with a nice bit of fog on the water. Then again, this is San Francisco, and the foggy harbor of noir is too hard to pass up.)

Gregor offers to help Marty find the box--since the American codes are totally different than the Russian codes, the Russians would love to have that box. Curiously, Martin decides to trust him after that open expression of how much he’d like to get that box. As we saw from the first scene with Gregor, he comes off trustworthy by acknowledging his ulterior motives. See: he’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he’s just a wolf.

So Gregor takes Marty on a ride, looking through a binder of photographs of various agents. Now, when other people take Marty for a ride, they do so in the idiomatic sense: they manipulate him, but when Gregor does it, there’s no idiom, they’re literally in his car. Marty recognizes Eddie Jones’s character, an NSA agent named Buddy Wallace who left the agency four years ago. Gregor advises Marty to run away since this Wallace works for bad people--who? We never learn from Gregor, which seems unaccountably reticent for the guy who just opened his country’s secret files.

Instead, Marty and Gregor (and his driver) get pulled over by FBI agents. Although Gregor offers Martin amnesty if he stays in the car, Marty gets out and the FBI agents shoot Gregor and the driver with Marty’s own gun, using that other American idiom of “take a ride”--the Mafia meaning, where you take someone for a ride to kill them. So, yeah, I’m not sure that amnesty thing would’ve worked out so well, but clearly getting out of the car didn’t work so great either. Before Eddie Jones bludgeons Marty to unconsciousness, the other fake agent says “Too many secrets.” Were they spying on Martin’s Scrabble game before?

Scene 14: Cosmo
Marty is locked in a car trunk, which really gets pounded into our head since we see both him inside the truck and an external shot of the car trunk as they’re driving. There’s one great mini-scene here where the trunk opens. We might expect that we’re here at the destination, but no, Eddie Jones just knocks him in the head again. What can I say, I’m a sucker for tiny subversions of my expectations.

Speaking of subversions of expectations, check out this crazy office that Marty wakes up in: there’s some small sharks in a tank, repeated man-shaped art on the walls, these weird metal chairs that seem to be hollow, deep blue lighting, a glass room with some big mainframe and benches. (I do my best thinking while sitting in a glass room with a mainframe.) And, weirdest of all, there’s Cosmo, still playing sleight-of-hand tricks on Marty and finally played by Ben Kingsley.

So I guess there’s no reason for Martin to feel guilty about the whole “getting his friend arrested and then abandoning him” thing, since he seems to have come out okay. He didn’t die in prison, but rather found a vocation: IT specialist to the mob. Which is, in a sense, just another organization, like the NSA or the FBI.

So Cosmo explains why he needs the black box: to protect the Mafia’s information, which is encrypted but online. Yeah, that makes no sense, and Marty doesn’t buy it, so Cosmo goes for his second reason: he’ll use the black box to take down the entire capitalist system, wiping out all the financial records and recreating the world as Utopian commune. Marty points out that this is crazy, but maybe only because he’s part of the system now, man. So Cosmo unveils his last reason for wanting the black box: he’ll put Marty’s name into the system so he’ll go to jail. This time, Cosmo will get away scot free.

In a way, this three-part answer is a great echo of the party scene where Marty gave his own three-part answer for why Cosmo and he pulled their financial pranks: we were young, there was a war, there were girls. So there’s one selfish reason (girls/revenge) mixed in with an ideal (against the war/capitalist system) and a position vis-a-vis the system (young/work for the mob).

And yet, here’s where I think Sneakers falls down, in the motivation of its antagonist. We’ll get back to this later, in a summation post on Cosmo’s plot, but let’s just note one thing: Cosmo doesn’t need the black box to send an anonymous tip to the FBI about Martin’s alias. He could’ve done that at any time to make Martin’s life difficult.

Despite that weirdness, this scene fits into the classic “friends growing apart” scenario. It starts with an emphasis on the past relationship by echoing the prologue in a few ways, with Cosmo’s sleight-of-hand and the same “posit-consequence-result-conclusion” game they played in the prologue.

But Marty and Cosmo aren’t the same kids now that they were then. Martin is all grown up, by which we mean that he’s reconciled himself to the system; while Cosmo has only changed in a few ways. For one, his long hair in the opening is now in a pony-tail. The fact that Cosmo works for the mob (a pretty adult career choice) is undercut by a certain adolescent vibe--what teenage boy wouldn’t love to have a shark tank in his office? And that’s not even getting into Cosmo’s cosmic vision of money, where he realizes it’s all, like, about perception, dude. What’s more adolescent than realizing that everything out there is just bullshit and you’re the only one who can see the truth?

So what should be a positive change (my friend is still alive!) becomes a classic rejection scene where the protagonist realizes the danger of one possible character arc for himself. (We all think of ourselves in terms of character arcs, right?) Transpose Cosmo to Vader and Marty to Luke and you get close to the dynamics of this scene: Yay, my friend/dad is alive; boo, my friend/dad is the villain; double-boo, how easy would it be for me to become the villain?

In some guides to structure, Act 1 ends when the character accepts the call to adventure; Act 2 ends when the protagonist is furthest away from the adventure’s goals (which might have switched). So when does Marty hit rock bottom? I argue that it’s here: he’s lost the black box, he’s being framed for murder, his past has come back to haunt him in the person of Cosmo, he’s been tossed out onto the street by Cosmo’s goons to wander the city alone, and, worst of all, he’s back in the system.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sneakers, part 6

Scene 11: Partay
Part of the joy of Sneakers is that actors seem like they’re having a good time, and this is super-clear in the party scene that follows the successful heist. But even though the party is all about good times--which we see clearly in the montage where everyone gets a chance to dance with Liz--we get some heavy info in this scene.

For instance: what happened to Cosmo? Even though Martin Bishop (nee Brice) has already confessed to abandoning his friend to the Feds, he only tells us the rest of the story now, which is that Cosmo died in prison.

For another instance, we get the oh-so-cliched “what are you going to do after...” round robin discussion, which we know best from war films (“What are you going to do after the war, Marty?” “I’m going to make love to my wife.” *bang* “They shot Marty!”), but which also pops up in cop films (“...after you retire, Marty?” “Sail around the world.” *bang* “Salazar killed Marty!”) and robber films (“...after the big score, Marty?” “Sail around the world and make love to my wife.” *bang* “I shot Marty, because I’m in love with his boat.”)

But the real heaviness of this scene is when Marty and Whistler, working apart, come to the same realization: this box that’s supposed to be able to break codes--it can really break codes! This probably shouldn’t be such a revelation, but the dynamic way it’s done really helps to emphasize the importance: while Marty rearranged Scrabble tiles for the black box project’s name, “SETEC Astronomy” (“cootys rat semen”), Whistler reads the hard-wired code of the black box’s microchip. The microchip is more important than the Scrabble tiles, but Scrabble tiles are more fun to watch, especially when they come back with the anagram, “Too many secrets,” which seems like it must mean something. So by running them in parallel, the movie makes us forget how boring it would be to watch a blind guy read code.

(What do you want to bet that there’s an earlier version of the script where “Too many secrets” was a fun phrase passed around by Marty and Cosmo? But they had to take it out to avoid revealing too early that the real nemesis here is Cosmo.)

Once they discover the power of the box, Don Crease understands that any government in the world would kill for this box and everyone needs to stay right here. (Except for his family, whom he sends home; since he knows he’s not the protagonist, he rightly assumes that they’re not going to become hostages.)

So a scene that begins with everyone dancing together, ends with everyone uncomfortably sleeping in the same office because they can’t trust anyone. Another quick reversal.

Scene 12: The handoff
The next scene is when Marty and Crease go to give the black box to the NSA agents. Here’s another reversal: they can’t wait to get rid of the black box that they worked hard to get. Weirdly, the handoff takes place at an open-air cafe rather than the NSA office.

And Marty is about to get paid when Crease--hanging around by the car for some reason--notices the news that Janek was killed. Here’s a nice little bit of Notorious, where Crease has to get Marty away from the NSA agents without alerting the agents that something is up. (Why Crease is worried about these guys rather than the Russians might seem weird, if Eddie Jones wasn’t reaching into his briefcase in a really suspicious manner.)

So Marty and Crease leave the box, but escape with their lives, and go check on the NSA building, which is gone. Just to rub salt in Marty’s injury, the homeless beggar comes by again to complain that the government took his home, which suddenly has new meaning in this new context. If only Martin listened to him before!

In fact, there’s a lot of things that Martin should’ve done before, like check out the information on Janek and the NSA: his grant money wasn’t Russian, it was NSA; and the NSA office in California is in Los Angeles, not San Francisco. Post-Google, this would be unacceptable writing, but pre-Google, you can kind of get away with it.

So by the end of this twist, Marty suspects the Russians are behind the manipulation of his team and the murder of Janek, so he’ll go see Gregor. The zinger of this scene is that Marty prepares his gun before saying that he’s going to a concert. It’s an attention-getting line, a way to ratchet up the stress.

Because, sure, Marty got played here, but is there any reason he has to remain involved in this case? He’s not suspected of any crimes, he’s not threatened by anyone, he’s only lost a little time and money in pursuing this case. And really, for all my commentary on how he’s not making a killing in this line of work, he doesn’t have any subplot about why he needs a lot of money very soon. There’s no ticking clock here to make us anxious. But there is the mystery of who played Marty and the danger of that gun to rivet our attention.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sneakers, part 5

Scene 10: Breaking in
If you’re reading this, thinking “where’s the heist I was promised?,” I want to point out that we’re only 30 minutes in to a two hour movie. All those times I said that the scenes were short and kept moving quickly, I meant that. (The later scenes are much longer. Once they do all this set-up, they can let the rising action and climax stretch out.)

And if you’re really impatient for it, here’s your heist. (Or the second of three heists: bank, black box, mysterious third heist that I’ll get to.)

Janek works at the Coolidge Institute, which might be take-off of the conservative, California-based think tank, the Hoover Institution. I have no idea what they do at this institute, but whatever it is, their security isn’t so great. After hooking up a microphone and practicing to pick a lock, Marty bullshits an overworked lobby receptionist into buzzing him up.

Once he’s up on Janek’s floor, Marty discovers the lockpicking practice won’t help, since Janek has an electronic keypad lock. Mother and Crease consult with Marty, and it sure sounds complicated--Marty says “yeah” and “okay” more than half-a-dozen times. But it turns out the way to bypass this type of door is just to kick it down. (Sad trombone. Except the sad trombone isn’t played by the person who you think would play it, and is instead played by a talented little Asian girl. Double-switch!)

So we’ve had two obstacles overcome, which means it’s time for a third. If you charted the first two obstacles against how expected they are, you’d find 1) getting past the front desk--totally expected, totally planned for (no consultation necessary, just bullshitting); 2) getting past the office door--expected but different, calls for new skill (brute strength rather than finesse, and some consultation required). So to complete the pattern, obstacle number three should be totally unexpected, involve a radical switch of skill-sets, and call for a lot of consultation.

And since Sneakers is a film that rewards pattern recognition, that’s totally what it is. After Marty grabs the decoy answering machine, Elena walks in. He grabs her (brute strength solution), and, with a running consultation with the boys, then bullshits her about affairs of the human heart (an issue on which he can fake expertise). He claims that he’s a PI working for a shadowy Mrs. Janek who wants Janek’s secrets. Which isn’t total b.s., if you replace “Mrs. Janek” with “NSA agents.”

For an added bonus, Marty adds that Elena and he are just pawns. It’s always fun when you can have a character tell the truth but not have them recognize it as the truth.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sneakers, part 4

Scene 7: Investigating Janek, part 1
If you’re looking at Sneakers to understand script structure for scenes, you’ll come away with two things: scenes should be focused; and scenes should be connected clearly (preferably by “because,” not “then” or “and”).

So, scene 1 is the exception, a prologue that’s clearly in the past; but almost all the others we can connect pretty clearly: They do a job but not for much money (2), and because of that, Marty’s happy to meet new customers who know his secret (3), and because of that he’s willing to go meet them at their office where they make a promise that motivates him (4), and because of that he needs to assemble his all-male team (5), and because of that he needs to go recruit Liz (6). 

(Well, he doesn't really need to recruit Liz, as far as he knows. He wants to recruit Liz. Is all this heisting just an excuse to get together with a girl? The 90s were a pretty wacky time.)
And we could say, because he’s got his team on-board, he’s ready to investigate Janek. But investigating Janek is actually pretty boring: they don’t hack into his computer or trick him into giving them his password. Instead, Marty and Liz attend a non-sensical math lecture in the open. It's not really the sort of thing you need to assemble a team for.

The best part of this lecture is that Janek (Donal Logue) walks around, in a white(ish) suit, while math is projected on him (because he's stupidly walking around in front of his screen). Here’s a pretty nice visual sign: Janek is math. So when he goes on about the ultimate code-breaker, we’re not supposed to know what he’s talking about (“a breakthrough of Gaussian proportions”! My God, I’ve always wanted one of those!); but when Liz says that he probably already invented it, we know that she’s right. Of course she’s right, we just saw the proof: Janek is math.

In fact, watching Janek lecture about math is so boring that the filmmakers throw in a little flirtation between Marty and Liz, both of them asking the other if they’re seeing anyone now.

Scene 8: The Russian contingency
Scene 7 starts as a lecture that we’re not supposed to understand, but only get visually, and it continues with one of those interminable, post-talk cocktail parties that's not really interesting to any sense (even taste, except for the chocolate-covered strawberries). And even though Janek is there, the real focus of this mini-scene is Gregor, the Russian ex-spy (played by George Hearn).

A quick note on casting: lots of people in this movie are instantly recognizable, even if that recognition is just “oh, that’s the guy from... you know, that movie.” Some of that recognition might bleed through to the audience's feelings. For instance, when Robert Redford comes on, I expect a charmer, possibly a rogue, but a good guy.

But George Hearn doesn’t trip that switch: when I see him, there’s not a lot of other movies or roles to attach him to. So when I see him as the Russian agent, I have no idea where he’s coming from, and no clue whether or not to trust him. My compliments to the casting director on a perfectly ambiguous choice.

This ambiguity about Gregor continues: he seems affable, inviting Marty and Liz to come see some music at the embassy... and then adds that he’d love to get Marty’s help with some issues; Marty says he’s harmless, but Liz doesn’t trust him. (Although, since Marty is a freelancer, i.e., constantly in need of a job, why can’t Gregor just hire him? Cold War impulses run deep, and Gregor doesn’t want to hire Martin so much as maneuver him into giving a favor.)

And Gregor even admits this ambiguity, commenting on his new title of "cultural attache" that the “last few years has been very confusing for people in my line of work.” Which is kind of charming and honest, which are fun descriptors to attach to a Russian spy. Boy, I hope we see more of him later.

Scene 9: Investigating Janek, part 2--listen, don’t look
From scene 7 we learned that Janek already built his code-breaker, but it’s secret; from scene 8, we learn that the Russians might want it. So maybe the paranoid NSA men aren’t wrong?

But otherwise, 7 and 8 don’t seem like the sort of covert investigating that we expect from this team of misfits. And that’s where scene 9 comes in: the team is across the street from Janek’s office, watching and listening with stuff that’s not all that spy-like--a camera and what amounts to a boom mike held up to his window. Maybe this gives them an underdog feeling for the audience, since they’re up against a brilliant mathematician and world governments? (Later they'll enhance and zoom on the video, giving them that all-important cool factor.)

But things never do go quite smoothly, and while the team is trying to surveil Janek, his lover Elena comes in. She blocks their view of Janek’s password (though in that pre-internet porn era, she gives them another show), and complains that Janek never calls her back.

And so their investigation is for naught, right? Not so fast. Back at home base they use high-tech video equipment to try to get a better view of the password, replaying the scene over and over, and they finally are able to see... nothing.

The clue here though, as Whistler points out annoyingly, is to listen: Elena complains that he never calls back when she leaves a message for his service. So that answering machine that they saw on his desk is a total decoy. In other words, in classic Sneakers switcheroo, not only is the secret out in plain sight, but the clue (Elena’s lovelorn complaint) originally looked like an interruption of the clue (Elena blocking the keyboard).

So maybe that’s why this secret gets uncovered in the dark, at night: because the secret wasn’t to see anything, but to listen. It’s another inversion: instead of seeing the math (scene 7), now we’re supposed to hear the clue (scene 9).

Which means they know where the black box is--and are ready for some serious heisting.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Sneakers, part 3

Act 2: From accepting adventure to the low point
(There are a few ways to break up a movie into acts, so to be completely transparent about that I'm labeling the acts with my quick way of understanding them: Act I is life as we know it, which ends when the protagonist makes the fateful (and irreversible) decision to go on with the adventure, which begins Act II. If that's confusing, it will all make sense at the end.)

Scene 5: Assembling the team
In your classic heist film, this is the part where the leader assembles his ragtag team of experts, but Martin already has his team (almost). So how do you assemble a team that's already assembled?

That should raise some red flags and raise them high for a whole genre of movies: ever notice how loner hackers in films are rarely ever loners? Both Hackers and Sneakers give away this plurality in their titles, and while the good guy in The Net is alone, the evil net is--do I really have to finish this sentence?--a network of multiple people.

So the “assembling the team” scenes makes some crucial changes from the classic form: not many scenes (one for each expert), but one big scene where Marty confesses his Secret Shame. There’s no real doubt that the team will go along with this, so thankfully the scene doesn’t go on long.

And it ends with a fun, big reaction shot of the whole group, of which this film has several. That is, Martin adds at the end that he’s going to recruit Liz and everyone looks at him like he’s nuts. It’s a cute shot to see them all look at him that way; it’s a reminder of how cohesive this team really is; and it’s a nice segue to meeting Liz. What is she going to be like, a fire-breathing monster, an adventurous trouble-maker, an unreconstructed hippie punk?

Scene 6: Assembling the team, part 2
Of course, she’s none of those things: she’s a proper and playful woman who we first see at a piano, as we hear wonderful music. In one of the tiny little twists the movie delights in, Liz isn’t the one playing--she’s just teaching the tiny Asian girl who is already quite good.

Liz (Mary McDonnell) has such transition 80s-90s hair that it’s hard for me to take her seriously, especially when she's a music teacher who reads abstruse mathematical papers on the side. (Given the apartment that we see later, I can only assume that she's a wealthy heiress who teaches music for fun.) Yes, music and math are related, but everything together makes her scream “plot point” rather than “real person,” especially when she
’s given lines like “we’re not getting back together.” Let’s be clear, when someone says “we’re not getting back together” to Robert Redford it tells us two things: they were together once; and they’re going to get back together.

Liz does nicely point out that what Martin has isn’t a business but a boys’ club, a nice echo of the secretary’s put-down from scene 2 about this job not being much of a living. Put another way: Martin Bishop needs to grow up and get real (say the women of the world).

I want to say something like “It’s almost as if abandoning his first life when young has stunted Martin’s emotional growth,” but the film doesn’t really make much of that. Martin isn’t some adolescent who can’t get along with other people and broods all the time. (Or am I revealing too much of my teenage/college years?) I can imagine a darker version of this movie that took this path, but this film is a light-hearted caper, starring Robert freaking Redford. Do you want to see Robert Redford play a maladjusted, immature middle-aged man? (Now Patton Oswalt would be pretty killer in the role of the maladjusted hacker leader.)

So this version of Marty isn’t a flaw in the movie, it’s just a note about a different way the film could have gone. And here’s more evidence that this Marty isn’t so immature: he got close enough with Liz to tell her about his Secret Shame, which he uses now to convince her to help him. In scene 5, Don Crease argues that partners are supposed to tell each other secrets, which may not be true of business partners, but was definitely true of Marty and Liz as romantic partners.

(Although we know that Marty and Liz are close and probably going to get back together after the end of the film, the film never shows them in any intimate way, which might be the most immature thing about Marty/the film. Sex exists in this world, but mostly as a joke.)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sneakers, part 2

Scene 3 and 4: New customers
Scenes 1 and 2 were all set-up: now we know the themes and the characters, with a side order of mystery (what happened to Cosmo after the cops got him). But the viewer might ask, where’s the plot? I think the movie does a good job of forestalling that question by making scene 2 a mini-heist all its own.

But if you were looking for more plot, here it is. We know from scene 2 that the team doesn’t make a lot of money, so here comes some new customers (with “expensive shoes” Carl assures Marty) to offer a sweetheart deal.

(The “meet the customers” scene also allows Martin the opportunity to identify and describe all his team members, giving us info on their rebellions and their skill-sets. It’s a nice way to drive home what we learned in scene 2 and, I think, done in the right order: first the film showed them in action, now it tells us about them.)

The customers turn out to be from the NSA, which people might not have known about in the early 90s, so the film provides a helpful primer via anti-gov Marty: Are you the guys who tap my phone? No, that’s the FBI. Are you the guys who overthrow governments and install friendly dictators? No, that’s the CIA. According to Smiley McSmilerson here (played by Timothy Busfield), the NSA is the good guys.

And if we were tempted to believe him when he said they were the good guys, he adds a stick to his previous carrot of money: he knows “Martin Bishop” is really “Martin Brice” who disappeared after a hacking incident (or as we know it, the prologue).

Now, scene 3 takes place at Marty’s office; and what I’m calling scene 4 takes place at the NSA office in San Francisco. But 4 is really a continuation of 3: they add up to a “call to adventure” (also known, by some screenwriting books, as “the fateful decision,” or by fish as “the hook”).

Marty arrives at the NSA office, gives a beggar some money but doesn’t listen to the beggar’s complaints that the government took his home. Sure, that’s just some homeless raving, but if there’s a lesson in Sneakers, it’s to pay attention when someone comments on the government being sneaky. Marty’s a nice guy, giving money to the needy, but his ignoring of the homeless man’s code will come around later to bite him.

The same two NSA agents--the smiler and the grumpy one (Eddie Jones)--lay out the job they need Marty’s team to pull, a job they want off the records. They think a mathematician named Janek at the Coolidge Institute has a black box that can crack codes. They even think there might be Russian money behind this. But Marty points out the Cold War is over--more evidence that the world changed even without Marty’s pranks.

But the NSA has an even bigger carrot to use on Marty than money: they’ll wipe his record out of the system, making sure that he doesn’t end up like poor Cosmo in prison. (Wait, what happened to Cosmo in prison? The script keeps us dangling about that.) 

Here’s a nice twist the script pulls, to set Marty’s need against itself. Because Marty needs to get out of the system (running into the shadows again), but in order to do that, he has to align himself with the system in the form of the NSA.

So in the great tradition of calls to adventure, here’s a call that Marty can’t refuse. But why is this plot point split up into two scenes? Why couldn’t the NSA agents just lay out the job and make their offer at Marty’s office? My guess: the writers or producers said, “hey, I have a great idea for a reveal later, but we need to get Marty into their office.” This is a strange flaw, but it continues a nice motif of shadow vs. light.

That is, this split (3/4) repeats the split nature of scene 2: scene 2 started in the dark (the heist) and went to light (the reveal that he’s working for the bank, it was just a pretend heist); scene 3 starts in Marty’s dark office, with all its secrets, and moves to scene 4, a lighter office where there are plans to eliminate secrets. Because that’s what the NSA does, right? Cast light on dark subjects?