Monday, December 30, 2013

LONE SURVIVOR Three Act Structure Breakdown

Nothing says Christmas quite like a war movie. After watching the 60 Minutes piece on Marcus Luttrell’s miraculous escape after being trapped by the Taliban on a mountain in Afghanistan, I felt compelled to watch Peter Berg’s new film, LONE SURVIVOR.

Here’s my three-act structure breakdown of the story… It’s not only a great example of dramatically putting the screws to a main character, but of the hazards of dramatizing a true story.

SPOILER ALERT!  I’m about to reveal the entire plot of the film.


ORDINARY WORLD—Over titles, we see a montage of Navy Seal Training.  Man, these guys are macho and prepared for everything.  We also see they are truly brothers, as they bond through the torturous training.

Cut to a chopper flying with a terribly wounded guy on board.  We hear voice over that says, “There’s a storm inside of us.  A drive.  A river.”  The guy dies in flight and is resuscitated.  See how Berg creates a strong dramatic question for the audience here?  We think, “Wow, what the hell happened to this guy?”

Flashback.  3 Days Earlier.

We meet the main character, Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg,) and his fellow Seals.  He’s totally gung ho to take on a mission.  His pals are Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Matt “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) and their Commanding Officer Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana.)  Each one of them has a personal life and something at stake.

INCITING INCIDENT:  They are prepped for their mission.  The Seals are told they have to capture Shah, a real Taliban bad guy who has been responsible for the deaths of at least 20 marines in the past few weeks. The team will have to climb a mountain to get to his compound.

Under cover of night, they are flown in and dropped silently down onto the mountain. In the morning, they find Shah’s encampment.  Their radios don’t work that well.  It’s tougher than expected.  Shah’s got half the village working for him.  Murphy, the officer in charge, says they need to move back and regroup.  They do.

ACT I TURNING POINT:  Some local shepherds stumble across them and the Seals are forced to take the shepherds captive.  They clearly have ties to the Taliban, and the team knows that if they let them go, they will run immediately to Shah and report their whereabouts.

They have 3 options.  Let them go, tie them up and try to get off the mountain, or terminate them. 


FOLLOW THE TRAJECTORY CREATED BY THE FIRST TURNING POINT:  There’s a huge argument about what to do.  Marcus says they can’t shoot them, it’s wrong, they’re innocent civilians.  “The rules of engagement say we can’t touch them.” Axe says they have to kill them, otherwise they themselves are going to die. Marcus says he doesn’t want to be splashed on CNN as the guy who killed civilians. Murphy reminds them it’s not a democracy.  He says the mission has been compromised.  They’re going to cut them loose, make for the peak, and call for a chopper to extract them from the mountain.

Bana, their C.O., tries to contact them, but can’t get through.

They let the shepherds go.

As the Seals race for the summit of the mountain to radio for help, the youngest shepherd, a young man who clearly hates Americans, races for Shah’s camp. 

The seals get to the “summit” only to find it’s a false peak and they can’t radio for help because there’s no reception.  They have to hide until night. One Seal has injured his foot. 

Back at home base, Bana is concerned.  The team has missed three communication windows.

The Seals hide in the trees.  Murphy goes to do some recon and discovers there are fifty Taliban in the hills watching them.  He races back and tells his men, “We are about to get contacted.”  They prepare to fight.

MIDPOINT:  Huge firefight.  Murphy gets wounded, other guys get shot, and they are forced to retreat.  A mortar goes off behind them and they all roll down a hill.  They get shot at again.  They retreat behind a rock, assess their situation and wounds.  Danny and Murphy are injured badly.  Axe has been shot multiple times too.  Marcus is scared and now knows he made a mistake in arguing to let the shepherds go.  Oh yeah, and even though he doesn’t know it, his back is broken.

BIG GLOOM (remember, this a series of events)  As if it weren’t bad enough, now it gets worse.  They are surrounded again, shot at, Danny is captured and killed.  They are all wrecked and none of their phones work. Murphy is totally shot up, but knows their only chance for rescue is if he tries to get to a summit and use the SAT phone.  This means certain death for him, as he’ll have to go out in the open.  But he has to save his men.  He says to Marcus, “Never end the fight.”

Murphy runs for the summit while Marcus “covers” him with gunfire, makes the call, and is killed.

Bana gets the message, orders choppers to be sent, but is told they can’t leave without Apache cover.  The Apache helicopters are off base and need to be called in.

Now, on the mountain, there are only two guys left.  Marcus and Axe. Axe doesn’t know that Murphy has been killed, and Marcus can’t tell him.  Axe asks, “Are we dead?”  Marcus says, “No, we’re good.”

The helicopters arrive.  Foster and Marcus are relieved.  Hurray!  But this being the Big Gloom section of the story, the chopper is shot down out of the sky.  All the seals on board die in a flaming explosion against the mountain.

Axe and Marcus run.  Axe is shot and killed.

The Apaches finally arrive, but Marcus, due to his injuries, can’t move.  When the Apache pilots can’t see any movement on the mountain, they leave, assuming all of them are dead.

Marcus is left under a rock, alone. (see how low Berg brings him?)

ACT II TURNING POINT:  The next morning, Marcus fights to stand up and struggles to find water.  He finds a river, plunges in, but is immediately discovered by a villager.  Freaked out, he holds a grenade, threatens him. The villager, Gulab (Ali Suliman) says he is not Taliban and will help him.  Marcus, completely alone and terribly injured, has no choice but to trust him.


RACE TO THE CLIMAX:  Marcus is taken to the man’s village, where Gulab and his son take care of him. The rest of the village is nervous, fears the Taliban will come and kill them all.  Gulab refuses to put Marcus out and sends someone to the closest U.S. Military Base to tell them where Marcus is.

The Taliban enter the village and the villagers attack them, telling the Taliban to leave.  The Taliban say they’ll be back.  “For an American, you will die?”

CLIMAX:  The Taliban come back (don’t they always?) and there’s a huge shootout.  Marcus and Gulab and his kid fight the Taliban.  Marcus is about to die, when the kid gives him a knife and he stabs the guy.

U.S. helicopters arrive and strafe the hell out of the village. They rescue Marcus.  He says thank you to Gulab and his son.

BRIEF RESOLUTION: Now we’re back to the helicopter shot we started the movie with.  Marcus is injured, being transported back to the base.  He dies, and then is resuscitated. In voice over, he says, “Part of me died up on that mountain.”  We find out that the village to which he has been taken has a tradition that they must help whoever comes their way.  And this is what has saved Marcus.

The end.

Now, there’s plenty to quibble about in the screenplay.  For one, the pretentious  voiceover.  We don’t need it and it’s self-important. We get the themes of the movie purely through the action.  We also see this directorial overkill in the sections where the key characters (Murphy, Foster) die in super slow “give me a break” motion.

I also wonder if the stuff that happens in ACT III in the film (Gulab and his son fighting the Taliban in hand to hand combat), actually happened in real life.  If it didn’t, it’s a great example of how the filmmakers felt the need to have a rousing three-act structure climax, despite the truth.

LONE SURVIVOR is a tight, compelling drama about a band of Navy seals who are dropped on a mountain, but only one gets out alive. 

If you like war movies, check it out.  The action sequences are great, and I’ve never seen rolling down a hill look quite so painful or real. 

Oh yeah, and Eric Bana is a hunk.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

PRISONERS Structure Breakdown

Here is another in my series of film structure breakdowns… 

PRISONERS, written by Aaron Guzikowski, is a terrific crime film, filled with rich characters, a gritty setting and a strong three act structure.  It also has complex backstories and like any good mystery, the puzzle pieces come together in a way that’s wholly satisfying.

At two and a half hours, it’s long.  But the Three Act Structural Landmarks space out appropriately throughout.

SPOILER ALERT!    I am about to reveal the entire plot of this movie.


ORDINARY WORLD: We see the normal life of the main character, KELLER DOVER (Hugh Jackman.)  He’s out hunting a deer with his teenaged son.  He tells his son to always be prepared for the worst. 

INCITING INCIDENT: On Thanksgiving, Keller, his wife GRACE (Maria Bello), his son and eight-year-old daughter ANNA walk down the street to another family’s house for dinner. This couple, FRANKLIN (Terrence Howard) and NANCY (Viola Davis) have two daughters, one the age of Keller’s older son, and a younger, JOY, the same age as Anna.  After dinner, the two little girls ask to walk over to Anna’s house to look for her lost whistle.   Slightly drunk, the parents say yes. 

The girls disappear.

While all the parents are frantically looking for them, Keller’s son says that earlier, the girls crawled on top of a creepy camper that was parked in the neighborhood.  They could hear a radio inside and knew someone was there. They call the police. 

DETECTIVE LOKI (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives and tells Keller he’s solved all of his cases and will find his daughter.  Loki finds the RV and takes down the young man inside, ALEX JONES (Paul Dano.)  Loki brings him in for questioning.  He has the intelligence of a ten year old.

Loki thinks Alex is innocent, but Keller thinks he’s guilty.

Loki investigates all local sex offenders, and finds a priest with the long dead body of a man in his basement.  The priest says the dead guy confessed to taking 16 children. 

ACT I TURNING POINT:  Loki releases Alex. In the parking lot of the police station, Keller attacks Alex.  The young man taunts him by whispering (in NOT a ten-year-old voice), “The only time they cried was when I left them.” Alex’s feeble aunt HOLLY (Melissa Leo) defends her nephew.  Keller is now sure Alex is guilty.


FOLLOW THE TRAJECTORY CREATED BY THE FIRST TURNING POINT:  Keller begins to stalk Alex.  Alex sees Keller and does something cruel to his own dog, and sings a song the girls were singing right before they disappeared.

Furious, Keller kidnaps Alex and brings him to an old abandoned house.  He’s going to hold him prisoner until he confesses. Franklin, the other girl’s father, is helping him.

Loki interviews the priest.  The priest says the dead guy was religious.  Told him he was “Waging a war against God.”

Keller tortures Alex to try to get him to tell where the girls are.  Alex won’t talk.

MIDPOINT: At a vigil for the girls in front of Franklin’s house, Loki sees a creepy guy wearing a hoodie.  Loki starts to follow him and the guy runs away.  Loki chases but loses him (now we have another suspect.)  This is actually the point where my husband turned to me and said, “Where does this movie take place?  Perv County U.S.A?”

Loki pursues clues about the hoodie guy. Franklin and Keller continue to interrogate/torture Alex.  Alex still refuses to talk.

Hoodie sneaks into Franklin and Keller’s houses.  While investigating the break-ins, Loki sees lye in Keller’s basement, begins to suspect him.

THE BIG GLOOM (remember, this is usually a series of events). 

Loki follows Keller, but discovers a clue that leads him to the hoodie guy.  Hoodie has the girls’ clothes with blood on them. Loki tells the parents their daughters are dead. Keller does NOT believe him.  Will not give up.  Hoodie shoots himself in the head.  Now they won’t ever know where the girls’ bodies are.  Keller tortures Alex more.  Finally, Alex (whose face seriously looks like it’s going to explode from his wounds) breaks, and says the girls are in the “maze.” The cops discover that the blood on the girls’ clothes was pig blood and hoodie probably took the clothing when he broke into the houses.  He’s a copycat, not the real abductor.

Keller goes to Alex’s house, talks to his Aunt Holly.  He apologizes for attacking Alex in the parking lot, tries to get info on the “maze.” Holly says that her young son died from cancer years ago.  Alex is all she has.

Keller is distraught.  Time is ticking out on his daughter and he has nothing. 

ACT II TURNING POINT:  Franklin’s little girl turns up alive.  She can’t tell Keller where Anna is but says, “They put tape on her mouth.”  And Keller knows who did it.

Loki finds Alex in the abandoned building and rescues him.


RACE TO CLIMAX:  Keller goes back to Alex’s Aunt’s house. He says he knows the girls were here.   That she and Alex took them.

CLIMAX:  The aunt holds Keller at gunpoint. She says that Alex never wanted to hurt the girls. She and her husband, who ran out on her years ago, were distraught about their son’s death and were “waging a war on God.” She cuffs Keller and makes him crawl into a hole underneath a car that’s parked outside her house.  He refuses.  She shoots him in leg.  Trapped down there, he finds Anna’s whistle.

Loki goes to notify the Aunt that they found Alex.  He realizes she is the bad guy. They get into a shootout.  Loki kills her. He races with Anna, who’s been drugged, to the hospital.

BRIEF RESOLUTION:  Anna is saved.  We discover that Alex was actually one of the boys taken by Holly and her husband a long time ago.  Keller is missing.  Loki thinks he ran away because he knew he would go to jail for kidnapping and torturing Alex. 

Loki goes to the aunt’s house to check with the CSI people who are there.  They’ve found nothing, and leave for the night. Loki stands there, in the snow, then hears a tiny, weak whistling sound coming from underneath the ground.


If you’re writing a mystery, this is a great script to study for structure.  It’s complicated, but if you look at the moving pieces, they all line up and make perfect sense in the end.

The main character has a strong goal—to find his daughter. The antagonist is just as strong—he will NOT reveal her location.  As in most great crime/mysteries, the bad guy is revealed to be just the person fronting for the true mastermind.  The detective in this movie serves to create red herrings and perform the final rescue of Keller.

Gritty.  Compelling.

What more could you ask of a crime drama set in Perv County U.S.A.?