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Richard Jewell: Hero? Protagonist? Neither?

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This week I read a screenplay I REALLY want to discuss with you but I DON’T want to spoil it in case you plan to see the movie. So instead I’m going to talk about one small, spoiler-free aspect of it, which may be helpful to you if you’re trying to construct this less-common type of story. (Or if you haven’t considered this type of construction yet, but might want to.)

As you probably guessed, the script I’m talking about is Richard Jewell. Screenplay credit goes to Billy Ray (one of my favorite writers) and the movie is directed by Clint Eastwood (which makes it an automatic Oscar contender, right?) It opens on December 13th.

The movie is based on true events, and in case you’re not familiar with the Richard Jewell story (I wasn’t), here’s the short synopsis from IMDB [if you really want to avoid all spoilers, stop reading now]:

“American security guard Richard Jewell saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is vilified by journalists and the press who falsely report that he was a terrorist.”

Alright, so the one aspect I think it’s safe – and useful – to discuss is the choice of protagonist.

Even though the title of the movie is Richard Jewell, surprisingly the movie’s protagonist is not Richard Jewell. Instead, the screenplay gives us something we see less often – you might call it a stealth protagonist. (I was going to call it an observer protagonist, but that makes the character sound passive, which your protagonist shouldn’t be.)

Let’s first talk about qualities of a protagonist

(By the way, I’m not picky about the terms “protagonist,” “main character,” and “hero,” and use them all pretty interchangeably.)

  • The protagonist is usually the character whose story we’re telling, whose desires, actions, and predicaments drive the plot.
  • It’s who we follow through the story and identify with. The protagonist represents the audience’s point of view, and is the character through which we most experience the emotional journey of the story.
  • And often the protagonist is the one with the biggest lesson to learn from the experience. If movies are transformative experiences (which they are), the protagonist is often — not always, but very often — the one with the most profound transformation.

Examples:

In Die Hard, it’s NYC cop John McClane (Bruce Willis).
In The Ring, it’s journalist and single mom Rachel (Naomi Watts).
In Hell or High Water, it’s unemployed divorced father Toby (Chris Pine).
In The Silence of the Lambs, it’s FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster).

Now, in another writer’s hands, the protagonist of Richard Jewell probably would have been Richard Jewell. And that would have told us a different story.

Remember when we talked about adapting true stories (or novels)? Figuring out what story you want to tell is part of the work of adaptation. Because a lot of different stories can be told from the same events. Where you put the emphasis (aka structure) creates the meaning (aka story).

(Fun fact: I cannot see the word “emphasis” without hearing Mike Myers.)

This movie, the Billy Ray / Clint Eastwood version of Richard Jewell, tells us a story about how the media and FBI bully an average citizen simply because they can. He’s an easy target, they have no regard for him, and he is sorely outmatched.

But Jewell’s perspective isn’t the most effective way to tell this story. Because what he went through was awful, but that’s not what the story’s about.

Who is the protagonist of Richard Jewell?

Our way into this story is close to Jewell, but not Jewell himself. That way we can see firsthand the effects of everything that’s going on, and we empathize with Jewell, but we’re also familiar with being on the other side too. We’ve read the headlines and made snap judgments. We’ve laughed at Jay Leno’s jokes about some public gaffe or scandal.

The story is somewhat of a cautionary tale, and what does a cautionary tale do? It warns of potential consequences. But it’s not the consequences of Jewell’s actions that the movie is concerned with.

The character who represents the audience’s point of view is Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant. He’s the one whose emotional journey we’re inside of and tracking along with. Bryant is the one trying to decide what to do and how to act and how to confront the problem. He’s our eyes on this story. He’s the one grappling with his own preconceived notions as he witnesses the injustice of it all. And he’s the one who’s most changed by the experience.

There’s something to learn from Bryant’s experience, behavior, and transformation. That’s what the story is really about.

That’s probably all I can say without getting into specifics, and I don’t want to spoil the movie (although it’s based on true events, so…)

There are other movies that use a similar stealth protagonist structure, too. The Virgin Suicides and The Last King of Scotland come to mind. Can you think of any others?

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