The best conspiracy thriller films came out in the 70s. That’s the official decision. But no one can convince me of that.
I got wise to the intrigue, subtle action and high stakes of intelligent espionage and suspense movies in the 90s when I would go to the local theater with friends and sometimes my mom to watch the likes of The Fugitive, The Pelican Brief, The Game and others.
The 90s saw a revival of the kind of tense, talky, swift-as-a-racehorse suspense movies that previously peaked in the paranoid 70s (Three Days of the Condor and All The President’s Men are good examples: one grade above James Bond and one below, I dunno, The Godfather Part II).
For our purposes, let’s say the resurgence began with JFK (1991) and ended with Michael Clayton (2007). My favorite—and I would argue the best crafted—thriller from that period is 1997’s Ronin.
I can’t prove it, but I believe that most of the credit for that sharp and elegant film belongs to its two writers—one of whom, is man that does not exist.
If you’ve not seen Ronin, I ask you to.
A compact film that taps magic by getting the basics wonderfully correct, Ronin is an action movie with weight; a heist movie with true character; and ultimately a wildly successful exercise in precision storytelling.
Here’s the setup: A motley crew of has-beens in the international intrigue industry gather in a quiet bistro somewhere in a dark corner of Paris. They don’t seem to be intelligence officers deployed by any government; let’s call them espionage tradesmen—semi-retired, clearly surprised and unhappy to be in need of emergency funding at this likely final stage of their careers. They’ve been assembled by a cutout to perform a task as a team: Steal a certain briefcase, from a certain man. The case is on the move. Go get it.
Steal the case.
Our principal is simply Sam—a middle-aged American professional played with warm intelligence by Robert De Niro. Sam seems to be the most cautious of the team. The caution, we see, is animated by intelligence not cowardice. The entire first act (and maybe more) sees him test his environment and colleagues in every interaction. He’s assessing; scanning for threats and probing for weaknesses. His fatherly eyes mask algorithmic analysis of all the data before him at any moment. “You think too hard,” one of the characters complains.
In other times, Sam was probably a reliable hand with a level head. He must have been betrayed or brought low by bad luck. We don’t know.
As our characters—we can’t call them heroes—pursue the enigmatic case across France, alliances are forged, traitors suffer exposure and lives are lost or destroyed. In short, a thriller. This one just happens to be perfect.
The film was directed by John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate). But who wrote it? That’s subject to some debate.
The two credited writers are JD Zeik and Richard Weisz. It seems agreed upon that Zeik came up with the story and Weisz punched it up (either considerably or entirely). Zeik was a young screenwriter at the beginning of his career, Weisz was the pseudonym used by David Mamet.
As a perfectly average high school freshman in the suburbs of Chicago at the time of the film’s release, I possess exactly fuck-all qualification to comment on the distribution and awarding of credit between the writers and the director of Ronin. But(!) as a fan of Mamet, I can say that I hear his distinct voice and see his signature throughout the movie’s runtime.
It generates a unique kind of rage-envy in me, but it’s true: the outrageously deft writer of acerbic dramas like Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, just also happens to be one of the best action thriller screenwriters we have.
How dare he?
Any list of Mamet’s best “action” thrillers (either as writer or director or both) would include The Untouchables (1987), The Edge (1997), Spartan (2004), and, of course, Ronin. Watch these films in or out of sequence and you will recognize the tenets of Mamet’s craft: An economy of scene, propulsive momentum, the surgically sharp and character-illuminating dialogue. Mamet the storyteller could never be accused of padding his work. These stories strike like uppercuts.
So how does he do it? How does he craft and release lean, concussive, fully formed thrillers?
We know exactly how, because he tells us.
In the early 2000s, Mamet created The Unit, a network TV thriller about a secret Army team modeled after Delta Force.
After the show was cancelled, a grumpy and incredibly instructive memo from Mamet to the The Unit’s writers leaked. Mamet’s memo explains, with grinding aggression, how to write dramatic fiction:
TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT
AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.
THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN *DRAMA* AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.
EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF *INFORMATION* INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.
OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE *INFORMATION* — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.
BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF [SHE DOESN’T] GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.
IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.
THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. *YOU* THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE *EVERY* SCENE IS DRAMATIC.
THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.
IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT *WILL* BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.
SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS *YOUR* JOB.
EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.
THIS NEED IS WHY THEY *CAME*. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET *WILL* LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO *FAILURE* – THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS *OVER*. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE *NEXT* SCENE.
ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE *PLOT*.
ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.
YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT “INFORMATION?”
AND I RESPOND “*FIGURE IT OUT*” ANY DICKHEAD WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY “MAKE IT CLEARER”, AND “I WANT TO KNOW MORE *ABOUT* HIM”.
WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE *WILL* BE OUT OF A JOB.
THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. *NOT* TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
ANY DICKHEAD, AS ABOVE, CAN WRITE, “BUT, JIM, IF WE DON’T ASSASSINATE THE PRIME MINISTER IN THE NEXT SCENE, ALL EUROPE WILL BE ENGULFED IN FLAME”
WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO *REALIZE* THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
YES BUT, YES BUT YES *BUT* YOU REITERATE.
AND I RESPOND *FIGURE IT OUT*.
*HOW* DOES ONE STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN WITHHOLDING AND VOUCHSAFING INFORMATION? *THAT* IS THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF THE DRAMATIST. AND THE ABILITY TO *DO* THAT IS WHAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LESSER SPECIES IN THEIR BLUE SUITS.
FIGURE IT OUT.
START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE *SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC*. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.
LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.
PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR OUTLINES ARE, GENERALLY, SPECTACULAR. THE DRAMA FLOWS OUT BETWEEN THE OUTLINE AND THE FIRST DRAFT.
THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, *YOU* ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.
HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.
ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.
DO *NOT* WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR *AND* HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.
REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. *MOST* TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE *RADIO*. THE *CAMERA* CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. *LET* IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS *DOING* -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY *SEEING*.
IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.
IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF *SPEECH*. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM – TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)
THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO *START*.
I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE *SCENE* AND ASK YOURSELF “IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT *ESSENTIAL*? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?
IF THE ANSWER IS “NO” WRITE IT AGAIN OR THROW IT OUT. IF YOU’VE GOT ANY QUESTIONS, CALL ME UP.
LOVE, DAVE MAMET
SANTA MONICA 19 OCTO 05
(IT IS *NOT* YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ANSWERS, BUT IT IS YOUR, AND MY, RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW AND TO *ASK THE RIGHT Questions* OVER AND OVER. UNTIL IT BECOMES SECOND NATURE. I BELIEVE THEY ARE LISTED ABOVE.)
Get the Basics Right
Compare Ronin to any thriller from that same year, or decade, and you’ll see it has neither particularly athletic action heroes, a total dearth of topless femme fatales, nor any balletic violence or gunplay.
In fact, you could argue it has whatever the opposite of all those examples would be. The characters are middle-aged and out of shape, there’s comparatively little romance, and the violence is enacted by people who have no enthusiasm for it—it’s a necessity to be finished before somebody blows their own foot off… So at long last, what is it? Why does this movie hold up so well after twenty plus years?
Mere drama—the basics as itemized by Mamet in his letter.
The characters want something (the case), and they are constantly thwarted by their opponents, and, as the characters test one other and reveal themselves as they pursue their singular goal, the film grinds out drama.
Conflict. Character. (And car chases.)
Ronin succeeds, in my view, because Mamet follows his own advice. The film gets the basics right.
I doubt there’s any novel, film, or graphic novel that I love—really love—that doesn’t also demonstrate a master’s grip of the fundamentals.
1. Who wants what?
What if Beowulf was merely passing through Denmark, rather than showing up with the stated mission of killing Grendel?
2. What’s at stake?
Llewellyn Moss has a singular opponent in No Country for Old Men, and if Llewellyn fails to enact a perfect getaway, Anton Chigurh will make Llewellyn’s wife pay, horrifically, for his mistakes.
3. Why now?
What if Superman had all the time in the world to reason with Billy Batson, rather than only moments before nuclear warheads detonated in Kingdom Come?
Now, those elements aren’t the only thing that makes those artworks exemplary, but they contribute. And all those little correct choices add up. Flawed masterpieces exist, of course, but it’s difficult to imagine something transcendent that doesn’t start by getting the basics—all of them—correct.
When I think of a David Mamet, a storyteller who can excel in any medium or genre, I also think of other adepts who seem to careen between specialties with unfailing success: Name a genre you wouldn’t trust Michael Chabon in which to write, or a category of film John Williams couldn’t score, or a form of storytelling Ursula K. Le Guin could not have executed perfectly.
Maybe geniuses and polymaths are destined to be such, but to get there, they must first grind through the basics to absorb them, to encode them within themselves, until they are—as Mamet says—second nature.
Before the credits roll on Ronin, we learn Sam is no ronin at all. He’s still an active officer employed by an intelligence agency. His expertise, his mastery of his craft, empowers him to disguise himself convincingly as what he might never be: a burnout.
In the first act, after the spy crew has been assembled and introduced, Sam methodically tests those around him. His tools are subtle: jokes, a coffee cup, repetition. Once his full expertise is revealed, we can see what Sam was really up to in those early scenes.
He was running his checklist. He was getting the basics right. Despite being an adept, he is not above grinding.
Grinding, after all, is how one sharpens the sword.
I recently re-watched Ronin and these were my thoughts:
- WOAH, Natascha McElhone.
- As Spence, Sean Bean is wiry, sweaty and utterly convincing as an incompetent fraud striving to keep up with his betters.
Spence: “You worried about saving your own skin?”
Sam: “Yeah I am. It covers my body.”
- “Tell me about an ambush? I ambushed you with a cup of coffee.”
- “It’s just a game. Just a game.”
- Stellan Skarsgård’s Gregor is a German timepiece of a man. He speaks and acts with cold precision: “Sam, escort car four tenths of a klick in front of you.” … “Larry, you should see them in four seconds.”
- There is far more collateral damage than I remember. People browsing in markets or sitting at sidewalk cafes regularly get peppered with bullets or mowed down by airborne cars.
- Our first clue that there’s more going on with Sam than meets the eyes, is his constant badgering of Deidre. “Let me talk to your people.” “Get me to your people.” He doesn’t want the case, he wants Deidre’s employer.
- The French scenery is stunning. We’re constantly zooming into and out of peaceful, seminatural landscapes—just before a car disintegrates at high speed or a thug draws a gun in a ring of tourists.
- “You’re great in the locker room and your reflexes might die hard but you’re weak when you put your spikes on.” This might not be the best example of Mamet-speak, but it is a great one.
- After writing the first draft of this post, I read Roger Ebert’s review of Ronin. Here’s my favorite line of his—I line I agree with emphatically: “Ronin is really about characters, locations and behavior.”
- Robert De Niro and Jean Reno often appear in profile in the same frame. What a pair of noses.