One of the biggest problems with movies based on true stories is that they tend to parade a bunch of facts without allowing us to experience the emotions behind those facts. Back in 1987 I was an extra in a bad Vietnam War movie called “The Hanoi Hilton.” The basic story was about the first American prisoner of war captured and put into a prison that would become known as the Hanoi Hilton.
The movie simply paraded out a bunch of facts about the Hanoi Hilton without letting you experience the emotions of the characters. To show how cruel the Vietnamese captors were, there’s a short torture scene where the Vietnamese are laughing while electrocuting the American prisoners. This scene is empty of all emotion because there’s no set up to the torture scene. Instead, it’s simply thrown at us and we’re expected to be horrified. We don’t care about the American being tortured and we know nothing about the Vietnamese torturers. What’s missing is that we don’t experience the build up to that scene.
Just look at “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to see how to set up emotions. In an early scene, the hero jumps into a plane and nearly screams when he sees a snake. Then he says he hates snakes. That simple scene is humorous but sets up the later scene when the hero has to retrieve a treasure by descending into a tomb filled with poisonous snakes.
Because we already learned that the hero hates snakes (which plays off most people’s revulsion of snakes as well), suddenly seeing a tomb filled with poisonous snakes makes that scene far more emotional because most people already fear snakes, but we already experienced the emotion of the hero being afraid when he saw just one snake.
The latest true story movie is “Race,” which is about Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics where Hitler was using the games to prove that German people were superior to the rest of the world. That’s when Jesse Owens won four events and wrecked Hitler’s plan.
While “Race” is historically accurate, it’s also emotionally empty. We’re simply seeing Jesse Owens and his coach going through different scenes without any emotional connection whatsoever. We’re meant to be horrified that Jesse Owens experiences so much racism in both America and Germany, yet just having a bunch of white guys insult Jesse Owens isn’t enough because we never really get to emotionally feel what’s important to Jesse or his coach.
Beyond the inequality of white guys freely insulting black guys in the locker room, where’s the emotion in so many scenes demonstrating racism? There is none. In one short scene in “Race,” two American Jewish runners are told they can’t race because they’re Jewish. Yet we know so very little about either of these Jewish guys that seeing these two guys being denied a chance to compete in the Olympics is no more emotionally exciting than seeing a total stranger miss a bus or a train. The problem is we simply don’t know who these Jewish guys are so when something bad happens to them, we only care on an intellectual level, and not an emotional level.
To make characters emotionally sympathetic, you have to show them vulnerable and hurt. The Jewish runners in “Race” are never seen as vulnerable or hurt, so when they are hurt, there’s no sense of emotional connection.
Now look at a good movie like “Star Wars.” We see multiple scenes of Luke complaining about being stuck on his boring planet. First there’s the breakfast scene when he argues with his uncle. Second, there’s a scene when he complains while fixing R2D2 and then suddenly sees Princess Leia’s hologram. Third, there’s a scene where Obi-wan offers Luke a chance to come with him but Luke refuses. By themselves, these simple scenes might not seem like much, but they continually reinforce the idea that Luke feels trapped and helpless to change his life. In other words, we repetitively see Luke being beaten and each time it affects our emotion.
Now when Luke finally has a chance to leave his planet, we’ve already experienced multiple times when he’s been hurt and vulnerable, so now his achievement of leaving his planet is suddenly far more interesting.
In “Race,” suddenly throwing two Jewish guys into the movie and having them act hurt when they’re told they can’t compete is too sudden. What we need is at least a few scenes showing these Jewish guys being discriminated against so we can learn how important it is to them to compete and prove themselves. Instead, we’re simply watching two strangers acting hurt. Because we never got to know these two Jewish guys earlier, there’s little emotion when they’re told they can’t compete.
“Race” also never really tells us why Jesse wants to run. We simply see him running but we never know what he wants out of life. So even though Jesse is the hero, we never experience his dreams, setbacks, and struggles on an emotional level because we never see him vulnerable and hurt. Things happen to Jesse and we’re meant to cringe at the unfairness of it all, but there’s no emotion behind these scenes. It’s just watching something bad happen with no explanation or set up behind it.
Create emotion interest in your hero by showing them vulnerable, showing their dreams, and showing them constantly getting their dreams knocked out from under them. Then when they finally do achieve their dreams, it will feel far more emotionally satisfying because we’ve seen them struggling for so long to achieve it.
If you just show us one scene of the hero struggling without letting us know what the hero’s trying to achieve emotionally, it will be as interesting as watching a puppet show where we only see the characters interacting but never feel emotionally involved.