Wednesday, July 3, 2013

In the Nick of Time: A Diatribe Against Artificial Suspense

After hearing high acclaim from all sides, I recently decided to watch Ben Affleck's latest thriller, Argo. The film is based on the true story of a group of American diplomats trapped in Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis. These diplomats are smuggled out of the country disguised as a film crew. 

The film is packed with "just in the nick of time" moments.

[spoilers after the jump]

For example, the group heads off to the Tehran airport to board a plane to Zurich, but lo, the Carter administration has cancelled the group's flight reservations. These reservations are not reconfirmed by the administration until the group is actually in the process of checking in: just in the nick of time! However, a quick look at the historical record shows that this moment of suspense was completely fabricated. Why did the filmmakers decide to add it?

To judge by contemporary Hollywood films, moviegoers love suspense. Are you producing a new spy movie? If agent A has to accomplish task X before agent B can accomplish Y, make sure that agent A waits until the very last second! Did you remember to add a countdown, for the bomb, or chemical weapon, or who knows what? Make sure that the good guys figure out what the villain is up to just in the nick of time!

Sounds formulaic, doesn't it? I believe that Hollywood has become far too reliant on temporal coincidence and lack of time to pep up its films with artificial suspense. Not only does this quickly become boring and predictable, but it also far too often asks the viewer to suspend her disbelief in the face of temporal coincidence. That the diplomats' flights in Argo get reconfirmed just in the nick of time is not the only unbelievable moment. Indeed, the Revolutionary Guards discover the diplomats' true identity just moments after they board the airplane, and chase the plane out on the runway as it is taking off. Once again, just in the nick of time. Believable? I think not.

I am not arguing that the aspiring filmmaker should omit all forms of suspense from her film. On the contrary, suspense can be extremely enjoyable and add to storytelling power. I simply wish that filmmakers would create suspense with more genuine storytelling means. After Argo's artificially created suspense left me in disbelief and unsatisfied, two examples of suspense done right sprang to my mind: The Prestige and The King's Speech.

In The King's Speech, also based on a true story, King George VI learns to cope with his stutter, culminating in him successfully delivering a radio address after Britain declares war on Germany. The climax of the film, in which the king delivers this speech, is moving and truly suspenseful: the viewer empathizes with the king so strongly that she cannot bear to see him fail, yet he has failed so often before that success is anything but a surety. Here, the film tells a compelling story, and the suspense appears of its own accord.

In The Prestige, two competing stage magicians battle over prestige, women, and secrets of their trade.  Throughout most of the film, these magicians are hiding a number of fascinating secrets from each other, as well as from the viewer.  The revelation of each subsequent secret, coupled with non-linear storytelling, builds suspense in a profound way that the cheap temporal tricks described above never could achieve.

Hollywood all too often employs gimmicks to amend for lack of story and substance in its films: the extravagant use of special effects is  another well-known example of this phenomenon. Nonetheless, as  filmgoers, we should demand better. Let us give praise to those films which get suspense right -- and shun those films that treat suspense as a formula involving a clock and lack of time.

By Nathan Ilten