More than any other writers, screenwriters can persuade us to suspend disbelief.
The story moves fast. The technology draws us into the story. We question almost nothing. We are manipulated. We pay money to be manipulated.
It’s entertainment, so we do not care. Hollywood has understood this, all the way back to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), a blockbuster movie promoting the memory of the original Ku Klux Klan. It led to the establishment of a new Klan before the end of 1915. This was the great expansion of the Klan in American history. Harry Truman joined it briefly. So did Harry Byrd. The power of movies to create public opinion is limited, but they can reinforce existing opinions.
For my students, I go through an exercise. I have them watch a movie. Then I provide a list of incongruities. I do not mean visual gaffes. The movie director hires people who are skilled at keeping anomalies in between scenes shot on different days from occurring. I am talking about built-in incongruities in the script. The writers allow them for the sake of persuading the audience.
My readers are more sophisticated than most. They can read an article and spot inconsistencies. But once anyone sits down in front of a movie screen, he suspends his judgment. He is vulnerable to propaganda. I want you to recognize this.
I have selected two examples. First, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which was Jimmy Stewart’s breakthrough role. It was a feel-good movie to persuade us that reforming Washington in 1939 was not a lost cause when it was clearly a lost cause. Frank Capra used techniques to persuade viewers to suspend disbelief. For my analysis, click here. It won the Oscar for best writing, original story.
My second example is Casablanca (1942). It is still a beloved movie. It was written just after Pearl Harbor. It was released after America’s invasion of Casablanca in November. This movie was a subtle attack on what the pro-war interventionists had labeled “isolationism.” Pearl Harbor marked the end of political resistance to the expansion of the military across the world. Sidney Greenstreet’s character Ferrari tells Rick, “Isolationism is no longer a practical policy.” Rick tells the corrupt police chief, “I stick my neck out for nobody,” to which he responds: “A wise foreign policy.” I have provided a list of 39 clear-cut improbabilities and outright impossibilities in the script. Download here. The screenplay won the Oscar. So did the movie: best picture.
One of the most respected movies in the history of film is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). It is powerful in its use of imagery. We might even call it legendary in this regard. Its opening scene and closing scene are among the most famous in the history of the movies. Both of them are fake.