Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Gilroy Ultimatum

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William Goldman, the dean of American screenwriters, likes to tell the story of how Tony Gilroy saved the day. In Which Lie Did I Tell?—my favorite book on screenwriting, and one of the most entertaining books I’ve read of any kind—Goldman goes into great detail about his travails in adapting the novel Absolute Power, with its huge number of characters and infuriating structure, which kills off the protagonist halfway through and doesn’t have anything resembling a useable ending. Frustrated, Goldman found himself at a basketball game with Gilroy, a much younger writer who agreed to take a look at the project. The following day, Gilroy came in with a number of fixes, all of which diverged dramatically from the book. When Goldman objected, Gilroy shot back: “Forget about the novel—I haven’t read the novel—my main strength is that I haven’t read the novel—the novel is killing you.” In the end, Goldman saw the light, made the changes that Gilroy suggested, and finished the screenplay at last.

It’s a great story that has contributed significantly to Tony Gilroy’s current standing in Hollywood, which is similar to the one that Goldman occupied forty years ago—the smartest screenwriter in the room, the man who can fix any script. Yet there’s something deeply comic about the story as well. These are two incredibly smart, talented writers giving their all to the script of Absolute Power, a movie that didn’t exactly set the world on fire. When you look at Gilroy’s history ever since, you see a deep ambivalence toward his own reputation as a genius fixer. This comes through clearly in the title character of Michael Clayton, who says bitterly: “I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor.” It’s made even more obvious by a famous New Yorker profile, which reveals that not only was Gilroy unhappy about how his work was treated on The Bourne Supremacy, but he wrote a draft of The Bourne Ultimatum only on the condition that he wouldn’t have to talk to director Paul Greengrass. Not surprisingly, then, his goal has long been to get to a place where he can direct his own movies.

And the results have been fascinating, if not always successful. Let’s start with The Bourne Legacy, which is a singular mix of expertise and almost unbelievable amateurishness. At its best, its set pieces are stunning: a grim workplace shooting in a government laboratory is almost too harrowing—it takes us right out of the movie—but the followup, in which Rachel Weisz’s character is visited by a pair of sinister psychologists, is a nice, nasty scene that Hitchcock would have relished. The movie, shot by the great Robert Elswit, looks terrific, and it holds our attention for well over two hours. But it never establishes a clear point of view or tells us who Jeremy Renner’s Bourne successor is supposed to be. Its attempt to layer its plot over events from The Bourne Ultimatum is interesting, but unnecessary: all of those clever connective scenes could be cut without any harm to the story. And its ending is ludicrously abrupt and unsatisfying: it concludes, like all the Bourne movies, by playing Moby’s “Extreme Ways,” but it might as well be a techno remix of “Is That All There Is?”

Still, I have huge admiration for Tony Gilroy, who has taught all of us a lot about storytelling. (In my limited experience, I’ve found that he’s the writer whose work tends to come up the most when literary agents talk about what they want in a suspense novel.) But his work as a director has been frustratingly uneven. Michael Clayton is a great movie that benefits, oddly, from its confusion over whether it’s a thriller or a character piece: its story is layered enough to encompass a satisfyingly wide range of tones. Duplicity was a real passion project, but so underwhelming that it became a key example in my formulation of the New Yorker feature curse. And what The Bourne Legacy demonstrates is that for all Gilroy’s considerable gifts, being a director may not be his first, best destiny. There’s no shame in that: Goldman, among others, was never tempted to direct, and the number of great screenwriters who became major directors is shatteringly small. Gilroy may not be a born director, but he’s one of the smartest writers of movies we’ve ever had. Is that really so bad a legacy?

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