BOURNE IDENTITY has so much to recommend it: it’s an action movie, an amnesia story (gosh, but I love amnesia stories) set in some of the more stunning parts of Europe, & it’s the movie where Matt Damon discovered he could be an action hero. Or, as Bourne has often been described, ‘the thinking woman’s action hero’. On top of this, it has the much under utilised Franka Potente, who is simply stunning on film, a mix of vulnerability and fortitude.
The moment I love most in BOURNE, though, is after Damon’s character – still nameless – is trying to sleep on a park bench and is disturbed by police asking for his papers. Sleepily, he starts to tell them he doesn’t have papers. Then he tells them in German and there’s a spark, a beginning of a recognition that ‘heck, I’m speaking German, wtf?’.
But it’s the next moment that the film turns, that we go from Act 1 hurtling into Act 2. Because one of the police goes to prod Damon’s character with a nightstick, and Damon grabs it. Right then you can see it in his eyes: realisation. Of what, he’s not sure. But he’s just shifted from a kind of bumbling, confused amnesiac with no sense of purpose, to having a strong purpose: to find out who in heck he is. THAT is the moment, the turn, the new Act, when the character’s motivation changes*. THAT is the making of a good Act, with each successive Act turning on the point when a character’s motivation is changed.
As I mentally meander through these great character moments on film, it occurs to me that film is great at establishing that second act via what McKee would name the ‘call to action’. But a third or fourth act is harder to spot. Perhaps once launched on a path, a character doesn’t alter their motivation as much as fine-tune it. Perhaps the third act is not motivated as often by a realisation as by something else. Perhaps a failure to succeed, or a well-earned discovery. (Anyone have any ideas on this one?)
I have a screenplay-writing friend who often asserts that movies today lack a third act. I’m beginning to think that’s because of the lack of any change in direction of character motivation.
– The second in a random series of Great Character Moments in Film. You’re welcome to nominate your own in the comments!
* The idea that a new act is launched by a change in protagonist motivation is – you won’t be surprised to discover – an idea from Robert McKee’s teachings that I’m exploring.