In my former reviewing life, I made a big deal about the importance of F. Scott Frazier to my development as a screenwriter. I had spent a lot of time on Zoetrope, Triggerstreet, and ScriptShadow, interacting with other writers who were similar to me in skill set, when [in the fall of 2010] I finally developed contacts who were able to forward me specs that were circulating with representation. Frazier’s script, The Numbers Station, was about the 15th of these I got to read.
And something in my head clicked. I understood, for the first time, that there was a wide distance between what I was reading on the screenplay reviewing websites, and what agents were passing around town with their name and organization attached. In particular, Frazier’s script taught me about description. People talk about pages reading like scenes, but until you see it demonstrated [and you have enough practice with the medium to appreciate the demonstration], you don’t have implicit knowledge of what it means to cause a scene to be cinematic.
In other words, I will always be in Frazier’s debt. I’ll be more likely to read his scripts with one of my critical eyes shut than the scripts of other authors. This comes from conflating what Frazier actually did [write a screenplay worth circulating] with what it seems to me that he did [teach me something invaluable about description.] In other words, all apologies if I am less objective than usual.
Berliner is a good script. I can tell you that of the 12 BL scripts I’ve read so far, it is the only one where I guessed all the plot twists early on. You might think that’s a bad thing, but I don’t. I have [after years of reading] come to the conclusion that if I can’t guess the twists in the first twenty pages, the author is [99 times out of 100] cheating. So, the misdirection around who is the real mole in Berliner is adequately realized.
I remember watching No Way Out when I was a teenager and being so impressed with the twist at the end of that movie that it became a premise in the argument for why I wanted to make movies. I doubt that Berliner will be that same experience for a teenaged Joel Barish of the near future, but it won’t discourage that guy either.
Frazier does a good job with moving his plot through an increasing sense of urgency. While he does this, he also increases the isolation our protagonist [Dunham] feels from his friends and workers. In writing a thriller, it is imperative that you position your main character in the center of an axis where urgency spikes upward and isolation shoots downward. Berliner understands this component of thriller structure, and delivers.
If I have a complaint [related to thriller structure] it would be that too much of the information necessary to move the plot forward gets revealed repetitively. The middle 50 pages of this script consist of Dunham X’ing people off a photo after he sets them up to double cross him—and then they don’t do it. Once or twice with this setup and reveal, and I have no issues. Use it five different times, and it gets a little ragged.
This style is in marked contrast to the following example of a setup and reveal from page 18:
Rachel pulls a BALL BEARING from her pocket.
I found these scattered up and down
the street outside the club after I
finally got there.
Dunham takes the ball-bearing, holds it up to the light.
Does it mean anything?
You need to leave Berlin, resign
your post at the Embassy and —
— Is this because of what we did?
Is this because of Magpie?
By the look on Dunham’s face, that’s exactly it.
This piece of information leads directly to Dunham’s search for “The Turk” and it makes sense that Rachel would have it considering her eventual role in deciphering the identity of the real mole.
In general, Dunham moves through his author’s plot points actively. I appreciate that. There is nothing worse than a protagonist who gets told [by EXPOSITION PERSON A, at plot point A] where and how to proceed in order to get to plot point B. [Infallibly (in these kinds of scripts) when the protagonist gets to plot point B, EXPOSITION PERSON B shows up and explains how to get to plot point C]. Berliner succeeds in generating momentum naturally and within the story context.
Other things being equal, I’ve never felt that Frazier’s strengths lay in the dialogue realm. He is an author who just doesn’t worry too much about subtext. I think he has improved his craft since the first two scripts of his that I read [Numbers Station and Autobahn], but he is no virtuoso yet. In general, his characters say what they really mean… which means [for you] this script isn’t going to make anything click in your head when it comes to dialogue.
I’ll close with my biggest criticism of this story [one that will ultimately cost the script a worth reading rating]. The script does not FEEL like it’s set in 1961. Technically, the historical aspects are correct [as far as I know anyway], but Dunham sounds like, and acts like– me. This might seem subjective, but I swear it spoiled the story for me. Give Dunham modern equipment combined with different antagonists, and his story could be a future installment in the Mission Impossible franchise.
The easiest way to make this case more objective is to consider how Frazier treats the construction of The Berlin Wall. If I’m being honest, that historical event’s inclusion in the logline is what made me choose this script over the 30 other Black List scripts I’ve not read yet. Unfortunately, there is no drama over its sudden appearance. It barely factors into the plot at all. This story would be exactly the same [from the perspective of plot points] if it had been set in 1960. [I understand, and admit, that Magpie is trying to get the Berlin Wall constructed, so, in that sense, its construction is central to the plot. I just think that justifying The Wall plot choice based on this fact is giving literal script points for a metaphorical script need.]
In the end, I liked this script. I still honor its author, but…
Rating: Not There Yet