Black Box

blackboxI decided to review this script because I’d never read anything from writer David Guggenheim before. As a screenwriter whose had a good deal of success in the past few years [most notably as the writer of Safe House], he seemed like an adequate target for study.

This script finished near the lower end of the 2012 Black List. The draft I read is undated, but contains contact information for both Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment. The current production status of the script is beyond my ability to discern.

So, Black Box is a thriller which bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1998 film Enemy of the State. Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with a well-received spec script covering familiar territory.

It is also true that the cover-up surrounding the take down of Air Force One is a “new angle” on the Enemy of the State idea. Besides, Enemy of the State has similarities with other well-received films in the cinema lineage… and, as the Romans noted two thousand years ago, there is nothing new under the sun anyway.

In fact, the ploy of spinning a new script from old material is [quite possibly] the VERY BEST way to draw attention to yourself and get some money for your writing. Scripts in this “genre” don’t seem to get made often, but they do sell. So, Black Box is familiar, but different enough to count as an original spec.

I’ve spent so much time talking about the familiarity because, to me, the script mechanics that operate in the relationship between Alex [our journalist protagonist] and Hirsch [his ex-CIA informant helper] are the same mechanics that are used in Enemy of the State to undergird the relationship between Will Smith and Gene Hackman. Of course, theirs is nothing more than the teacher/apprentice relationship, lots of movies use that set up. So… why in the hell can I not stop writing about it.

Ultimately, because I thought the script was mediocre, at best. This is not a taut thriller. It’s barely even a limp thriller. I feel like if you’re going to be a poet like T.S. Eliot AND STEAL, you better make damn sure you live up to the adjective Eliot put in front of his famous injunction; you better be damn sure you are MATURE.

That is mostly me making a joke in the form of a literary quote. However, the point inside my dots stands. Black Box does not have an awful lot to recommend it—in terms of plot. In addition, the central relationship is Xeroxed from another script [which didn’t really earn the right to be photocopied by being great in the first place]. The author’s reputation, and the status of his specs, convinced me that I was going to read an exceptional screenplay. The script is not awful, but it isn’t close to exceptional either. The dissonance between my expectation and what I found on the pages has lent my review a harsher tone than would have otherwise been the case.

I don’t think Guggenheim’s writing is top shelf. I found mistakes in sentence structure and word choice that I wouldn’t tolerate in my own writing. And, as I always say, if a mediocre grammarian like myself thinks you have issues, you’ve got issues. His script mechanics are in order, but he does nothing interesting in terms of subtext or theme. In other words, I can’t write about the writing in Black Box because there would be very little to say.

I choose to conclude this review, then, with a discussion of the script’s most ridiculous plot point [in a long line of ridiculous plot points]. I will not be talking about the fact that one ex-CIA agent and a journalist manage to break into the most secure underground compound in the Unites States… through a heating grate. I will not discuss how they break through all of the compounds security firewalls with a laptop and some mirrors. Nor will I talk about how they evade hundreds of military personnel… and then escape UNHARMED in a Humvee through a slowly lowering front gate. I will not talk about any of those things because none of them qualify as THE MOST RIDICULOUS plot point available.

Instead, I will talk about this from page 85:

If China goes to war with America,
Beijing would have to devalue their
currency to be able to afford it.
Which would give Straton the
ability to buy back America’s debt.
They would control our entire
nation’s currency.

To quote Aaron Rogers in his State Farm commercial:

Wait, what?

I am by no means an expert Economist, but I’m quite sure the sentence about China’s currency does not make sense. It’s the kind of thing that resembles something an economist might say on CNN, but I’m not even sure the author knows which country the possessive pronoun refers to. Even supposing the economics is sound [it isn’t], this American corporation [Straton] kills a US President, and then spends two years lining up a war with China so they can get China to devalue its own currency so that Straton can then swoop in and buy the US debt for pennies on the dollar in order to… what?

They already kill US Presidents and start wars with China. What the hell else do they have in mind?

By the way [and remember, I’m no economist] Straton intends to execute their plan with 50 billion in cash. To me, that means China has to “devalue” their currency by a factor of at least twenty. Does Mr. Guggneheim believe that kind of radical movement in the financial markets will have no impact on the rest of the world at all? Does he believe that the 50 billion Straton set aside to implement their Dr. Evil Plan will STILL BE 50 billion after the US/China war completely tanks the world economy. Does he further believe that all the members of Congress will stand idly by while a US company buys the United States?

In other words, even someone like me, a person who makes zero claims on economic literacy, knows this plot point [the script’s CENTRAL plot point] makes no sense and can’t withstand scrutiny.

I could endure the economic lacuna if the rest of the script was well-written and original. It isn’t.

Rating: Not worth your time


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