I was 14 when I rode on an airplane for the first time. I was excited and terrified (mainly because I’m afraid of heights), but once we were in the air I felt my nerves settle and I began to enjoy it. That was until the pilot announced we were about to land. My father leaned over and said, “Now it’s time to see how good the pilot is. It’s easy to fly, but landing the plane is the real challenge.”
I look at filmmaking a lot like flying a plane. It’s easy to take someone through the journey of a story but unless you can land them home safe, the whole journey is for nothing. We have all felt this before: the story is strong, we are invested in the characters, and then the director has no idea how to land the plane and we are left feeling let down or disappointed. The ending is everything.
Jarhead and The Goldfinch
I wanted to take a moment to discuss two beautifully shot films I watched recently and how one ending left me in awe and the other indifferent. Jarhead directed by Sam Mendes and The Goldfinch directed by John Crowley.
Both films had me glued to the screen for different reasons. Jarhead is a psychological study of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm through the eyes of a U.S. Marine sniper who struggles to cope with the possibility that his girlfriend may be cheating on him back home, and ultimately plays with the theme of what happens to a person when they are transformed into a war machine, but go to war and don’t even fire a single shot. The Goldfinch also deals with psychological trauma, but with a different setting. The Goldfinch is about a boy in New York that is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Let’s take a moment to read the climactic dialogue of these two films. First, let’s read the dialogue of The Goldfinch. Our protagonist is sitting at a coffee shop with his good friend that just saved his life after the protagonist tried to kill himself. After his friend gives him a little pep talk he leans in and says this:
“Listen to me. It's important. You talk about bad things you have done and you blame yourself. You wish you were dead. So we have done bad things. But maybe sometimes good can come from bad.”
The movie then goes on a bit to wrap up a couple of plot points, but ultimately ends after that statement is made.
Now let’s take a look at Jarhead. In the final moments of the film, our main protagonist stands facing a window in his home after the war. A voiceover from our lead character begins and says:
“A story. A man fires a rifle for many years. And he goes to war. And afterward, he comes home. And he sees that everything else he might do with his life, build a house, love a woman, change his son’s diaper, he will always remain a jarhead. And all the jarheads, killing and dying, they will always be me. We are still in the desert.”
The scene goes from the suburbs outside his window to the desert with a group of soldiers walking. Fade to black. The end.
Wrapping it Up
Between my first plane ride and now, I have flown across the world many times. I have landed on different soil, with different airlines flown by different pilots, and one thing is consistent. The plane always lands safely, but it’s never perfectly smooth. There is a split second of doubt, fear, uncertainty. Filmmakers often undermine the intelligence of the audience by landing the plane on an unrealistically smooth runway that gives the viewers a spoon-fed message. But realistically, we need endings that are sometimes difficult and rough. Endings that propose a question and thought. Endings that don’t give us pretty statements but rather force us to look at our own lives.
Going back to The Goldfinch and Jarhead, which ending challenges you? What ending spoon feeds you by saying, “Now Pay attention! This next section is important.” And what ending makes you stop, process, and think about the journey you have just been on? Which story does not land you smoothly but rather drops you off in the desert?
- Josh Gallas
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