All The Write Moves: 'Triple Frontier'
April 1, 2019
Seeing as how it tells the story of five characters enduring a deadly odyssey, it’s fitting that Triple Frontier took a circuitous route to the screen. Originally developed by director Kathryn Bigelow and her frequent collaborator, screenwriter Mark Boal, the picture went through iterations during which Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg and others nearly played roles. Eventually, Bigelow moved on, so J.C. Chandor took over as director and also rewrote Boal’s script (the two now share screenplay credit, and Bigelow is an executive producer).
Set primarily in South America, Triple Frontier is about a group of ex-U.S. servicemen who conspire to rob a drug lord’s fortress, which is filled with cash. Oscar Isaac stars as Santiago, who contrives the scheme while working as an advisor for Colombian drug enforcement officers. He recruits his former commander Tom (Ben Affleck), as well as former comrades Ben (Garrett Hedlund), Francisco (Pedro Pascal) and William (Charlie Hunnam). Although they initially delude themselves into believing the drug lord and a few guards will be the only casualties of their heist, dark surprises lie in wait.
A WORD OF WARNING
Occasionally, writers elect to articulate theme right at the beginning of a script. Clever writers do so in an oblique manner. The first scene of Triple Frontier features William giving a speech to soldiers who are preparing to separate from the military. Among other things, he warns against taking private-sector work (translation: mercenary assignments), arguing that fighting for money corrodes the soul. Hammering notions of duty and honor, William punctuates his speech by describing the “price of being a warrior.”
For reasons that will be explored shortly, this speech hits the movie’s principle themes quite powerfully, but the connections between the speech and those themes are not immediately apparent. In that sense, the speech is ingenious on two levels. First, the speech appears to ground the story in high principles, when in fact the story is about men succumbing to a low impulse: greed. Second, the speech implies a binary world in which good is easily distinguishable from evil, even though the ensuing story demonstrates that the opposite is true.
Accordingly, the word of warning that starts the movie is both a distraction and a slow burn. The distraction, as noted above, is all about creating expectations that the film is designed to undercut. The slow burn is rigged to explode once viewers realize that William’s warning about the “price of being a warrior” means far more than he could have imagined when he spoke those words.
Takeaway: Embed theme into narrative as early as possible.
THANKS FOR YOUR SERVICE
One way to unpack Triple Frontier is to twist William’s words slightly; to consider the cost of being a warrior instead of the price. As characters remark throughout the film, working in special ops has consequences. The men in Triple Frontier are battered; their best days — physically and emotionally — far behind them. As Tom muses at one point, “It’s like they take your best 20 years [and] spit you out.” Plus, as Santiago notes on several occasions, the money these men earned for their work was not proportionate to the risks they took on behalf of their country.
Considering how prevalent pro-military sentiment has been in the United States since 9/11, the edgiest aspect of Triple Frontier is its suggestion that one tantalizing opportunity is enough to turn good soldiers bad. After all, the premise of soldiers becoming thieves isn’t new — see 1999’s Three Kings — but everything post-9/11 has added significance. Generally speaking, post-9/11 stories questioning the morality of military figures offer balance; for instance, a noble warrior to offset an immoral warrior. Not so here. Each of the five military men in Triple Frontier gets dirty, ethically speaking.
Yet Triple Frontier doesn’t take the easy route of condemning these characters. Even when Tom gives the group a harsh speech underscoring that they’re about to become murderers, the movie asks us to contextualize the moment. Tom is a single dad having trouble paying his bills because years of military service didn’t prepare him for civilian life. Santiago justifies the heist because performing the heist will allow him to kill a brutal drug lord. And so on. These men trade their nobility for cash, but they still adhere to moral standards, however questionable.
Embedded within Triple Frontier are questions about how we, as a society, treat veterans. After we ask them to risk everything while in uniform, do we reciprocate once they become civilians? More troublingly, once we teach soldiers to kill, what responsibility do we bear if they later commodify that ability? To its credit, Triple Frontier lets these difficult considerations percolate just below the surface.
Takeaway: The social significance of a story need not be overtly stated.
MODERNIZING A CLASSIC
While Triple Frontier owes some debt to the aforementioned Three Kings, the movie it most closely resembles — in terms of structure and theme — is actually 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (If you haven’t seen this John Huston-directed classic, do so immediately!) Like Triple Frontier, the older film concerns a group of Americans getting into trouble south of the border by chasing wealth.
While Sierra Madre uses different plot mechanisms than Triple Frontier, the overarching intentions of the two films are quite similar; bonds between men get tested by the promise of untold wealth. In Sierra Madre, the big X-factor is Fred C. Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart), who devolves into a kind of madness while chasing gold. In Triple Frontier, the big X-factor is an unlikely character who loses his grip upon realizing just how much cash is available to be stolen. The end result of both stories is the same: Greed causes tragedy.
The kicker is that Triple Frontier is not in any tangible way a reboot or a re-make of Sierra Madre. Rather, it modernizes themes explored in the earlier film. Consider how morality tales and urban myths evolve over generations. The specifics change, but the underlying themes do not. Since greed is an eternal plague on the human experience, every generation needs its own stories about greed. And if Boal drew inspiration from Sierra Madre, whether consciously or unconsciously, isn’t that a more interesting way for art to travel along a continuum than for studios to mindlessly recycle existing stories?
To be clear, no suggestion is being made that you should find some classic film, change a few things, and present the modified story as your own creation. Instead, the suggestion is to consider which stories have lasting impact, and to ask why. Discovering or revisiting classic films might help you find a theme or even a basic premise that could inspire something modern but also timeless.
Takeaway: Classic cinema can be a powerful source of inspiration.
Written by: Peter HansonPeter Hanson is a Los Angeles-based writer, filmmaker and teacher. He directed the screenwriting documentary Tales from the Script, and he teaches at Pepperdine University and UCLA Extension. He provides script consulting at www.GrandRiverFilms.com.