Every movie you see has something to teach you. How to write a scene. How not to write a scene. How to write a character that an actor will want to play, or how to make the actor’s job so difficult they’ll curse your name. How to effortlessly handle exposition, or how to have the whole audience scratching their heads in puzzlement.
So I thought now and then I’d share what I’ve learned from a film I’ve seen recently. This week – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
One of the writing challenges in a major franchise is getting new viewers to engage with your characters, while not irritating loyal viewers by filling in their backstories all over again. A good way to do this is to give your character a strong first scene or sequence, one that shows tells us who they are through what’re doing.
So let’s take a look at how writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec re-introduce their central character, the Impossible Mission Force’s top agent, Ethan Hunt.
After a brief opening scene elsewhere, the story proper begins in a Russian prison. It’s a night shift, everyone’s locked in and everything seems normal. But a team is taking control of the security system and entering sewers under the prison. Clearly an incursion is in progress.
But our protagonist isn’t part of the team. Nope, Ethan Hunt is… one of the prisoners.
Okay, some good spy tropes here – Russians, rescuing a captured agent, hacking, technology, breaking into a highly secure location. It’s very clear what the tone and the genre of this movie is.
But in character terms, it’s an audacious, even dangerous, move. Someone who needs rescuing isn’t a hero, they’re a victim. And this is a traditional high-octane spy thriller. It can’t be led by a victim. Introduce Ethan Hunt as someone without power over his situation, someone who needs to be helped by supporting characters, and there’s a danger he appears weak, unheroic, downright bad at his job.
So what do Nemec and Appelbaum do during this sequence to ensure our protagonist is established as worthy of our admiration?
Ethan Hunt gives every appearance of being a hero. We first see him as a shape in a bunk bed, bouncing a rock off the angles of the wall and catching it with effortless precision. Keeping your hero out of shot for a few scenes, hinting at his presence, is a technique that goes all the way back to Casablanca, and it still works. It creates a sense of anticipation, of intention. This isn’t just any prisoner – this is a man about to make a major impact on the story.
He’s extremely good at what he does. Once he realizes the distant alarms are the first signs of a rescue, Ethan reacts intelligently, intuitively, to each new development, knowing where to find resources and how to handle threats. He’s physically capable, smart, well trained, and utterly confident in his ability to survive. This is a man we should respect.
He takes control of the operation almost immediately – even though his teammates never intended him to! Within a minute or so of being released from his cell, Ethan starts defying instructions and forcing his would-be rescuers to follow his plan, rather than gratefully accepting their help. A hero doesn’t follow orders, he gives them.
And most tellingly of all, he doesn’t just get rescued – with only a moment’s hesitation, he deliberately goes further into the jail to rescue someone else. As soon as Ethan moves from being the rescuee to the rescuer, he gains hero status. And by endangering himself to help someone who isn’t a team member and to whom he has only a vague moral obligation, he even has a “save the cat” moment, proving himself a loyal friend and decent human being. (And this will pay off later in the story, when he needs this man’s help.)
So Appelbaum and Nemec get to have their cake and eat it. Their protagonist gets the benefit of starting the story in danger, in an unusual situation, and able to show his ingenuity and skills – all without undercutting his status as star agent and lead character. And the fact that he started out in a position of apparent weakness just makes him all the more heroic.
Lots of techniques here we can learn from and use. How could you introduce your central character in a position that should make him appear weak, but turns out in the end to underline his strength?