As someone who pursues screenwriting there comes a time when you stop watching films purely for entertainment, and you start seeing the structure that undergirds the movie. You understand the setups in throwaway dialog that are meant to explain later actions. You look for the visual cues that establish character traits. You can even know exactly where you are in the story arc by looking for the road signs in the three-act structure. In short, you see the Matrix.
Now, as an aspiring screenwriter and an entertainment journalist reviewing three to four movies a week, it’s hard not to build an occupational tolerance or numbness to media that should otherwise affect you. How many times can someone watch a bomb getting defused or points being scored at the buzzer and still feel moved? This is even worse for comedies with their obvious bits and telegraphed punchlines. That’s why it’s always surprising when a movie can bring me to tears.
So here are four movie scenes (that I can think of) that make me cry:
Up (2009): Carl and Ellie
This is an obvious choice, but it’s worth noting for two reasons. First, when filmmakers have complete control over almost all variables – notice that that even the voice actors were removed from this scene – they can maximize every visual signal to convey specific meanings that trigger maximum emotional response. It’s little details, like Ellie’s unkempt hair after getting the bad news, paralleling the disarray in her life, and Carl’s hat flying off his head as he runs to his wife, conveying the urgency of the situation, that help guide us in almost subconscious ways in these micro scenes. And, of course, the wonderful score by Michael Giacchino helps a lot, too.
Second, these four minutes and change are more impactful the older the viewer is. While I have no doubt that young viewers can understand the idea of loss and empathize, as an older person who has buried friends and family and who has parents approaching the ages of Carl and Ellie, loss is something more visceral and tangible to me. More poignant, however, is the fact that this scene is more than just the death of a person – it’s the death of dreams. First, the death of having children, and then the death of Paradise Falls. Nothing in life can prepare you to watch your dreams die, and only having experienced it for yourself can you recognize it when others suffer through it.
I’m just glad I watched Up for the first time in the privacy of my own home. I had to stop the movie and finish weeping before I could finish the film. I’m not sure how I would have handled myself at a screening.
Star Trek (2009): George Kirk Dies
Self-sacrifice is a powerful emotional trigger, but Hollywood knows this, and so I’ve seen enough soldiers diving on grenades and friends jumping in front of bullets that it doesn’t tug on my heartstrings the way it should. I didn’t cry when Bruce Willis said goodbye to Liv Tyler in Armageddon even though it was really set up well. And yet, when I watch George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) fighting an overwhelming enemy to safeguard his wife and child, I can’t help but get teary eyed. The juxtaposition of extremes is put to great use with certain death on one hand and impending life on the other against a backdrop of a giant enemy vessel composed of gangly appendages, swallowing a small, sleek, and stalwart defender. And as the neutral score drowns out the dialog, carrying the audience to George’s inevitable end, it’s the baby’s cries of life that unexpectedly cuts through, giving the sacrifice meaning. When Hollywood raises the stakes correctly, it’s a beautiful thing. And kudos to Hemsworth and Jennifer Morrison for their excellent performances. As actors deciding how their characters are feeling at a given moment, it’s impressive that they found the perfect tone to capture everything they were experiencing in their delivery.
The Man from Nowhere (Ajeossi) (2010): So-mi Trades Her Best Card
I couldn’t find the entire clip I wanted to show on YouTube, but you can see the movie on Netflix. Right before the heartbreaking scene above, the little girl, So-mi (Sae-ron Kim), asks the man to give her headphones back to her, which she pawned earlier in the week. He owns the pawnshop in her building. Because she doesn’t have any money to buy the headphones back, she gives him her very best playing card for some game she plays. That exchange was deeply moving in a very surprising way. To the pawnshop owner, the playing card is basically a worthless piece of cardstock, but to a child of very limited means, it was probably So-mi’s most prized possession. Follow that personal sacrifice with the self-effacing speech where audiences learn that the child is so lonely that the only people she has in her life to care for are people who she thinks hate her. It’s the kind of cruelty of resignation that we all instinctually want to shield children from.
Flight (2012): Black Box
This is the one scene that always gets me no matter how many times I see it. The situation is, of course, dire, and this presentation of a commercial airliner in distress is probably the very best of all the ones I can remember. It’s dynamic. It’s chaotic. It’s tense. Despite that, I know that this is the inciting incident for the story and that Denzel Washington’s character, Whip Whitaker, is going to survive after performing some feat of heroism. There’s nothing here that touches me emotionally. But when Whip tells Margaret (Tamara Tunie) to essentially say her goodbyes to her son via the black box, that’s when the scene came to life. Even though I knew the characters would survive, they were now telling me that they didn’t think they would. It suddenly added a new texture to all of their actions and pulled me into the moment with vested interest.
Ultimately, bringing the viewer into the film is the goal of every movie. It’s also what makes movies so special. We can be anywhere, with anyone, doing anything. And even though we may not have any personal experience as a married person, a space traveler, a lonely child, or a commercial pilot, we can still feel deep connections, because aspects of the human condition transcend all barriers. As a writer and a creative person in general, I strive to capture those connections.
I hope I can share those stories with the world one day.