“Ford v Ferrari” film review

Exhilarating! Ford v Ferrari is a high impact cinematic experience that you will want to see on the biggest screen possible. On the surface, this may look like a movie about motorsports; but thanks to James Mangold’s excellent screenplay and meticulous direction, the central conflict transcends the nuts, bolts, and motor oil to deliver this very human “David and Goliath” story. The captivating story of the American motor giant Ford taking on a name synonymous with speed Ferrari will take you for the ride of the holiday season through the outstanding technical achievement of this motion picture. And the accolades don’t stop there, prepare yourselves for fantastic performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale as Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles respectively, not to mention the solid supporting role of Henry Ford II played by Tracy Letts. While I am not a car guy, there was still something special about the experience of watching the world’s most prestigious automobile endurance race, the 24hrs of Le Mans on the big screen. Maybe there is something patriotic about this underdog story, because it’s the US vs Italy? And in that patriotism, audiences have a unified enthusiasm to see the US beat the iconic Italian luxury automobile company. At the core of this movie is the powerful engine of the kindred-spirit friendship between Shelby and Miles. Furthermore, this film seeks to comment on the relationship between artists and their work, and the backers (or in this case, corporations) that commission the art. One might say that the car race in this film parallels that of the Oscar race that happens throughout the year, but mostly in the last quarter. Shelby and Miles are artists in every sense of the word, but even they must depend upon capitalism to fund their work and lives. While the race between the mass assembly plant versus the handcrafted studio supports the main action plot, it’s the character-driven story of artists versus the bureaucrats that give this story the power under the hood.

American automotive designer Carroll Shelby and fearless British race car driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary vehicle for the Ford Motor Co. Together, they plan to compete against the race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966. (IMDb)

Where this film may see nominations is in the technical achievement categories. The cinematography, editing, and sound design are running at 10000RPMs! The camera does more than take you where so few have gone before, but it places you in the drivers seat in such a way that you will feel completely transported to the runways and raceways of this film. Even more impressive than the cinematography is the sound design that equally audibly moves you to the various locations of the film. You hear everything in such clarity that you will forget that you are sitting in the auditorium. And it all comes together in the magnificent editing process. Whereas the editing is not particularly stylistic (much like with the cinematography), it is absolutely stunning in every measurable way. This is the kind of film that can fall apart during editing. The editing never sticks out like “here, don’t you like this editing.” It remains in the background, yet holds every element together so that the story is consistently the focus. General audiences won’t notice the editing per se, and that is the best kind.

For artists out there, you will love the parallel between the racing life on screen and the artist’s life. Much in the same way that Shelby was commissioned by Henry Ford to build a stronger, better, faster, more nimble GT40, artists are commissioned every day to create something for audiences, the public, or private collectors. As much as artists love their art and possess an integrity that is poured into their respective art form, and seldom like to answer to anyone when they are in the zone, even then an artist has to answer to those whom are funding the work. And therein lies a great conflict. When the artist knows what will work and what is best, but the one with the purse strings is more concerned with turning a profit or pleasing the bottom line than the integrity of the art itself.

We witness this over and over in Ford v Ferrari (aka Ford v Shelby) the Ford Motor Company telling Shelby what will work best, when he is the expert in designing and building race cars. Although, Miles is even more of an expert than Shelby is. And that brings up another conflict between approaches to a project and solution. Just as much as the film is Ford vs Shelby, the film is more about Shelby vs Miles. If Ford vs Shelby is the Corporation vs The Artist, then Shelby vs Miles is the mainstream Artist versus the indie Artist. Both Miles and Shelby love cars. However, they each have wildly different temperaments and people strategies. Miles is the unapologetic artist whom refuses to compromise on anything, would rather not accept much-needed money than feel trapped as a designer. Shelby is the mainstream artist whom has an individual vision, but tends to bend to the will of Big Business in order to keep his business running. He a compromiser. Three distinctly different irons in this fire.

By the end of the film, Henry Ford is a static character, having learned nothing through this process except for one brief moment in which he made a decision against his initial thoughts. However, on the other hand, both Shelby and Miles demonstrate great growth in the film. Shelby reconnects with his uncompromising roots that initially got him to where he was, he rediscovered the love and passion for race card that made him the world champ that he was. Miles learns that sometimes that you need to be a team player in order to achieve the greater success. It’s these characters that make this a movie that you need to see. It’s the human story behind the wheel, not what happens on the race track. That being said, going into this film you may not know or ever cares who won the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, but for two and a half hours you will care so deeply that the unlikely victory in this film may even bring a tear to your eyes.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“The Current War” historical movie review

When the History Channel comes to cinemas. Despite what the title and tagline suggests, this movie is not electrifying and unfortunately plays off as forgettable Oscar bait. The only difference between this movie and one that you may catch on The History or Discovery Channels is the A-list cast. For students of history or those whom normally seek out and enjoy historical movies, you will most likely find this story interesting if not fascinating. Perhaps nearly as interesting as the historical background of this movie is the story of this movie’s journey from concept to screen. After the collapse of The Weinstein Company, this movie’s fate to never see the distribution was all but sealed. Enter from stage left Executive Producer Martin Scorsese to save this movie. With the backing of Scorsese, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon recut the film to that which he originally intended before Harvey has his way with it (and others in Hollywood). While the details of the plot lack anything truly memorable, and the characters are one-dimensional, where this film shines is in the cinematography and editing. All throughout the movie, the camera becomes a character in and of itself, providing audiences with carefully crafted angles and beautiful tracking shots that attempt to draw us into the story on an intimate level with this cast of legendary inventors and businessmen. Perhaps we would be talking cast too had they been given anything to work with. Ultimately, the screenplay is to blame for this steady but low wattage story of one of the greatest chapters in US history.

Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon)– the greatest inventors of the industrial age — engage in a battle of technology and ideas that will determine whose electrical system will power the new century. Backed by J.P. Morgan, Edison dazzles the world by lighting Manhattan. But Westinghouse, aided by Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), sees fatal flaws in Edison’s direct current design. Westinghouse and Tesla bet everything on risky and dangerous alternating current. (IMDb)

Upon watching this movie, it is clear that screenwriter Michael Mitnick forgot the cardinal rule of composing a well-developed screenplay with visual dimension: dramatize don’t tell (or simply show). Everything needed for a great screenplay is here: two central characters that equally function as the character(s) of opposition, a well-defined external goal (providing the electricity for the Chicago World’s Fair), motivated by an internal need (to prove that he is the best). It’s a relatively simple plot with complex characters–well characters that should have been more complex than they were written to be. Unfortunately, the plot was made complicated by too much technical jargon and felt too “telly” because of the perpetual exposition dumps. Further evidence of the weak screenwriting is witnessed in the lack of character development. What we are left with is a simple (yet dull) plot and simple characters. This would explain why all the elements for a great historical movie are there, but it still feels kind of weird.

As fantastic as the cinematography is, it certainly needed something to work with in order to deliver the luscious imagery we get in this movie. Fortunately, the cinematographer was given gorgeous sets, outstanding costumes, and locations that function as de facto characters. Good thing too, because the cinematographer was not given a script or characters to highlight. The stylistic cinematography provided by Chung-Hoon illuminates the dark with visually stunning choices that exude a strong commitment to visual storytelling. Had Chung been given a visually-driven screenplay, then perhaps we might be talking Oscar noms next year. Performing as strongly as the cinematography is the editing. If you like the way Broadway movies are edited, then you will enjoy the editing techniques employed to cut together this story. Just as this is a movie about inventors (of either inventions or clever ways of acquiring patents), the editing feels highly inventive for this style of movie. Whereas the screenplay feels very History Channel, the editing is fresh, sharp, and never feels dull (unlike the story itself).

Personally, what I found most interesting was the Edison story. Not because he was my favorite character, quite the contrary. After all, Edison comes off as the Ray Kroc of electricity. Why I was particularly interested in his story is because I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Ford and Edison Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida. For example, I’ve seen that same lightbulb map at the museum as well as one of his laboratories. Having visited his winter nome (which functioned as his supplementary research lab), I could literally place myself in his world. One of the labs that used to exist on the property has since been relocated to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, which is home to many historical houses and buildings that have been relocated from their original standing place to the living museum. After the movie has provided me with the inside story on Edison, next time I visit his Winter Estate, I will view it with new eyes. If you have the opportunity to visit Greenfield Village or the Ford and Edison Winter Estates, I highly encourage you to take your time to walk through the history of two of the greatest minds that transitioned us into the modern era though ingenuity and determination.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“JUDY” Biopic Film Review

A truly gripping motion picture that will bring you to tears during this somewhere over the rainbow redemption story. Bring tissues. Renee Zellweger is captivating as Judy Garland, and you’ll swear that you’re watching Garland on the big screen. Although we may be familiar with the broad strokes career of the legendary entertainer, this film goes beyond the headlines and tabloids to deliver a true life story that could ironically be titled A Star is Born, or perhaps reborn. Ironic in that this film shows the life of a movie star after the lights have faded and the offers stop coming in, much like the movie she starred in. It’s a rise and fall story, of sorts, but is more precisely a fall and rise story as the movie focusses in on the last year of Judy Garland’s life. If you are worried that the film ends on her death, you can be relived that the film chooses to stop the story prior to the end of the iconic star’s life. And it works so incredibly well! While there are many movies (not unlike A Star is Born) that focus on the rise and fall of a talent in showbusiness, this movie skips all the glitz and glamor to paint a realistic portrait of what it is like for those whom grow up in front of the camera, controlled by those around them, just to wind up in front of booing crowds, empty bank accounts, homelessness, and a tumultuous custody battle. Not to mention her addiction to pills that was caused by abusive treatment at the hands of the old studio system because of being force fed pills from an early age. Whether you are a fan of the iconic diva or not, if you love command performances, then you do not want to miss the uncanny performance of Zellweger as Judy. All the way down to the mannerisms, vocal inflections, and over all behavior, she IS Judy. Although we all know of the tragic ending, no mistaking it, this film is an inspirational story of redemption.

The money is gone, career on the rocks, and risking the loss of custody of her two youngest children, that is the last year’s of Judy Garland’s life. Unfortunately the other side of the rainbow for Judy was anything but magical. Three decades after starring in one of the greatest film musicals of all time The Wizard of Oz, the beloved actress and singer is in dire straights. She is left with virtually nothing except her name and what remains of her timeless voice that charmed millions throughout her early illustrious career. In order to prove that she can provide for her two youngest children, she accepts a gig in London playing to sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town night club. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans, fights her depression and anxiety over performing, and begins a whirlwind romance with her soon-to-be fifth husband.

“For one hour, I am Judy Garland, and the rest of the time I am just like everyone else” is a paraphrased quote from the movie, but it illustrates how the actress and singer felt about her relationship with the world. The movie chronicles her inability to stay afloat financially in Los Angeles and must accept a gig in London where her personal troubles continue to follow and haunt her. Her character is so incredibly relatable because many of us have found ourselves in traps that we have stepped in and are at a loss as to how to get out. If you thought this was going to be another cliche musical biopic, then you would be mistaken. No pretense about it, this is an unapologetic look at the dark side of Hollywood in perhaps one of the greatest stories that is right up there with Norma Desmond. Now, I am not equating Judy with what is, in my opinion, the greatest film of all time Sunset Boulevard, but her story is not unlike the one experienced by Norma. The movie also comments on the far reaching effects of childhood trauma on the adult psyche. No one understood the extent that she was abused by the studio system except for Judy herself. If her present-day handlers knew what she went through during the years that American fell in love with The Wizard of OzMeet Me in St. Louis, and more, then they would not-so-casually write her off as a wrecked hasbeen who mismanaged her money and relationships. The film deals with perception versus reality. Strategically placed in the film are flashbacks to her childhood at MGM that provide context for moving the present story forward as each moment reveals a new layer to the legendary entertainer.

Zellweger delivers a performance for the ages in this film. More than a spot-on impression, she transforms into Judy Garland to the extent that you will almost believe that you are watching the iconic actress and singer on the big screen. It is clear that Zellweger studied Judy Garland for months in order to get into character. Her movement, speech pattern, posture, and other behaviors completely sell the audience on this audacious portrayal of such an icon. Never once does she break character and allow the actor to shine through, she remains committed to this phenomenally genuine portrayal of Judy Garland. We all know Zellweger can sing, after all, she wow’d us in Chicago (a rare example of when the movie adaptation IS better than the live show); but nothing will prepare you for the power of her singing in this movie. Other than Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, you will hear Zellweger sing other famous songs by Garland such as Get HappyThe Trolly SongCome Rain or Come Shine, and of course the encore of Over the Rainbow. during the movie’s climactic, emotionally charged, showdown. Even when singing, Zellweger is determined to deliver the songs just as a late-40s Garland did, complete with all the stubbornness, anxiety, and even anger. I truly hope that Zellweger is nominated for this role.

Perhaps the reason why Liza Minelli was quite objectionably vocal about her mother’s portrayal in this movie is because there are creative liberties taken by the writers in order to further dramatize Judy’s story. As I’ve told my screenwriting class, dramatize don’t tell. If a “based on a true story” or biographical film was simply concerned with the timeline of events, the cold hard facts, and cause and effect, then it might feel more like a police procedural or college lecture. Hence why it is imperative that writers DO get a little creative in the dramatization of events for cinematic purposes. For instance, the facts are largely correct in this story as I have compared them to Wikipedia and other newspaper articles, but where I can see the difference is Judy’s reaction to the timeline of events. Articles and tabloids may be able to show what happened, but it is up to the screenwriters to dramatize the reaction to the conflict. So perhaps that is what Liza is upset with, she doesn’t agree with the story details between what we know from Hollywood history. One of the tangential components in the movie is Judy meeting up with “Friends of Judy” at the end of one of her shows. Judy joins them, rather than be by herself for a night of poorly made omelets and casual singing around a piano. It’s an emotionally moving tribute to all the gays who’ve loved her over the years. In all likelihood, this was written for the movie as there is no way of verifying if this night ever happened. This is the scene where I feel that she should’ve sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas because tonally it was similar to that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Instead, she sings Get Happy.

Maybe this is an unconventional redemption story, but that quality is clearly communicated through the film. Rising up against the internal and external monsters in your life that have dragged you down so far that there is no end in sight. Whereas Judy may not have changed as dramatically as Scrooge did in  A Christmas Carol, she does change during the climax of the movie. If you want to know just how, then you need to go out and watch it!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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“Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” Film Review

“The Hollywood that never was, and always will be” in this QT film that subverts expectations and delivers in spades. The ninth film from writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant historical fiction inspired by real events and people in film/television and Hollywood history. If you’ve been to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, you’ll recognize the opening quote. For the cinephile or film/TV/Hollywood history geek, this film will sweep you up in the story and setting; however, general audiences may find it difficult to connect to the otherwise fantastic story. Thankfully, the performances from the three leads DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie and strong supporting cast will keep you entertained for the rather lengthy runtime regardless if historic Hollywood is of interest to you or not. The characters also add a high degree of relatability, which may come of a surprise to audiences. While the film kept me engaged the entire time, I can see where more casual movie fans–even fans of QT–may find the first act sluggish. While the first two third of the film may not seem like a traditional QT film, the third act (specifically the showdown) goes full on Tarantino! If you pay particularly close attention to the view outside of the windshield of Dalton’s car, you may even notice the Alto Nido apartment building, that Joe Gillis lived in, in Sunset Boulevard. Suffice it to say, if you are up on your Hollywood history, you will find lots of Easter Eggs and references to film and television of that post studio system era. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood represents a brilliantly entertaining homage to what is largely considered the end of the Golden Age in Hollywood.

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood visits 1969 Los Angeles, where everything is changing, as TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) make their way around an industry they hardly recognize anymore. Concurrent to their struggle to find their place in a Hollywood that is changing so rapidly, the film also follows Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski as the fateful night of August 8, 1969 approaches. The ninth film from the writer-director features a large ensemble cast and multiple storylines in a tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s golden age.

I went into this film with moderately high expectations, which can be dangerous, but the film met and surpassed any preconceived notions that I had. Despite the more than 2.5hr run time, I could have easily watched it for another half hour. Compared to his other eight films, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is, what I would consider, to be the most accessible of his films; however, some of the magic of the film will be lost on those whom are not film/TV and Hollywood history geeks. And it’s as if QT knew this, so he wrote two incredibly entertaining fictional characters (Dalton and Booth) in this mostly historically accurate setting. Our third lead is based on the real person Sharon Tate married to then respected director Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby). The three lead performances captivate the audience and keep you along for the ride as the tension increases as we approach August 8, 1969 (the night the Manson cult murdered a pregnant Tate along with four of her friends) on the quit street Cielo Drive.

For the first 2/3 of the film, you may be wondering if it’s even a QT film. And that’s because he subverts his usual approach to plot and character development, gritty violence, and non-linear storytelling is largely absent in the film. Students of QT’s work (even if you aren’t a huge fan despite respecting his cinematic work like myself) will pick up on the QT tropes and moments, but they will likely go missed by general audiences. Interestingly, everything that QT loves about old Hollywood is in this film, but never becomes the focus. Rather the setting, characters, and plot devices work to provide context, effective development of character and plot, and immersing the audience in the changing world that was Hollywood 1969. The historic events of August 8, 1969 (and other times, dates, movies referenced in the film) are an important element in the film to ground this fictional story in history; but it’s the fictional foreground of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth that is the A-Story that moves the action plot along. Although the film does contain the character of the now infamous Roman Polanski, the focus remains on his wife, the late Sharon Tate; however, QT does an excellent job of separating the man from the art, and the pre-pedo versus post-pedo. Essentially, he is a means to an end. Horror fans will love hearing Rosemary’s Baby referenced and movie musical fans may notice the giant movie poster ad for Funny Girl outside of Columbia Pictures

What makes the characters of Dalton and Booth relatable to audiences is conflict, both internal and external, faced by these two men whom are aging out of and find their career tool bags are increasingly not compatible with the changing landscape of Hollywood at the time. The foreground takes us back to when the American Western genre of Film and TV was on its way out, which leaves Dalton and Booth an icon of the past. Come to think of it, they are experiencing a small degree of what Norma Desmond experienced in Sunset Boulevard. The struggle to find one’s place in the world, when the very foundation upon which you built your life and career is cracking and breaking a part, is something with which we can all identify. You can apply this to career or even romantic relationships (if you’re still single like me), you feel that no matter how hard you try or what you do to change that you cannot realize what you desire. There is a real pain that exists when looking upon a world that doesn’t want what you have to offer anymore, and you can only hang your laurels on the past for so long before it becomes a hindrance to living in the now. Booth represents a person whom experiences prejudice based upon past incidents, and hindered from being able to learn from the past and grow as a person. Both characters use alcohol as a coping mechanism, but we learn that dulling your senses to the past does not allow you to address it, learn from it, and develop a plan of action moving forward. Adapt or get left behind. Both Leo and Brad deliver outstanding performances that should catch the attention of The Academy when it comes time to nominate. There exists two layers to the performances because they are actors playing actors playing characters. Using the American Western as the conduit through which to explore a disappearing past was an excellent choice that also allowed for QT to work with a favorite genre of his. For a retrospective on the Western, check out Classic Movie Musts.

While QT has received negative criticism for his (what some have considered) underuse of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, I don’t find that to be the case. Her character may not have been given a significant amount to do in the film, but she is not the central character, despite being an important part of the overall story. She portrays a real life actress and soon-to-be new mother who’s promising career was cut short by the Manson cult. When she is on screen, she truly lights it up with an infectious energy and delivers an excellent performance/portrayal in those moments. Whereas she may not have been the central character, in the scenes that we do see her, she is given important direction and reminds us that Sharon Tate was more than the late wife of Polanski or a murder victim, but was a person with dreams, friends, and a life outside of her career. For fans of Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers, you’ll recognize that it’s the movie that is referenced when we are given the story of how Tate came to leave Jay Sebring to become engaged to Polanski during the filming of that movie in the UK. Her story is the historical background upon which the fictional foreground of Dalton and Booth was built. Furthermore, she represents the optimistic innocence that once was before being cruelly ended. Playing around with the ideas of innocence and corruption is a running secondary theme to the primary one of the past versus present.

If you go into this movie with the expectation that it will be a quintessential QT film from start to finish, then you may be disappointed until the third act. He subverts our expectations by approaching this film in a more “Golden Era” of Hollywood way. He takes the best moves out of his playbook and integrates them into the story. Think of it as a kaleidoscope of the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and QT’s best hits. While the film does have a slow burn through much of it (no mistaking it, it worked for me), the third act is gripping, suspenseful, and truly pays off the tension that was slowly wound through Acts I and II. Of all his films, this is probably my favorite one for fun factor and nostalgia. It doesn’t ground it self in nostalgia, but it’s a great accessory to the story. Film/TV and Hollywood history geeks will likely love this film while more casual movie fans will enjoy it well enough. It’s a film for film fans, and that’s perfectly fine!

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Ringling Bros. Circus: the Final Farewell” Documentary Review

“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Feld Entertainment proudly presents Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey! Welcome to the greatest show on earth!” For nearly a century and a half (146yrs), THE circus was an American institution that began with storied entertainer P.T. Barnum and later bought by John Ringling followed by the Feld family, whom would produce the circus for its last 50yrs. Prior to (what would eventually become known as) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (from hereon out referred to as RBBBC), America did not have a concept of what a traveling live entertainment show was. There was certainly live entertainment prior to RBBBC, but you had to be fortunate enough to live or visit the cities where the shows were. What made the RBBBC unique was the fact it traveled by train to cities nationwide delivering the greatest show on earth to ladies, gentleman, and children of all ages. Much like the US space program indirectly impacted our lives at home, the office, and in the car through the prolific space spinoff technologies, RBBBC’s influences on live and themed entertainment are far reaching. From technical theatre technology to advertising to stunts and beyond. Nearly every live entertainment show can trace elements of its roots back to the circus. Once packing out tents turned arenas, in the last few years of the circus, the numbers began to shrink. And eventually it was decided to make the hard decision to close the circus after its final performance in May 2017. The documentary The Final Farewell chronicles the final performance of the American institution as it invites you to be in awe and wonder of the talent and technology on display that inspired imaginations for nearly 150 years. It airs on AXS-TV on Memorial Day at 8pm EDT. Learn just why this truly was the greatest show on earth, and why the performers and technicians truly felt that it was a community, a town without a zip code that will forever be missed.

Two years ago, RBBBC saw its final performance in Uniondale, NY (NYC area). This was the last time long-standing ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson would say goodbye to the audiences that clapped, cheered, and applauded the experience of being mesmerized by the spectacle of the circus. After nearly 150 years, it was difficult for the cast, crew, and American people to fully comprehend that this was the last time RBBBC’s iconic train would pull into the station to bring the circus to the eager audience. After pioneering the very concept of touring live entertainment, the circus finally came to a close, and with it, the end of an American icon. This documentary, that has been more than two years in the making, provides audiences with an up close and personal look at the timeless magic of the circus through intimate interviews with cast and crew, footage of the final performance, and archival photographs and video.

Documentaries are challenged to make a strong emotional connection with the audience; otherwise, they may fall into talking head or Wikipedia territory. This emotional connection is often accomplished through the use of subtext, a compelling score, artfully crafted images, and a script. A script? Precisely. Perhaps you are under the impression that a documentary is written in post-production, but that is not entirely true. A significant amount of work goes into producing a documentary that will evoke emotion and empathy at will, months or years before the camera shoots the first footage. Much of this work is accomplished through the effective use of a script (or strong outline). The script serves as the map between the idea or origin of the documentary and the destination. I say map because just like a roadmap (even GPS ones), there are opportunities to take an unexpected exit or explore a tourist stop that was not foreseen when the route was first plotted. Unlike the track on the Tomorrowland Speedway, you can veer off course in the event that something catches your eye. Spending a substantive amount of time in the pre-production stage of a doc also allows the director (or producer) to decide what kind of documentary the story should be. There are six types of documentaries: poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, and performative.

  • Poetic: Focus on experiences, images, and showing the audience the world through a different set of eyes. The ultimate goal is to create a feeling rather than truth.
  • Expository: Closest to what most people consider “documentaries.” These aim to inform and/or persuade — often through omnipresent “Voice of God” narration over footage.
  • Observational: Also known as cinema verite (veritas, Greek for truth), these aim to simply observe the world around them. The style attempts to give voice to all sides of an issue by giving audiences first hand access to some of the subject’s most important (and often private) moments.
  • Participatory: While having elements of Observational and Expository, include the filmmaker within the narrative. The filmmaker directly influences the major actions of the narrative.
  • Reflexive: Often include the filmmaker within the film; however, unlike Participatory, they make no attempts to explore an outside subject.
  • Performative: An experimental combination of styles used to stress subject experience and share an emotional response to the world. Often called the “Michael Moore” style of doc.

Before you begin to think that this article is all about how to make a documentary–don’t worry–but being familiar with the different style of docs will help to understand my critique of The Final Farewell. At the end of the day, this documentary is highly informative, containing some fantastic footage and interviews. Unfortunately, it lacks direction. The doc framing devices oscillate between a focus on the final show and the rich history of the RBBBC. Individually, both of these approaches to the doc work well; but switching between the two, takes away from the full emotional potential. There are times that it is highly expository but then it switches mid-act to observational and even becomes performative at times. It’s important for a documentary to select one type of doc style, and stick to it, otherwise the audience may lose focus and thus mitigates the desired emotional response from the audience. For those whom worked on or with the circus, there is certainly a nostalgic magic at play in this doc, but I think that some of the magic is lost on those whom did not have a personal connection to the greatest show. Had the documentary chosen to focus on the final show and the issues that led to the hard decision to close the circus after 146 years or chosen to focus on the history and evolution of the circus from its earliest days with P.T. Barnum to the Feld Family, by taking the audience on a journey that ended with the final performance, then I feel that there would have been a stronger emotional connection between the doc and the general audience. Whereas most of the interviews are framed in a traditional manner, there are a handful of recurring interviews wherein the interviewee looks directly at the camera. Any first year film student will tell you that this is never how a documentary interview should be shot unless chosen for artistic reasons that advance the plot. All that said, there are quite a few elements that work very well. There is a powerful documentary in there somewhere, but the lack of direction keeps it from reaching its full potential.

If there is one message that The Final Farewell drives home–and effectively so–is the very real community that existed between the cast (both people and animals) and crew while on and off the tracks. As familiar with the circus as I am, I had no idea that entire families traveled together, that there were schools and even a daycare on board the train. Furthermore, there was a commissary, barber/salon, restaurant and more. All that was missing was a post office. Unlike other traveling shows, including Feld Entertainment’s Disney on Ice, Sesame Street Live, and upcoming Jurassic World Live Tour, these performers went home every night as opposed to staying in hotel after hotel. Crazy, right?!? I found it utterly fascinating. Never thought of the RBBBC families literally having the train be their home for most of the year. For kids who grew up in the circus, this is the only home they ever knew. So, having your only home taken away from you, must have been devastating if not traumatizing. THAT is a story that I would have loved to have heard. It’s this very sense of community that the general audience can empathize with because none of us want to think of our livelihoods, let alone, homes being taken away from us. RBBBC was truly a world in and of itself. Not only was it the greatest show on earth, it was also the greatest home and career that these performers ever knew or perhaps will ever know. According to the many interviews, the feeling of community was strong. To be in Ringling Bros. was considered to be the apex of a career in the performing circus arts. And it is clear that everyone associated with this American institution will miss it.

Although there are dozens of acts in the circus, The Final Farewell focusses on Ringmaster Iverson, big cat trainers, dog trainers, motorbike acrobats, trapeze artists, Paolo, and the iconic clowns. The active embrace of diversity was a constant theme through the interviews. From Iverson winning the role of Ringmaster to became the first African-American to hold the coveted spot in 1998 to the attachment of acts from around the globe to highlight different talents, cultures, and people in ways that were positive, uplifting, and impactful, diversity ran strong. Not mentioned in this doc, RBBBC also broke the glass ceiling when the first female Ringmaster was cast for Circus Extreme (co-running at the same time as Out of this World). So many wonderful opportunities were created for a wide range of talented performers and technicians. Lots of firsts associated with the circus. It is clear from the interviews that everyone absolutely loved working for the circus. And that enthusiasm can be felt at times through the doc. In addition to the interviews, there are dozens of minutes of footage of the spectacular performances, dazzling costumes, and the smiling faces of the audience at the arena. But the footage and interviews are not contained to the show itself, there are many moments that take you to Feld Entertainment Studios to meet the costume and set designers that craft the show experience that the performers bring to life.

One of the items of interest conspicuously missing from the documentary, is any time spent exploring why RBBBC closed. The only reference to one of the reasons for the closure is a comment from Iverson asking the audience if the circus is antiquated. And of course, there is a resounding NO from the audience. A well-written documentary should address any elephants in the room. It’s no secret that RBBBC came under increasing scrutiny from PETA and other animal rights groups in recent years, and that the constant propaganda and petitions had an affect on the audience numbers. In terms of the animal treatment, whereas the earliest versions of the circus in the days of P.T. Barnum did not place extreme pride in animal care, RBBBC took great care in providing a rich and full life for the animal performers. Each and every animal was treated like royalty by their trainers, handlers, and owners. But I feel it was a missed opportunity for this documentary to address the issue of the animals (most prominently the elephants) and how outside forces did have an impact on the audience numbers. It would have been a great opportunity to tell this side of the story that the headlines so often neglected.

Prepare yourself for a documentary that is larger than life as you peek inside the final performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey! If you have been a fan of the circus from the time you were a kit to an adult, then you will find so much to like in this doc-film. I don’t foresee any Emmys for this doc next award season, but it’s still a fascinating exploration of the town without a zip code, the greatest show on earth.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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