Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

I, Tonya (2017) | Written by Steven Rogers
Molly’s Game (2017) | Written by Aaron Sorkin and Molly Bloom
McKee Says: They Work (Spoiler Alert!)

A study of exemplary stories pushed from the past.

The inciting incident opens the telling by radically upsetting the protagonist’s life. For better or worse, sooner or later, balance must be restored, so out there in the future climatic turning points wait to happen. These events reach back to us, as it were, grip our curiosity and sweep us through time toward an unknown yet to come.

In the classic Thriller, for example, the magnetism of no less than three massive question marks pull us toward the future: (1) Who is the criminal? (2) How will he be caught? (3) How will he be punished?

Sometimes, however, a writer uses the opposite technique and calls on the power of the past to push the storytelling forward through time.

Two Oscar-nominated biopics-cum-crime dramas start with their female protagonists busted for and presumably guilty of a crime. The storytelling then flashes back to their youth to dramatize their motivations, the hows and whys of life that ran both of them afoul of the FBI. { More uncanny coincidences: In real life both protagonists began as winter sports athletes (figure skating and freestyle skiing) with fierce disciplinarian parents and Olympic dreams. }


Screenwriter Steven Rogers starts the film as a documentary based on face-to-camera interviews, then turns it into a docudrama by casting actors as living people, and finally styles it as a mockumentary by adding spit-laugh mockery that laces his scenes with the high hysteria.

The film opens with its outcome, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), her skating career in ruins, talking to camera. The telling then flashes back to when she was three years old and plays out the two elements that push a story from the past: dramatic irony and underdog empathy.

A flashback creates dramatic irony, a situation in which the audience knows more than the characters know. We see these people blindly heading toward a terrible future. We feel pangs of dread because it’s inevitable and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

As a result, fascination with the conflicts and forces driving from the past pushes the film forward. From Tonya’s childhood on, her mother, her husband, and his wacky friends pour havoc into her life. None of this would matter, of course, if we didn’t care. But thanks to her marvelous monster of a backstage mother (Allison Jenny) our heart goes out to to little Tonya in a flash.


MOLLY’S GAME also opens with an outcome: the FBI hauls Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) off in handcuffs. The telling then flashes back to her childhood and her father (Kevin Costner) coaching her to ski as if she were a jarhead and he, a Marine DI.

Once again, dramatic irony and instant underdog empathy: After a career ending accident destroys her athletic hopes, she decides to lead her life as a self-made woman in, of all possible venues, high stakes gambling. Now she must live by her wits in the testosterone reeking empire of gaming and gangsters. As a result, the audience stares into every scene, wondering how, why and what did she do in this dangerous male world that jammed her up with the law. Unlike the passive Tonya who reacts to other people’s actions, Molly makes her own choices and these propel both her and the audience toward the future.

The takeaway is this: Stories pulled by the future captivate curiosity about the ending: “How will this turn out?” Stories pushed by the past arouse intense curiosity about the beginning and give far greater weight to the question, “How and why did this character do the crazy things I already know she did?” Push versus pull is a question of where you focus the audience/reader’s curiosity, past or future, and how hypnotic you make the need to know one or the other.

Note 1:

Pushing from the past to drive storytelling forward works best in biographies, histories and memoirs. Belief that events actually happened seems to deepen the reader/audience’s curiosity and amplify their concentration on motivation.

Note 2:

Here’s an interesting list: 45 YEARS, LADY MACBETH, HIDDEN FIGURES, 20th CENTURY WOMEN, MY COUSIN RACHEL, WONDER WOMAN, THE SHAPE OF WATER, ATOMIC BLONDE, BIG LITTLE LIES, THREE BILLBOARDS — works I reviewed previously; I, TONYA and MOLLY’S GAME — the two I just reviewed; LADY BIRD, COLUMBUS, FLORIDA PROJECT — the next three films I’ll cover. All have female protagonists. Is this an anomaly or a trend or just me? Is it too much to hope that maybe things are changing for the better?