Sometimes having your film play out in flashback can unveil a clever and compelling narrative: Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, The Godfather Part II, Forrest Gump, The English Patient, the list goes on. Other times it’s lazy, useless, and kinda dumb: a device born of fear that if a story isn’t somehow tethered to the present day, viewers won’t relate. In no particular order, here are five movies that, despite their status as modern classics, lose serious points for embracing the flashback when it was completely, totally unnecessary. Warning: spoilers be ahead, matey…
‘Saving Private Ryan’
Steven Spielberg is no stranger to ending his period pieces in present day. Specifically at some cemetery, for the sake of maximum emotional manipulation (I’m looking at you, Schindler’s List). He pulls this shitck in Saving Private Ryan, where the old man version of Private Ryan (looks like they saved him!) thanks his deceased Captain (Tom Hanks — not shown ’cause he’s dead) for the heroics he and his men displayed back in the war. Is this scene needed to close out Ryan’s character arc? Nope. Despite an initial reluctance to leave his platoon, nothing in the film would suggest he was anything but grateful. To make matters worse, the movie begins with this same scene, only moments earlier: Old Man Ryan walks up to the grave site with his family, then bursts into tears. From here the giant, movie-length flashback begins. Yep, heaven forbid we simply start a World War II story during, I dunno, maybe a time in history known as World War II? Naw, apparently Hollywood feels we gotta be eased into it. Below: a clip I like to call I’m Morphing Matt Damon.
‘The Green Mile’
Unlike crybaby Private Ryan, we need not weep for Mr. Hanks. At least when it comes to The Green Mile, ’cause Tom most definitely lives to be an old man in this one. In fact, the film’s open and close feature fifteen minutes of his prison guard character (played by an actual old man) puttering around a nursing home and (eventually) telling his magical tale of gentle giant John Coffee to some random woman we don’t care about (a.k.a. our exposition patsy). Is there any point to this? Nyet; it simply sets up the eventual not-so-staggering reveal that ol’ J.C. supersized Tom’s lifespan that time he administered his signature bladder-healing groin grab. Which is info we could have easily been given without flashing back and forth between 1935 and 1999 (the latter being the year Sugar Ray topped the pop charts, to give some cheesy context). And I don’t want any “but that’s how it was in the book!” arguments from you (see Life of Pi). Lalalala I can’t hear you! Slipshod writing is slipshod writing, y’all.
‘Life of Pi’
Here’s what we learn by minute three of Life of Pi: there’s no way our young hero dies, because he’s a 45-year-old man chilling out in his present-day living room, recounting his amazing tale to some hack writer we don’t care about. Admittedly, if this were the story of a young man trying to get ahead on Wall Street, our advanced knowledge of him surviving to see middle age wouldn’t be that big of a spoiler. This, however, is the story of a young man trapped in a tiny boat with a ferocious freakin’ Bengal tiger. So why lay things out in flashback? You could argue it’s because director Ang Lee is a fan of voiceover narration (The Ice Storm, anyone?). But if such is the case, this option is already built into the script: while stuck at sea, the kid writes his thoughts in a journal, for the love of Mike! Alas, it seems that despite better judgment, Mr. Lee was hellbent on having his Pi and eating it too (apologies — anger brings out the crappy puns in me).
When your movie showcases one of history’s most famous nautical disasters, the ending ain’t gonna be much of a shock. So you’d sure-as-shootin’ better make room in the story for other surprises wherever possible. The question is, since we all know the big boat’s gonna sink, why start us off in present day Spoilerville? (a.k.a. on some salvage vessel in 1996.) Where before having the chance to dig into our overpriced popcorn, we’re told which main character lives (Rose) and which dies (Jack). So much for suspense. And hey, remember the movie’s jaw-dropping climax, where the Titanic rises up completely perpendicular to the water before snapping in two like a giant bread stick? Most of us were completely unaware this was how the old gal went down. At least we were unaware, until an early scene (from dumb 1996) blows the surprise by laying down a cheesy computer simulation of this colossal breakage (watch it below — no es bueno!). Why, James Cameron, why?
‘A League of Their Own’
It’s Hanks for the hat trick! A League of Their Own is quite possibly cinema’s most beloved baseball comedy. And although set in the early ’40s, it’s auspiciously bookended by scenes from ‘present day’ (circa 1990). The flick begins with the old lady version of Gena Davis’ character Dottie Hinson attending the induction of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Then things flash back fifty years, where we’re given the story of Hinson and her sister joining the controversial league. From there, it’s full circle back to ‘present day’ for our ending, where the screen is filled with octogenarian versions of all the characters we’ve come to know and love. Why? Well, because… I have no idea. I guess just to show they made it into Cooperstown. But is that reason enough to tack on this heavy-handed framing device? The following concept may run counter to most film school teachings, but so be it: sometimes “tell, don’t show” is preferable to “show, don’t tell.” Your baseball gals get a Hall of Fame induction decades after the fact? Tell us with a title card after the final fade out. No fuss, no muss.
I’ve already outlined how flashbacks can be the enemy of taut, suspenseful storytelling. But here’s another reason they’re often dumber than a third-string defensive tackle: time is a moving target. So fifty years from now, A League of Their Own’s so-called ‘present-day’ will seem as far back in history as 1943. Put another way, once 1990 (the era of the film’s release) is no longer actual present day, it ceases to be a helpful frame of reference to viewers. Instead, it becomes just another point in history – one with zero narrative value. This in turn brings a dated element to films like A League of Their Own, which is the last thing anyone wants in their period pieces.