My movie critic's New Year's resolution is always the same: no major spoilers this year.
And every year, I blow it.
I'm usually notified of this via email, and the ones about spoilers are easy to spot. Keywords include "jerkface" and "hack" and "meathead."
Sample letter — Dear Meathead: Why, in your article about spoilers, did you include so many spoilers?
I hope not to get that email, so let me stipulate that this column about spoilers contains spoilers.
Actual emails go more like this:
"Dear Meathead: You are a prime example of why I don't read movie reviews. Like your review of Megan Leavey, the movie about an Iraq war vet and bomb-disposal specialist who petitions to adopt her service animal in civilian life. You reveal that Megan is, indeed, reunited with her dog Rex."
It's true. Right the in second graph — Megan gets her dog back. Didn't seem like a big deal to me, because there is simply no chance Hollywood is going to make a movie about an Iraq war vet who doesn't get reunited with her hero dog.
I haven't seen Wes Anderson's missing-dog drama Isle of Dogs, for instance, but I predict the boy finds his missing pet.
Just as I predict there will never be a sequel to All Dogs Go To Heaven called All Dogs Go To Hell.
But there are other issues in play, related to the following complaint:
"Dear Meathead: You gave away too much of Molly's Game. You owe your readers an apology."
This is also true — I was very liberal with details of the story. And I think it speaks to my big spoiler weakness: biographical movies.
Megan Leavey and Molly's Game are both fact-based movies about public figures – in both cases publicized public figures. Leavey, for instance, had launched a high-profile media campaign to get her dog back. It's part of the movie's narrative. She's appeared on several national TV programs, and news of her reunion with Rex was widely circulated.
Also, the fact that Leavey reunites with Rex isn't really the crux of the story. The dog is a means to an end — finding and saving Rex is (spoiler alert) part of Leavey's own journey back to mental health. The real point isn't whether she gets her dog back but whether she's gets her civilian bearings back.
Of course, as a critic I have this perspective on Megan Leavey because I've seen the movie. If you haven't seen the movie, and you don't know her story, reading that Megan gets her dog back sure looks like a spoiler. This gets into a very tricky area. It's impossible to know what readers know, and difficult to make judgments about what constitutes common knowledge. But my goal is always the same — don't spoil a surprise, or a startling plot turn.
Looking back, although Leavey did a thorough job publicizing her search for Rex, I'll grant that it would have been an easy story to miss. Ditto the true story of Molly Bloom, who ran a poker game for Hollywood celebrities and was eventually run out of town by some of the players. Bloom wrote a book about her life, and also got a decent amount of national press.
Her story was covered with particular intensity by movie industry trade publications, and though I knew a good deal about it, it was a mistake to assume that folks outside the entertainment business were as attuned to Bloom's story.
My second rule of thumb for biographical, fact-based narratives: better safe than sorry.
Obviously, there are limits to circumspection as it applies to biography and history. It's safe to review Darkest Hour and "reveal" that England won World War II. Still, job one is protecting the movie's narrative as much as possible. Readers remind me of this, as do other reviews. Take, for example, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I was astonished at how many critics revealed a key fact about Woody Harrelson's character that's meant to be one of the movie's big "oof" moments.
A moment that, in my view, should be preserved for viewers. Ditto Frances McDormand's reaction to the news of his secret, an even bigger "oof."
One reviewer noted that he'd seen the movie twice, and that each time there was an audible gasp in the audience when viewers saw how McDormand's character responded to Harrelson's news — which the reviewer himself revealed. I wonder if folks gasped audibly reading that review, realizing they were now precluded from gasping audibly when they saw the moment on film.
Preserving spoilers is important. It's also fun. Case in point: Blade Runner 2049. Producer Andrew Kosove actually called critics (including me) individually, asking that key plot points not be revealed.
At the screening, security guards presented a list of six plot points not to be revealed, and asked you to sign a paper promising not to reveal them.
The guards were not armed, but were very much in my mind when I started writing. And as it turned out, abiding by those rules actually made writing about the movie more enjoyable. As an exercise in composition, it reminds you that in most cases, you really only need to describe a basic plot framework — no more than you might include in a capsule review.