By David Raether, veteran TV writer and essayist
Movies are more than the sum of their parts. But occasionally, you run across a scene in a movie that is more significant than the whole movie itself. These are scenes that are so effective and powerful (or purely funny) that they make you come back to the movie again and again just to watch that scene once more.
These are what I call “perfect scenes.” They are the right mix of dialogue, acting, and directing. They are the kinds of scenes that encapsulate the movie and its ambitions in a complete way, making the movie one you want to watch over and over again.
This round-up of perfect scenes will be a regular feature for me, so this list is far from comprehensive. But here are my first five perfect scenes.
“You saved my life in Iraq.” An incredibly powerful scene in which Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is at a car repair shop with his son and is recognized by a soldier (Jonathan Groff) whom he rescued while serving in Iraq. The scene is the epitome of Kyle’s wartime drive crashing into his current torment. Kyle’s service in Iraq was motivated by a desire to protect his fellow soldiers.
Yet, that motivation also drove him to serve four excruciatingly violent and terrifying tours of duty in Iraq. Suffering from PTSD, Kyle is with his young son in a car repair shop waiting room when another customer comes up to him, recognizing Kyle as the man who saved him in a firefight in Iraq. Bradley Cooper’s performance as Chris Kyle hits its peak in this scene as a man uncomfortable with the situation, barely able to make eye contact with the young veteran thanking him for his service. Directed by Clint Eastwood, with screenplay by Jason Hall.
“The biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism.” Margin Call is a somewhat overlooked film about the financial crisis of 2008. It is a fictionalized portrayal of the collapse of an investment bank (in this case, think Bear Stearns) due to its excessive holdings in mortgage-backed securities. In the picture, a young risk management analyst discovers a significant problem with the firm’s sales of these securities and alerts his supervisors.
The story takes place in one 24-hour period. The scene in question is the climactic board meeting in which the firm’s chairman has been called in for an emergency meeting at 4 a.m. to discuss the potential disaster that awaits the firm. This scene is late in the film and marks the first appearance of Jeremy Irons as the firm’s legendary founder and chairman.
Anyone who has ever been in a tense business meeting will recognize the stress and anxiety of this remarkable scene. Starring Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, and Demi Moore; directed and written by J. C. Chandor.
“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” Is there a person on the planet who hasn’t watched this scene a dozen times? The guys of Delta House are glum over the end of their fraternity when Bluto (John Belushi) decides to give them a pep talk. The result is an unforgettable mash-up of utter nonsense and stirring inspiration.
A little trivia about this scene: in the 1995 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves, the Indians had lost the first two games of the series, and Game 3 was about to start in Cleveland. Prior to singing the national anthem, this scene was played on the Jumbotron at Jacobs Field in Cleveland to fire up the home crowd. It worked. Directed by John Landis and written by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller.
“I’m a little screwy myself.” In the history of the Academy Awards, only three films have won all five of the “major” Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Those three films are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Silence of the Lambs, and this film.
It Happened One Night, which I also featured in my post about the Best Screwball Films, tells the story of a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) who flees her father because he is attempting to break up her secret marriage to a playboy. She embarks on an incognito road trip to return to New York and along the way is joined by a newspaper reporter (Clark Gable) who seems to have the scoop of the year chronicling their journey together. Of course, along the way, the two of them fall in love.
This scene—which is perfect, in my opinion—shows Clark Gable coming to Claudette Colbert’s father (Walter Connolly) on the day of her “official” wedding to the playboy aviator to collect not the reward for her safe return home, but a mere $39.60 in his expenses for the trip. You’ll just have to watch to see how that conversation goes. Directed by Frank Capra, written by Robert Riskin and Samuel Hopkins Adams.
“My heart was broken, and it’s always gonna be broken.” Personally, I find this to be one of the most moving scenes ever put on film. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has returned to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, to take care of his late brother’s estate when he bumps into his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams).
Randi is out walking her baby by her new husband when she meets Lee, who was responsible for the death of their three children in a house fire while they were still married. Randi tries to express her sorrow over the end of the marriage and her continuing love for Lee, who is emotionally shut down and incapable of expressing any feelings because of his grief. The scene just simply takes your breath away. It is perfect. Directed and Written by Kenneth Lonergan.
Look for more of these “perfect scenes” in the future. Have your own favorite scenes that defined a film? Let us know your idea of the perfect movie scene in the comments.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times is awaiting publication.