Monday, October 14, 2013

Alpha Dogs - Public Servants: The Big Dog is Always Right

Continuing the series on the currently popular character attributes - Wealth, Dominance and Jackassery. First Post Index of the Whole Series.  This week we're talking about Dominance, or Alpha Dog characters.

Continuing on with the Characters and Dominance series.  This time we're talking about public servants, in particular the enforcers of society: cops, soldiers, bureaucrats and the like.

And when it comes to the classic kind of "mind games" domination that kicked this series off, I can't think of anyone better than U.S. Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard of the 1991 movie, The Fugitive.  Played by Tommy Lee Jones.

What is most interesting about him, in terms of this series, is one element of contrast between him and Jules of Pulp Fiction (whom I talked about last week).  Jules is a gangster - but under that dangerous and flamboyant gangster style, he uses law enforcement techniques to take and keep control of a situation.  Including things like being reassuring and kind.

Gerard, on the other hand, uses the techniques of a particularly smart school yard bully.  While he has all the tools and skills at his disposal, his favorite tool of control is dirision and sarcasm.  But unlike in the schoolyard, he uses them judiciously, intentionally, and if you look closer it's not quite like the schoolyard bully... it's like the leader of a schoolyard _gang_.  He is also very much like an ultra tough drill sergeant or coach, too. 

And in that sense Gerard is much closer to the definition of an Alpha Dog than anyone I talked about last week: he's the leader of a pack.

But more than that, he is in a chain of command and has authority.  Which is true of all the public servant characters I'll talk about tomorrow as well. This might make a character seem weak.  After all, unlike the Paladins of last week, these guys don't get to pick and choose their clients.  A gun for hire can refuse a job, or quit, and still go on being exactly what he is.  These guys have to keep their jobs to continue being what they are.  So doesn't that make them weak?


If we're going by Sam Gerard, not at all.  Being a part of a pack -- even being one of Gerard's sidekicks -- means you wield the full power and authority of the pack.  Including the power and authority of those above you, who can command additional packs as necessary.

But Gerard, like any great coach or drill sergeant or ship captain or gang leader, wields a second kind of authority.  He's the BEST.  He's smarter, sharper, more on the ball, more competent than anybody.  And so is his team, partly because he constantly nags at them.

But because they are the best, too, they nag back.  He is always in charge, but if you live up to his standards, you have the right to push back.  He is at ease in his authority.

I couldn't find a perfect clip for Gerard, but I think this one illustrates a lot of my point -- the teamwork, the wielding of authority even with other authority figures, the hyper-competence. Unfortunately, it's a rather low quality clip.  I'll describe it below the clip.

This is the entrance moment for Gerard and his team.  It's the beginning of act two, after a horrific wreck of a train and a prison bus has set our hero -- an innocent man on his way to prison -- free.  He runs off through the woods, the movie cuts to a short time later.  The scene of the wreck, filled with law enforcement and emergency responders, and in through the mass of flashing lights slides the plain dark car of the federal marshals.

That very first line, "My my my my my, what a mess."  Spoken like the guy is almost bored.  It takes more than a train wreck to impress Sam Gerard.  He nags and banters, as well as points out details and barks orders as they make their way through the site.  Note that the team banters and nags back, but they are all business about the details and orders.  These guys are proving that they are SO good that they can have a running comedy routine without missing a beat.

But the important part here, is how he treats the OTHER authority figures, which starts about one minute in. On the one hand, he does the minimum he needs to do -- as if to prove they aren't worth his time to nag.  A state trooper stops him he doesn't say who he is, he just pulls open the flap that covers his badge and asks who is in charge.  Then when the guy tells him, he intentionally gets the name wrong -- just like a school yard gang leader would to show his disrespect.

But when he meets Sheriff Rollins, he does politely introduce himself.  Rollins makes the mistake of being condescending.  Gerard lets him. The guy gets a chance to prove himself worthy or not.  Gerard observes a moment, looking harmless, and yet his eyes are narrow, watching.  The guy proves himself incompetent by simply accepting the witness's story.  Gerard is still polite, and suggests what he should be doing, but the guy tries to pull authority on him. It's his investigation, he gets to blow off "advisors." 

And Gerard lets him do that, and then lowers the boom, by taking away his authority. Very sarcastic, but also very bored.  And watch the woman marshal, who with perfect timing, taps the guy on the arm and hands him the paperwork as Gerard speaks.  He already HAD the authority when he gave the polite suggestion.

Let's just face it and say Gerard is mean.  He lets people lead themselves into traps and makes fools of them.  But that's also how he turns them into subordinates.

And that's exactly what this scene turns out to be: he and his team came in and took charge of all the other teams.  This is the process by which he takes charge.  The troopers and sheriff's deputies and all are new recruits.  He dominates their alpha dog, gets the evidence and the story while the sheriff is still stammering and trying to deal with the fact that he's lost status.

And when Gerard straightens up and says "Listen up, people!" he has completed the take over.  Everyone there is a member of his team now -- they're his minions.

And once in charge, like a good coach or officer, he barks out clear information and orders.  It's like formal a military briefing, but off the cuff.  (He knows exactly what to do and how and why at any moment.)  And then, like any coach, he signs off with the command to hit the field: "Go get him!"

Not all public servants are good leaders (or leaders at all).  Sometimes they are minions.  Sometimes they do their best work alone, even when they can command others.  But they all have the leverage of authority.

Tomorrow I'll talk about a few other types, in particular I'll talk about Marge Gunderson from Fargo, who exerts authority in a somewhat different way.  Then on to some more lone characters, who work with their teams in the background, such as Columbo.  (That will likely be next week.) And one more famous character: Bud White of L.A. Confidential. Because Bud isn't entirely a team player -- and he gives us a segue into the last type of Alpha Dog, which I'll talk about next week: the Rogue.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Nice analysis of this character and character type. This is, in film, one of my favorite parts and Jones was well-cast.

Favorite bit of the movie was when Gerard corners the doctor and the doctor tries to convince him of his innocence...and Gerard says he didn't *care* if he were innocent or not. Not part of his job. His focus was completely on tracking him down and arresting him.

Angie said...

One of my favorite movies, and characters.

One of the things that makes Gerard a true leader of his gang is that he actually cares about them all. He nags and snarks and he's sarcastic as hell when the situation warrants it, but he's all about "mah kids." And Hell's fury will rain down on anyone who hurts his kids. He's like an alpha dog protecting puppies, even if the puppies are grown and have sharp teeth of their own. This IMO sets him apart from other leaders who leave a trail of redshirts in their wake, do some rote angsting then just move on, making it tough for me to believe they care. Gerard cares and very strongly; it's an integral part of who he is, but doesn't weaken him at all. It makes him more dangerous, if anything.


The Daring Novelist said...

Elizabeth: Absolutely! that is THE most chilling, "oh shit" moment of the movie. Because we've seen what Gerard can do, and if he doesn't care, there is no hope for Kimbal.

There are so many wonderful moments, it's hard to find just one that encapsulates that complex character.

Angie: We probably see that more in the second movie, but you can see it's there. Even in the scene after the shooting of the over fugitive, when he gives Newman a dose of mixed tough-love. He goes out to make sure Newman is going to be okay, but also concludes the moment with the tough twist, "I ... don't ... bargain." He loves him, but that's not going to make him compromise.

The other "nurturing" moment is at the very end, when he removes Kimbal's handcuffs and gives him an ice pack -- even though he didn't compromise on arresting him, he does take care of him.

I definitely will need to revisit this character again in other contexts. He's so brilliant -- and a lot of that is due to the fact that Tommy Lee Jones is so brilliant at playing him.

Angie said...

He's so brilliant -- and a lot of that is due to the fact that Tommy Lee Jones is so brilliant at playing him.

Yes, this. The writing was good, and it gave TLJ some good material to work with, but the character wouldn't have stood out nearly as much, or been nearly as vivid, if a lesser actor (meaning, most other actors) had played him. The only reason I watched US Marshals, in fact, was because of TLJ.