Writing Men: Daniel Ocean

This segment has talked a lot about the components of writing men but it hasn’t really analyzed a male character and broken down the elements that make them work, what makes them distinctly masculine and well written without falling into the traps that tend to characterize the gender wars. Since the point of this segment is examining what goes into writing a realistic male character, that’s kind of an oversight and it’s one that’s about to be remedied. But before we do that, if you haven’t watched the 2001 version of Ocean’s Eleven you might want to do that.

Today we’re going to discuss the character Daniel Ocean and how he embodies the male thought patterns and behaviors that we’ve discussed so far (and one we haven’t but we’ll get to soon.) I’m not going in the order I’ve discussed them in but rather the order we see them in the film.

To start with, we see Daniel Ocean alone.

Yes, I know that he’s technically in front of a parole board but all we see is him, sitting in that chair and he’s talking about the things he thought about while he was essentially isolated from all his connections and usual lifestyle in jail. With Danny leading a team of eleven, plus the villains and miscellaneous other characters, there’s just no time to leave him alone at any other point in the story so this is our glimpse into his inner workings and how he feels he’s been inadequate in the past. He explains what he did to go to jail and he explains what went wrong. And in those few moments we get a pretty good idea of what the movie is going to be about, although we don’t really know it at the time. In other words, we get solitude refining Daniel’s understanding of his own objectives and, in the process, passing that understanding to us.

But like all good foreshadowing, we don’t see it at the time.

Once out of jail Danny moves on to find Rusty, his right hand man, and confronts him over a game of poker. Here we get our axiom for the movie in an interesting kind of reversal delivery. Rusty is in the middle of teaching a bunch of Hollywood actors to play poker when Danny arrives. The undercurrent here is that Rusty doesn’t want Danny pulling him back into the conman-thief lifestyle that they clearly enjoyed previously. What’s going on?

We get a clue when Rusty asks his poker players what the first rule of the game is. The answer: “Don’t bring personal feelings to the table.”

Then Rusty proceeds to misread Danny’s hand entirely and looses the pot. The lesson for the audience? Personal feelings are on the table. In fact, this whole thing is personal. That’s the axiom Daniel will live by and is living by. Sure, the job they’re about to pull is going to make everyone a lot of money but that’s not what Daniel Ocean is interested in. It’s really just there to convince all the people he needs in his camp to go along with him.

Next we see Danny and Rusty recruiting their team. As the film title suggests they wind up with nine other people but we’re only really interested in the last one of these for the purposes of examining Daniel Ocean, the man. That character is Linus Caldwell and he’s a pickpocket. When we first see him, Danny comes up and picks his pocket – right after Linus has just picked the pocket of a wealthy Wall Street business man.

This brief moment of competition establishes Danny as more skilled than Linus and sets up Danny for another classic masculine behavior – mentorship. This is the part we haven’t talked about much so I’m going to leave it sit for the moment, but only after I point out that this relationship works in part because Danny establishes his credibility in such an obviously male fashion – by proving he can one up Linus. That makes him the logical mentor for Linus and gives him the figurative muscle he needs to push Linus into growing his skills in ways he otherwise might not have.

Linus also introduces us to Danny’s true objective, as Linus is the character to introduce Tess, Danny’s wife. Tess wasn’t aware of her husband’s scheming, thieving lifestyle when they got married and when Danny was inevitably found out she left him. Now she works with, and is romantically involved with, the owner of a Las Vegas casino – the casino that Danny and his crew plan to rob. For the crew, it’s about stealing money. For Danny it’s about stealing his wife back. The objective isn’t business, it’s personal.

Which brings us to the one aspect of writing men we haven’t discussed yet: Sacrifice.

The whole movie is about what Danny is willing to sacrifice for Tess. Terry Benedict, the man they’re robbing, is ruthless and heartless but he hides that from Tess. If he ever finds out Danny was the man who robbed him, Benedict will have no problems finding them and having them killed – financially or morally. Danny is risking his life in a last chance bid to warn his wife of the kind of man she’s turned to and beg her to come back to him. At first glance it looks like desperation. On some level it is.

But deep down, it’s courage. Tess has become Danny’s highest priority and he just can’t find it in him to put anything else higher. Not the rules of his old profession. Not the risk of loosing the esteem of the people he’s worked with or of loosing his parole and going back to jail. Not even the fear of death at the hands of Terry Benedict.

In his own way, Daniel Ocean is a man on fire, just like any action movie hero. And in his portrayal we see the defining elements of writing good male characters.


One response to “Writing Men: Daniel Ocean

  1. Pingback: Writing Men: All Might | Nate Chen Publications

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