Thoughts on the “NSA” Monologue from Good Will Hunting

I pick this monologue to make a point about the differences between a monologue that has a strong theme or central idea and a monologue that, well, does anything else. And this is one of those tricky ones that you can’t really tell but, ultimately, does not have a strong central idea.

If you’re not familiar with this monologue you can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrOZllbNarw. Here is the script: from http://genius.com/Good-will-hunting-good-will-hunting-nsa-monologue-annotated. (The annotations add some depth to the monologue that is interesting but beyond the scope of this post).

Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army… in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area” cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin’ play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the fuckin’ job interviews, which sucks cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin’ him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’, cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure fuck it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.

Essentially there is no central idea to this monologue. If you wanted to read into it very, very deeply and bring some extra things to the scene that Will is not providing you could argue that there is a kind of “banality of evil” or “criminality of just doing what you’re told” hiding in here and you’d be right. (Think of the cliche “if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.) But you couldn’t highlight a sentence or a phrase in the actual monologue script that even comes close to saying something like that.

You could also say that the monologue’s theme is something like, “everything has consequences” orĀ  the whole “drop in the bucket” idea. But that’s not a theme that’s interesting. That’s just an obvious statement. Obviously everything is connected; choices in one place influences outcomes and new choices in other places. I don’t think anyone would argue against that AND it’s not a unique idea to this movie. So it’s not as strong a theme (especially considering all of the work that it takes to memorize it).

Also if you think about the larger scope of the movie there’s no dominant theme about, for example, the interconnectedness of the world or the cowardice of “just doing your job” when it might cause someone else harm. So if the movie isn’t taking on those bigger issues then it’s unlikely it would bother to devote two minutes and a LOT of good writing to tackling issues that don’t really concern the plot.

So then what’s the point of the monologue?

Characterization.

We like this monologue because it establishes Will’s character. He’s a quick thinker who can rapidly produce details, pile them up, and deconstruct and construct arguments. He’s a fast talker. He’s a charmer. And he’s incredibly brilliant. He’s also anti-authoritative and doesn’t like to do what he’s told. To enjoy the movie the audience has to LIKE Will even though Will is sort of a pain the ass. Monologues like this accomplish that task. He’s establishing himself as a complex person and a smart ass at the same time – he’s likable but he’s duplicitous. The themes of the monologue are irrelevant because they’re really just byproducts of Will’s ability to spin yarns and wrap people up in logic. He doesn’t believe what he’s saying – he’s not making a point about the greater good – he’s just being a likable pain in the ass.

Now there are parts in the movie where he does all of this AND there’s a theme. The classic example here is the “how do you like them apples” scene where he dresses down the yuppie in the bar and comments on the importance of having original ideas over and above monotonous knowledge that might be correct but isn’t creative. There you see this theme get developed into a much stronger argument that resonates more with the audience as a kind of lesson. It’s also a lesson you’ll notice that gets repeated throughout the movie. For example, in Robin Williams’ character’s choice to become a small town psychiatrist instead of a big shot so that he could pursue his own path or Will’s decision at the end to go after the girl instead of take the awesome job.

In these moments the movie is trying to help the audience understand, in an interesting way, what life is about and if it had a theme it would be something like “your choices define you not your circumstances.” The second “apples” monologue picks up on that theme but the NSA monologue only does so very, very vaguely.

Understanding the difference between character development or plot advancement and strong thematic resonance is a difficult task and one we will keep working on throughout the semester. It makes the difference between a public speaker who is enjoyable to hear and a public speaker who is actively sought after.