Tropic Thunder is a hilarious movie. Aside from that, it is a movie that explores a lot of interesting themes about the movie industry, and the idea of what it means to be an actor. I explore in this two part essay (in excruciating detail) all of the layers of meaning in Tropic Thunder that I personally have found.
In Tropic Thunder, the changing theme of the plot itself is an exploration into what a ‘plot’ actually is, as a relationship between the story, the actors’ experience of acting in the story, and the audience’s experience of witnessing the story.
The plot in Tropic Thunder is a transition of the actors from their acting roles in the beginning, to the people they are in their job, to the people they are in life, eventually down to the people they truly are at the core of their beings. There are six layers of plot that I would like to discuss, in order of how they are revealed. The relevance of these layers to the individual characters is outlined in part 2 of this essay.
1) A Plot that is a Movie
This is the opening of Tropic Thunder. Even down to the fake ads and previews, it is a movie of Tropic Thunder being played within the movie of Tropic Thunder. So meta. In this layer of the plot we see who the main characters are when they are acting, when they are doing their job. This is typically how audiences see actors. This is the context that we interpret actors from. As a child, before you understand what an ‘actor’ is, this is who you think these people really are. This layer of the plot represents that level of understanding in the audience, the understanding of the actors literally as the characters in the movie.
However, a majority of any audience recognizes what an ‘actor’ is, we know that these are just people doing a job, ‘acting’ as other people in this movie for our enjoyment. And this maturing of our view point and understanding is how and why the next layer of the movie is peeled back.
2) A Plot About Making a Movie
This part of the plot begins right as Tugg Speedman breaks character. From this point on, we see who the actors are as people who do the job of acting. We see them interacting as real people, as real actors do a majority of the time. This is how an audience typically interprets the actors as people, what an audience thinks of as the ‘true self’ of the actor.
In this layer the movie draws contrast between the characters the actors play and the actors themselves. Most of the actors behave in real-life very differently from how they behave as characters in the movie.
In this layer we are also introduced to the rest of the ‘cast’ of the plot of making a movie, which includes all of the crew and other fringe people. This part of the cast is represented by five main characters, the director, the pyrotechnics guy, the writer of the source material, the agent, and the producer. Aside from the director, all of these characters show tremendous character growth, or at least reveal more of their true selves, throughout the movie. Like the actors, they are exploring what their job, their role means in the context of making a movie, and who they truly are within that role.
As soon as Four Leaf is introduced and makes his suggestion of leaving the actors in the jungle, we as the audience feel like we know what this movie is going to be about. It will be about the actors struggling in their job of acting to create a movie. The expectations of this plot are all brilliantly summed up by the director in his speech just after they get out of the helicopter that took them to the jungle. The layers of the movie could have ended right here, this could have been what the movie was about. But it didn’t. The director explodes, and the next layer of the movie begins.
3) A Plot about Actors who Think They are Making a Movie
This part of the movie is characterized by the audience (as in you and me) knowing something that the characters as actors do not. The characters (some more than others) still believe that they are struggling with their job of acting, but we as an audience know that they are now actually struggling with real life.
This is an interesting relationship because we see how the characters would act in real life, but we are not yet actually seeing who they really are in real life. This step is more of a revelation for the audience than the characters, because we are seeing that there is a difference between how the person acts in their job as an actor, and who they actually are aside from their job as an actor. Realizing that there is a difference, makes these characters suddenly more than just actors, they are people. Their acting is not who they are, it is something separate from themselves, it is their art.
4) A Plot about People Stuck in a Hostile Jungle
This layer and the previous layer are the same in terms of how the audience interprets the characters as people. The only difference is in how the characters themselves perceive the events. Each character arrives at this stage at a different time (Kirk Lazarus arrived here right when the director blew up, Tugg Speedman arrives here much much later, as he finally realizes he is actually in a real POW camp.).
Now the plot has evolved into one about a bunch of actors taken out of their element and plopped into a real life struggle. They now have shed their jobs, their roles as actors, and are acting and reacting as real people in real life.
At this stage, we finally start to see who these people really are, their actual personalities aside from the world of acting. However, the way the audience sees their personalities is still very surface. We are learning who they are as the sort of person you would meet at a café. We are meeting the person, but not all that they are.
5) A Plot about People who Grow Through a Life Experience
If we met the characters for real in the previous layer, in this layer we start to actually see their ‘true selves’, the selves that even they as people did not know existed. This is the character growth, the learning of who a person is beyond their surface, into the core of their being. This layer is the difference between meeting someone at a coffee shop, and meeting someone in a battle field. A person may behave one way in an everyday café, but behave completely differently on a battlefield. It is when you meet a person on the battlefield that you truly know who they are.
This layer begins around when Kevin Sandusky suggests that they go save Tugg Speedman. The characters pass through a gauntlet, a trial. They have an intense experience and undergo a transformation in themselves, and learn more about who they truly are. The characters are discovering this at the same time as the audience, the characters are evolving and growing before our eyes, shedding their own layers of ‘acting’.
A majority of the remainder of the movie is this phase. This is the culmination phase, the layer where everything comes together.
6) A Plot about Actors who made a Movie about their Life Changing Experience
This is a sort of a fast-forward, ‘see who they became after the life changing experience’ layer. It also ironically brings the plot full circle, in a way putting back on all the layers that were shed during the movie. It once more becomes about the ‘(post)making of a movie’.
This layer reminds us that despite all that we learned about who these people are and their true selves, they are at the end of the day, actors, in an acting industry, who make movies. Movies, which are superficial interpretations of real life.
Many movies are made as tributes to the real life-changing experiences of real people. A life changing experience is a deep and meaningful thing, full of finding truth in the self. Whereas a ‘tribute’ to that, is just several layers of façade. Actors, who have never had that experience, trying to know what it would be like to have that experience, and then projecting that experience outward to simulate the experience itself.
Though they were acting in a movie about life changing experiences, it wasn’t until they had their own that they truly felt, truly understood the gravity of that experience. This is shown in the reflection of the first scene, where Four Leaf is running to the helicopter, and the ending scene, where the same thing happens. Despite the action being the same, the context between them is incredibly different. One is just acting, simulated feeling with no truth behind it, while the other is real true feeling and emotion.
And so how do you show how important that level of true feeling is? How important it is to discover the true self? You make a movie about it.