I wrote an earlier post about how/why I love to like the characters in a story. I heard something recently that reminded me of the fact that there are other kinds of characters who can catch my ear just as easily. The protagonist of “My Way or The FBI Way,” by Michael May, is not what I would call likeable, yet I find myself captivated by him, nonetheless.
Brandon Darby is an intriguing character. He is handsome, and I can somehow hear it in his voice. He has this level of confidence, charm, and sincerity, almost like a politician, that immediately draws me in. It’s easy to be fascinated by Brandon Darby.
Darby’s story goes like this: He’s a well known activist and self-proclaimed revolutionary, then things slow down somewhat; he has a daughter and buys a house. At this point, he volunteers to become an FBI informant, then comes the crazy part: he practically goads two younger activists into making Molotov Cocktails, just before he snitches on them... it’s quite a tale.
There’s a movie called Better This World that focuses on this latter part of the story, taking the suspense to its peak when it reveals the fact that Brandon Darby, mentor and friend to the young radicals, is an FBI informant. I had never heard the story before I saw the film, so I was completely shocked by this twist. (I'm sorry that I've spoiled it for you)
This American Life tells the story differently - in a sense, their version is spoil-proof. It puts the dramatic twist at the beginning, so the rest of the piece can focus on Darby as a character. Michael May holds a constant level of intrigue; he withholds and unfolds deftly, giving you just enough so that you want to keep listening... but he never gives too much at once.
There’s no suspense around the question of “Is he or isn’t he an informant?” The story has its own tension and build. In my mind, the suspense surrounds this question: “Why would he do something like this?” Darby’s voice puts you in his shoes, building to the moment at which he decides to go to the FBI. Chronologically, this moment happens long before anyone makes Molotov Cocktails, so it’s not the most obvious climax. This more subtle arc makes this story less of a political-thriller and much more of a political-memoir, and it works.
You become fascinated by Darby in this piece. You grow to hate Darby. You grow to respect/fear Darby. From the first instant of the piece until the last, his voice will have you hooked. As soon as you get just a taste, you want to hear more of that voice.
“My Way or The FBI Way,”
Produced by Michael May for This American Life in 2009
recommended by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes
PS if you just can’t get enough Darby, check out this film by Stanford Professor Jamie Meltzer