By John H. Foote
It was 8:30 am in June, 1998, when a small group of film critics, myself included were ushered into the old Uptown Theatre, one of Toronto’s greatest movie palaces. The cinema was cold, outside the sun already blazed in the stifling city heat. The publicist gravely, unsmiling handed us our press kits, the lights went down, and the film began.
Unlike anything anyone had seen before, it was a sensory experience unlike anything I had experienced. Bullets whizzed past my ears, I felt the intensity of combat, saw men blown apart in front of me, it was horrifying yet extraordinary.
The moment we cut back from the present to the fury of combat, it was like we had been thrust into it. The door of the transport vessel went down and a German machine gun stitched the men trying to get off. Like waves the men hit the beach, so many cut down by the guns, but one by one some of them made it up to the top of the beach where the Germans could not see them. The deaths were swift, violent and without mercy as the entire beach was littered in bodies, blood and organs. Blood stained tide, lapping against the dead bodies dotting the shore, fish filled with bullets beside them in death, it was entirely horrific. Never before had combat been presented so authentically, with such intensity and startling realism. Veterans who saw the film said the only thing missing was the stench of death.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) was an extraordinary cinematic experience, a war film that was so much more than a genre picture. Steven Spielberg went further than any previous director had with his film.
When the lights came up I realized I was wiping away tears for the third time during the film.
Critics rarely speak after a film, perhaps in fear of giving away their thought prematurely, or maybe, as has been suggested to me, it is an ego thing. But that morning, all of us sat as the credits rolled, unable to move, to speak, until the lights came on and the theatre was bright. Gathering in the lobby we talked about what we had just experienced, all of us in absolute awe of what Steven Spielberg had created. Some praised Tom Hanks for his powerful performance as the stoic Captain, haunted by each death he is part of. We stood talking for an hour, something we had not done before and then left to go report or write on the film.
I took Sherri to see it. I took my brother. By the time the film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards I had seen the film seven times. Like so many others I sat watching Oscar night, stunned, furious that the film lost Best Picture to the frothy comedy Shakespeare in Love (1998). How does the Best directed, edited, shot and sounding film lose Best Picture? Saving Private Ryan (1998) did and I suspect the Academy hangs its head in shame.
Spielberg won his second Oscar for Best Director, his third Best Director Award from the Directors Guild of America Awards. The film was a huge critical success and a massive juggernaut at the box office and the consensus was this was the year’s best film. Flawed, yes it had flaws. One huge one. The film opens on the face of an old man in a graveyard, remembering D Day. We cut to Tom Hanks. But then at the end of the film Ryan (Matt Damon) morphs into that old man. So the memories of D Day are impossible you see, because Ryan was not there! The language of the cinema never lies, but they goofed here.
Does that make it less a great film? No.
For all it’s technical mastery, the scene that hit me hardest takes place after the horrifying death of Wade, the soulful little medic. He dies hard, knowing death is coming because of his status as a medic. After his death Captain Millar (Tom Hanks) goes off by himself behind a wall, and slowly begins to break down, the heartfelt sobs eventually racking him. He gathers himself and goes back to duty but for a few seconds his is the face of combat fatigue. It is one of Hanks very best performances, and the Oscar nomination he received was much deserved.
In the twenty years since seeing the film I have seen it a number of times and it has lost none of its visceral, raw power. But watch the quiet moments, because they are golden.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.
He remains cinema obsessed