Great bits, but no pieces: The Independent year
Saturday 26 December 1998
THERE WERE movies with great things in them this year, although not actually any great movies.
The most startling imagescame in the opening 25-minute flurry of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's account of the American D-Day landings at Omaha. No sooner does the ramp on the foremost landing craft drop down than a chattering hail of machine-gun fire engulfs the oncoming marines.
Spielberg gets up close to the impact of gunfire as bullets whistle through flesh, khaki, steel helmets. There is nowhere to hide in this open-air slaughterhouse.
Then comes the moment when it all seems to freeze, and Captain Miller (played superbly by Tom Hanks) enters a kind of battle fugue, the thunder of the guns slowing and muffling around him: it's a state of abstraction brought on by terror, which certain soldiers on the Western Front also recall after going over the top.
Miller, whose dream-time has lasted no more than four or five seconds, forces himself back into the horrific present. In these moments Spielberg gestures towards an unglamorous truth about men in combat: that real bravery lies not in gun-toting heroics but in the sheer will to carry on.
It's no discredit to Spielberg that the rest of his film failed to match the gut-churning bravura. Who could follow that?
On a much smaller scale, Brian de Palma ran into a similar difficulty with his conspiracy thriller Snake Eyes. The 20 minute Steadicam take that opens the film is an audacious and exhilarating demonstration of film craft, conducting the audience via a crooked cop (Nicolas Cage) right into the heart of fight night in Atlantic City.
Cage holds the centre here as he orbits the fight arena, pocketing bribes, beating up a miscreant and generally wallowing in the glow of his own self-love.
De Palma builds the sequence beautifully, wiring us into the frenzied expectation around the baying auditorium - it's like lions-and-Christians night in Ancient Rome.
Then comes what is my favourite movie moment this year as Cage gets to his feet with a triumphant yell of "I am the king!" On that instant the whole arena rises with him. Glorious fun. Snake Eyes thereafter turned into a nugatory join-the-dots thriller.
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