The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
In November 1997, Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck were in The New York Times Magazine together. On the cover, the two of them snarled in each other’s faces, pretending they were enemies. The headline for the accompanying Lynn Hirschberg profile: “The Two Hollywoods.” Those two Hollywoods were the old studio-system mainstream and the rising tide of independent film. On that magazine cover, Ben Affleck was supposed to represent the indies.
In that moment, Hanks was easily the biggest movie star in the world. He’d just made Sleepless In Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and Toy Story— smashes all. He’d also won back-to-back Oscars. Hanks had cashed in some of his goodwill to make his one-for-me directorial debut, 1996’s fantastically entertaining but money-losing That Thing You Do!, but he was about to get back to the blockbuster business. Affleck, by contrast, had only just graduated from bit parts in films like Dazed And Confused and Mallrats. He’d starred in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, and he’d co-written Good Will Hunting, which opened a couple of weeks after that Times Magazine story ran. A few months later, Affleck and his best friend would win a screenwriting Oscar together.
In July 1998, in a weird echo of that Times Magazine cover, Hanks and Affleck had movies that opened a few weeks apart and went up against each other for that year’s box-office championship. This time, though, Hanks and Affleck couldn’t claim to represent two Hollywoods. Instead, both were driving grand, expensive studio spectacles. Both movies featured teams of square-jawed, wisecracking men (mostly played by actors drawn from the indie-film ranks) going into dangerous places to perform heroic tasks. Both had deafening explosions and disorienting editing and swelling throat-lump music. Both were made by populist auteurs. Both had baby boomer movie stars playing squinting, stoic leaders who sacrifice their lives, though not before giving words of wisdom to one of the young stars of Good Will Hunting.
For two films with so much in common, Armageddon and Saving Private Ryan really had nothing in common. One of these July 1998 movies was an extravagantly stupid summer brain melt, a two-and-a-half-hour adrenaline jolt. The other was a modern-classic war film, a grim, grueling trudge through human viscera. So it’s really some kind of miracle that, at least at the domestic box office, Saving Private Ryan squeaked out the win. Armageddon earned more internationally, but at least in North America, Steven Spielberg’s movie reigned supreme.
The success of Saving Private Ryan isn’t exactly baffling. After all, this was the biggest hit-generating director of all time and the biggest star of the era teaming up to make a movie about World War II heroism, a subject that never goes out of style. Spielberg had made popcorn entertainment out of Americans fighting Nazis before; with the Indiana Jones series, he’d gotten a whole franchise out of it. He’d also made an unlikely blockbuster with Schindler’s List, a punishing and painful Holocaust drama. The story of D-Day had been part of plenty of movies before Saving Private Ryan; it had, in fact, been the entire subject of The Longest Day, the highest-grossing movie of 1962. But Saving Private Ryan remains an abrasive, overwhelming onslaught of a movie. The fact that so many people paid to see it is a wonder.
I saw Saving Private Ryan on opening weekend with my dad and a girl I was dating, an extremely strange decision on my part. The opening set piece, nearly half an hour of unrelenting gore and pointless death, was almost psychedelic in its horror. It felt like a mid-’90s death metal album cover come to life. It wasn’t like that long Normandy Beach sequence was a surprise; everyone who’d read anything about the movie knew to expect it. But knowing about the sequence and actually sitting through it were two very different things.
It was all just fucking horrible. In individual shots, Spielberg would tell bleak, hellish little stories. Guys get chopped up like meat before they even get off their boats. Others get ventilated while they’re still floating in the water. One soldier looks around aimlessly on the ground for a few seconds, then picks up his own severed arm, like he can somehow fix himself. Another feels a round ricochet off his helmet, then stares around in wonder at his own survival before immediately getting another bullet through his brain anyway. Amidst it all, we see Tom Hanks’ Captain John Miller, feeling as rattled and terrified as everyone else but still trying to formulate a coherent battle plan amidst all the chaos.
There were things in those opening scenes that I’d never seen before. Gore spattering on camera lenses. Oceans turning red with blood. American soldiers happily murdering any enemies who tried to surrender. To watch those scenes is to wonder how you’d do in those situations, to consider how long you’d last before dying some horrible death of your own. This was clearly the intent.
Spielberg talked about refusing entry to anyone who showed up late to Saving Private Ryan, though I don’t know how any multiplexes would’ve enforced that. Spielberg wanted to put everyone through it. He wanted everyone to think about the hell he was putting up on screen and about the actual people, many of them still alive, who’d actually lived through that. (Many of those veterans had a hard time with Saving Private Ryan, to the point where the Department Of Veterans Affairs set up a hotline for anyone disturbed by the experience of watching the movie.) Spielberg’s father had fought in World War II, and Spielberg wanted Saving Private Ryan to work as some kind of tribute. But there’s also some clear baby-boomer soul-searching going on there—a generation of middle-aged men thinking about the sacrifices their families had made, wondering if they could’ve put themselves through the same things.
It’s only after that opening sequence that Saving Private Ryan really becomes a movie in the traditional sense—something that pushes a lot of the same entertainment buttons as Armageddon. Once the beach landing is done, we actually get to meet the people we’ll watch for the rest of the film, and most of them are classic war-movie types: the hard-nosed sergeant, the tough-talking New Yorker, the Bible-quoting Southerner, the wormy book-learning type. We learn the mission, the conflicts, the parameters. But even as it turns into a conventional film, the shadow of that opening gauntlet hangs over everything.
Spielberg brought in a whole lot of promising young actors to fill out those parts, as well as the rest of the movie. I’ve seen some reports about how Spielberg was annoyed that Matt Damon became hugely famous just before Saving Private Ryan came out; he wanted the actor to be a relative unknown so that moviegoers wouldn’t think Ryan was someone special. And Damon’s appearance does take you out of the movie a bit. When I saw the movie in the theater, I remember someone wolf-whistling when he showed up on screen. But to watch Private Ryan now is to get that feeling again and again, being jarred by familiar faces in this bloody world: Paul Giamatti barking out salty cynicism, Nathan Fillion getting almost buffoonishly upset, a one-armed Bryan Cranston staring at bereavement letters, Vin Diesel bleeding to death in the middle of a muddy street.
The casting decisions all work beautifully. Jeremy Davies, fresh off of Spanking The Monkey and losing the starring Titanic role to Leonardo DiCaprio, is beautifully detestable as the cowardly Upham, his whole arc all the more unbearable because of how many of us might fear that we’d act just like him in those situations. Adam Goldberg loses a fight even more devastating than the one he’d lost in Dazed And Confused. Giovanni Ribisi comes off as a sad and tender kid. Tom Sizemore, struggling through heroin withdrawal during the shoot, brings just the right level of pugnacious intensity. Ed Burns, acting in a movie that he didn’t personally direct for the first time, is the least interesting of them, but even he has a presence. (It’s wild, in retrospect, that Burns, an indie-film darling who looked like a Calvin Klein model, never quite put the pieces together. But then I guess Damon and Affleck were right there, just waiting to steal his thunder.)
At the center, there’s Tom Hanks, making use of his America’s-dad persona and bringing enough warmth and gravity to center all the carnage. In Private Ryan, Hanks has the paternalistic thing, and you get that he cares very much about the young men in his command. But the Captain Miller character also had to send dozens of those young men to their deaths, and he knows he’s not done yet. It hangs heavy on him. Miller won’t tell his men personal details because he knows he might kill them. When he has to cry, he hides from everyone else. Every time Hanks delivers a big speech in Private Ryan—and he’s got a few of them—he underplays it. Spielberg does the same thing. During the big, emotional conversational showdown between Hanks and Damon, where Private Ryan announces that he isn’t going to leave his post, Spielberg doesn’t even use that swelling John Williams score. He lets the silences linger.
There are mawkish, schmaltzy things about Saving Private Ryan. The opening and closing bits, with the elderly Ryan at Miller’s grave, overplay the pathos. Spielberg can’t quite bring himself to make a fully anti-war war movie, even after consciously stripping away all the glamor from the genre. He just has to get that last little bit of valorizing in. I have weird feelings about the whole plotline of Upham insisting on letting the one German soldier go, only to execute him later; it feels uncomfortably close to an endorsement of war crimes. And maybe it’s dishonest to end a film this jarring and intense with what amounts to an action-movie set piece. But it helps that it’s a really good action-movie set piece.
The tension before that final battle is amazing. My stomach knots up just thinking about it. Parts of the scene are almost as brutal as anything in the Normandy landing. But parts of it are thrilling and fun, too: Sizemore’s Sergeant Horvath and a German soldier throwing their helmets at each other, an injured Miller uselessly firing his pistol at an oncoming tank. The craft is just impeccable. The aesthetic choices that Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski made—washed-out colors, shaky handheld cameras, shots that are long but not showily long—would cast a huge shadow over decades of Hollywood action filmmaking. It’s tough to imagine how a Paul Greengrass movie might look, for instance, without the precedent of Saving Private Ryan. But nobody’s ever deployed that style with the clean, coherent mastery of Spielberg.
As a cultural phenomenon, Saving Private Ryan is a curious beast. On the one hand, it’s a terrible ordeal to put yourself through, which weirdly added to its appeal. People went to see the movie as a way of honoring older generations and doing penance for not having to go through the same things. (I think something similar happened with The Passion Of The Christ a few years later.) But at the same time, Private Ryan is also a fantastic piece of filmmaking, a grand showcase for stars both in front of and behind the camera. Against its own better judgement, it’s even entertaining. When Shakespeare In Love beat out Private Ryan for the Best Picture Oscar, it was a jarring and suspicious upset. That’s not because Shakespeare In Love is a bad movie (it’s not), but because the Oscars seem to exist to honor movies like Saving Private Ryan.
By and large, the big hits of 1998, even the really good ones, are loud and bright and puerile and dumb. There’s a whole lot of schticky mugging in Armageddon and There’s Something About Mary and The Waterboy and Doctor Doolittle and Rush Hour and Godzilla and Patch Adams, all of which were top-10 movies at the year-end box office. Saving Private Ryan is as loud and grabby as any of those movies, but it’s also raw and serious and masterful. In a time when big Hollywood movies were getting increasingly silly, Saving Private Ryan was the exception and also the victor.
After Saving Private Ryan, you couldn’t really talk about the two Hollywoods anymore. There was one Hollywood, and it was marching in a specific direction. Ben Affleck got on board, blasting off for that asteroid like so many of the other promising young actors of his generation. Hanks, bless him, tried to do something else. And at least in 1998, that something else worked.
The contender: The Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary, the No. 3 hit at the 1998 box office, came out in the same month as Saving Private Ryan and Armageddon, and it became enough of a word-of-mouth smash to compete with both of them. Today, it’s impossible to imagine a mid-budget gross-out comedy having anything like that level of impact. But There’s Something About Mary was undeniable. The story is thin, and plenty of the jokes are the kind of down-punching shit that wouldn’t fly today, but it’s still full of expert body-horror slapstick set pieces.
In 1998 movie theaters, people were howling at that thing, laughing so hard that they’d go back and see it a second time just so that they could hear the jokes that they’d been laughing too hard to hear the first time. Last week, I watched it again—by myself, late at night, for probably the first time in 20 years—and I was howling again. (I also made my 8-year-old watch the balls-in-the-zipper scene the next morning. I have regrets.)
Next time: America’s moviegoers leave behind Earth wars and return to Star Wars, as George Lucas makes his big comeback with the utterly baffling Episode I: The Phantom Menace.