Saving Private Ryan

Thanks, but no Hanks: Why Tom Hanks is Hollywood’s dullest star

In 1994 and 95, Tom Hanks became only the second person to win and subsequently retain the Oscar for best actor. Not only that but he is one of Steven Spielberg’s favourite performers, has appeared in a number of the most successful films ever made and even has an asteroid named after him. That would be quite a return for anyone, let alone somebody so mediocre at acting. Indeed I would go so far as to deem it miraculous that a person who can only play one character, and quite a boring one at that, could become such a global star.

Tom Hanks plays the same person in every film; he is always the good guy, a trustworthy all American hero. He never plays a real anti-hero, and he never will. The Tom Hanks character does have its variations; he can be a little bit angrier, a bit stupider, a married man or a bachelor. Occasionally he’s a tad scared and every once in while he loses his rag. Sadly though, whatever the surface variation, it’s always the same guy on the inside.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is in Hanks’ new film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Hanks plays a loving and doting father figure, a performance criticised as overly sentimental, bordering on unwatchable. Perhaps the critics today would be well served re-watching Road to Perdition. In that film Hanks plays a gangster and murderer but, the odd burst of righteous anger and machine gun fire aside, Hanks’ character is basically a predictable, safe, loving father figure. Despite initially appearing to be a total departure, it is a classic Hanks role.

Or again, in Saving Private Ryan, Hanks plays a military leader who ends up as a father figure to his regiment. He’s an honest, heroic, trustworthy sort of guy. What about Toy Story? Woody is an honest, heroic, trustworthy sort of guy. Catch Me If You Can? The same. Philadelphia? The same. Forrest Gump? You guessed it, the same again.

Indeed, looking back through Tom Hanks’ filmography, a pattern starts to emerge. Compared to other similarly acclaimed actors, one starts to wonder quite how he has made so much of so little. Where is the Travis Bickle, Jake Gittes or Vito Corleone on his C.V.? You’d expect that someone with such a long and successful history would try something new once in a while but, in this case, you’d be wrong.

In fact it is very easy to describe any Tom Hanks role. Firstly there is an archetypal character, a sort of virtuous good guy, honest, heroic, trustworthy and, the Terminal aside, American. Secondly there is a context, something like ‘he’s a soldier on D-Day’, ‘he’s a gangster in the 20s’ or ‘he’s a castaway on an island’. That’s it, really.

Perhaps it’s understandable then that Hanks has done so much of his work with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Both are excellent filmmakers, one could even call Spielberg a genius, but both are also both notable for their sentimentalism, emotional manipulation and distaste for moral ambiguity. By contrast Martin Scorsese, the master of the anti-hero, has eschewed Hanks throughout his career, preferring more versatile talents like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.

Fortunately for Tom Hanks, the character he plays happens to be the perfect one for Hollywood audiences. He is a very safe man to cast, he always does the same thing and it always makes money. In fact since his breakthrough in Big Hanks has been acclaimed as a great actor. If so, then he’s the dullest ‘great’ actor I’ve ever seen.

Devil’s Advocate: Lars Von Trier isn’t a flawed genius, he’s a prat

Outside of the critically acclaimed Melancholia I think it’s overwhelmingly safe to say that it’s not been Lars Von Trier’s finest year to date. He’s a possibly racist, possibly suicidal, possibly Nazi sympathising, possibly misogynist past pornographer with a penchant for digging himself into holes so deep that even Richard Madeley can only sit back and watch in astonishment. Tactful he is not.

Taken the dim view that many attribute to the man he may as well just jump the shark completely. He may as well go ahead right now and make Saving Private Reichmann – a rousing tale of courage in which a band of Nazi’s lead by Töm Hanks head out on a mission to bring home a young soldier whose brothers died trying to liberate the country of France from its brutal French overlords. That would thoroughly tick the Nazi box, give those ‘critics’ something to think about.

Or maybe he could tick off those pesky ‘feminists’. Just go ahead and make a film about a woman. Yeah, a woman. A woman who what? A woman who has a lot of sex of course. How else could he annoy them? He’ll call it The Nymphomaniac…and…he’ll make it a bit like a porno, you know, with actual sex and penises and stuff. Feminists hate porn! And sex! And penises! That’ll tick them off for sure. I can just see Von Trier reclining on a freshly dug pile of dirt, smirking next to the hole he’s about to jump headlong into. But what did you expect? He’s suicidal don’t you know.

His pen of box ticking must indeed runneth dry.

So what is his next project you may ask? Why it’s The Nymphomaniac. Well fair enough, it wasn’t really the time for a Nazi epic – what with the investigation concerning his alleged ‘justification of war crimes’ of course.

Yet again it seems the depths Von Trier is willing to go to metaphorically give the press the finger are staggering. Why not just do it literally Lars? Stand up at Cannes and stick your middle finger in the air. It’s a lot less cringeworthy than stumbling all over your words in a Charlie Chaplin-esque farce of superficially offensive proportions. Even so, Von Trier would probably contend that he took The Great Dictator literally…

In an interview with Variety Charlotte Gainsbourg revealed that she is in talks to star in the movie, calling the script “an explicit exploration of a woman’s erotic life” apparently presented in eight chapters covering the age range of 0 to 50. The film will be released in both  hardcore and softcore versions. Talk about undiluted vision…

If all goes as planned this will be Gainsbourg’s third collaboration with the Dane in a row. There’s not much she hasn’t done on screen for him yet but unsimulated sex may be the breaking of the last taboo – although she may have already done that when she mutilated her genitals, I never can tell. Whilst on Dancer in the Dark Bjork had such an horrendous time with Von Trier that she refused to ever act for him again, Gainsbourg just can’t seem to get enough.

Other veterans of his films allegedly lining up to star are Stellan Skarsgard and Willem Dafoe. Although neither are confirmed Skarsgard has talked of a phone call in which he yet again experienced the brunt of Von Trier’s candid use of vocabulary when propositioned with “my next film is a porno and I want you to be the lead in it. You will not get to fuck”. A delightful request I’m sure but if nothing Von Trier does have a loyal band of actors around him that are seemingly willing to help him create his ‘artistic’ visions without heed to personal vanity.

Why do they keep coming back? Well I guess it’s because although he may occasionally make some utter tripe he is obviously a very talented man. The problem as I see it is that whilst obviously very skilled at what he seeks to do, what he seeks to do is often clouded by his balls insane judgement. Whilst Antichrist may contain beautiful interludes and is often visually stunning it’s all a bit tainted with his ‘eccentricity’. What the writer/director really needs is someone to constrain his poor decisions.

If one takes the Kermode hypothesis Von Trier is some sort of master showman calculating his idiocy with the intense precision of some sort of media svengali. I’m not really convinced. However far from a monster I do think he is often just contrary for the sake of it. He may indeed be is a showman of sorts, a David Brent who’s downfall isn’t typified by his attempts at humour (it’s most definitely not that) but by his attempts at eccentricity, and if that includes being a suicidal Nazi sympathising misogynist then so be it.

Von Trier is a psychologists nightmare I’m sure and who knows where he pulls his nuggets of stupid from but the fact is that he has made a very illustrious career for himself in the meantime. I don’t think that he is any of the ridiculous things he makes himself out to be, I just think that he’s a bit of a conundrum. And a bit of prat.

It’s often said that there’s a very thin line between being a genius or a madman and it seems to me that he is walking it rather well. If anything the tragedy is that despite all his attempts to the contrary, Von Trier may never be either.

War Horse: Spielberg’s next classic

Towards the end of the 1990s Saving Private Ryan grossed half a billion dollars, spawning a host of pretenders looking to cash in on the renewed interest in World War II. Films set in World War I have never been as popular with Hollywood, but with War Horse Spielberg may have once again sparked resurgence in the genre.

Based on Michael Morpugo’s bestseller, War Horse has a story that could have been tailor-made for Steven Spielberg. It begins as the Narracotts buy the wrong horse for their farm and their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) quickly forms a bond with the beast he names Joey, culminating triumphantly in the ploughing of a field against a village of naysayers. However, all too soon the First World War sets in. Joey is sold to an officer despite Albert’s protests, and from here the film really kicks off as we follow the horse’s progress through the war; from foolish assaults to time as a German stretcher carrier and tank dragger. Perhaps most touching is the brief respite he finds as the plaything of a young French girl. The story is perfect for Spielberg because it allows him to play to so many of his strengths. There’s room for grand scenes detailing the spectacle of war (one sequence at The Somme emulates the scope of his Normandy landings in Saving Private Ryan but in a far more dynamic manner that draws you in with the action), and enough screen time is dominated by a non-human that he can pull off his old trick of surprising the audience by how much they end up empathising with the character. Spielberg’s forte has always been to humanise dramatic situations, to start with something grand and make it personal. Here the multiple narratives allow him to do that to the full. As the horse flits through the lives of soldiers and civilians you may only spend a few minutes with some of them, but Spielberg uses that time to explore a different perspective. Consequently you see good men and bad from both sides of the war, bravery, fear, sadness and hope.

The storytelling is combined with a breathtaking cinematography by long time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiński. Shots are framed to maximum effect, with details everywhere providing stark context to the action. When Joey is enlisted by the Germans to pull artillery, there is not just the implication of danger but evidence, as the camera pulls back from the horse to show the hastily dug mass grave filled with animals. There are sharp contrasts throughout the film, and one of these is the sudden shock of isolation. Throughout many of the scenes the backgrounds are filled with motion and noise, but when Joey finds himself tangled in barbed wire needing to be cut free by a German and a Geordie, the atmosphere is one of complete desolation.

The acting is excellent throughout, with every character highly believable and multi-dimensional. Of particular note is newcomer James Irvine with a strong performance that makes it hard to believe this is his first cinematic outing, and veteran Niels Arestrup (previously in A Prophet) as a complex French grandfather.

War Horse has something for the entire family, in much the same way as the book and stage versions. Spielberg teases out the stories and performances in very moving ways, and provides a stunning backdrop to match. It’s a bold claim, but this may just be his masterpiece.