From Private to Prophet
The Year in Movies
A year in film can be seen as a record of commercial and artistic achievement, in which case 1998 will be remembered as the year Hollywood made more money than ever by churning out more crap than usual. Or it can be seen as a cross-section of the cultural collective unconscious, in which case the ongoing fiasco in the White House stained more than just Monica Lewinsky's dress.
We needed a jolt of righteousness, and Saving Private Ryan delivered it. Critics and audiences lauded the picture for its powerful blending of bloodletting and flag-waving, its interweaving of ruthless realism and sentimental cliché providing the illusion of a unique and meaningful experience. The dogged crew of handpicked (by ethnic group and personality quirk) rangers, led by icon of decency Tom Hanks, escaped the inferno of Omaha Beach and went on to save the life of Matt Damon's title paratrooper, thus restoring the values of patriotism, decency and human life.
What better role models to put up against the prevaricating draft dodger in the White House and the partisan bluenoses and media dogs trying to run him to bay? What better way to purge a nation of the guilty titillation and moral revulsion of a year of ubiquitous scandals? Ryan's international box office of nearly $350 million, and its inevitable Oscars, are tributes to Hollywood's tendency to placate the nation's conscience through ultimately reassuring if wrenchingly realistic fantasies.
Hollywood, though, also plays with our fears, and the thought that the most powerful man in the world can have his private life probed with such invasive intimacy is a source of paranoia even for those hardened souls indifferent to The X-Files or Oliver Stone. A surprise hit early in the year, Peter Weir's intermittently ingenious The Truman Show, turned everybody's favorite dream into a solipsistic nightmare as Jim Carrey, in a career-broadening performance, is revealed to be the unknowing star of the title show, an intimate portrait of his everyday life seen by millions. Raking in more than $200 million worldwide —and probably Ryan's only serious Oscar competition— the film reflected the voyeurism and narcissism that appall and delight a nation obsessed with daytime TV talk-show trash.