Friday, September 28, 2012

Small Roles...Big Performances Blog-a-Thon: Barry Pepper, "Saving Private Ryan"

Ruth over at FlixChatter is hosting a blog-a-thon next week entitled "Small Roles...Big Performances." The title is fairly self-explanatory but the idea is to highlight a supporting performance (or performances) in a movie that you find particularly appealing. Make sure you check out FlixChatter for the full list of participants and their entries. Should make for some awesome reading!

When Ruth opened up the floor on this topic, my mind immediately went to the work of Barry Pepper in Steven Spielberg's war masterpiece Saving Private Ryan and while there are any number of outstanding performances that fall into this category, Pepper's is the one that I appreciate above all. A talented actor who always seems to be overlooked in Hollywood, Pepper has had a few starring roles (most notably Knockaround Guys and my favorite sports movie of all-time, 61*) and a handful of superb supporting roles through the years (his work in 25th Hour is exquisite, not to mention The Green Mile, We Were Soldiers, etc.). But 14 years after Saving Private Ryan debuted, it is Private Jackson that still stands out among the rest.

I was 15 when Saving Private Ryan was released and I can still remember everything about my viewing from who I went with right on down the mood as we exited the theater behind a group of WWII veterans. It's a movie that has the power to change you as a person, a gift that so few films have. There are quite a few outstanding characters within Saving Private Ryan; Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), Private Reiben (Edward Burns), even Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) whose cowardice I cursed and hated even though I knew that deep down, I'd probably fall right in line with him. But as the film progressed, I became more and more enthralled with Jackson, the left-handed, Bible quoting sniper whose precision was impeccable and whose persona was irresistible.

To be honest, I don't think Pepper had a lot to work with in terms of strength of character or quality screen time. Hanks, Davies, Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, etc. all were handed more well-rounded characters than Private Jackson. That's not meant as an attack on Spielberg or the film (which is one of my 10 favorites), it's just the reality of making a movie. There are only so many pages to go around in a script; someone is bound to get squeezed. Pepper, though, handled Jackson like the seasoned pro he wasn't given that, for all intents and purposes, Saving Private Ryan was his major motion picture debut (if you don't count the Howie Long action movie Firestorm which I certainly don't). There's a subtlety and quietness to Jackson and Pepper used this to suck the audience in. He displayed an uncanny ability to draw attention to his character even when he's not doing much. As such, he became memorable when I'm not sure he would have been in other hands.

Moreover, Pepper brought a downhome authenticity to the role and mixed it perfectly with just the right amount of arrogance, resulting in a character who was believably cool even though he most certainly was not trying to be cool. He has a natural swagger about him that stems from honesty, not braggadocio. When he tells his squad that, "...If you was to put me and this here sniper rifle anywhere up to and including one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir...pack your bags, fellas, war's over. Amen." you believe him. It's an incredible performance and one that made me a lifelong fan of one of the industry's most underrated actors.


  1. "whose cowardice I cursed and hated even though I knew that deep down, I'd probably fall right in line with him."

    Don't sell yourself short. Of course, I think that was Spielberg's point--we can all see ourselves as Upham--and even the others in his squad could have been him.

    I'd say you're right on target (see what I did there?) with all of this. Jackson is something of a salute to all of those backwoods boys who learned to shoot at rabbits with .22s and made a mark on history with an M-1.

  2. Excellent write-up Brian, I haven't seen this film as I'm afraid it's too violent for me, but I have heard people praising Barry's performance and I could see why. Thanks for taking part!

  3. Talmid, you're definitely right on. He's kind of a collection of stories and people put together into one. Great stuff.

    Ruth, yeah, if you can't handle gore and violence, it's not the movie for you, ha! But it's an incredible film. Thanks for hosting this event!

  4. I read this earlier and had to leave but forgot to come back and comment. so, here I go.

    This is such a fantastic role to spotlight. I remember the first time i saw it thinking that they chose the right person for the role. someone whose acting career and status wouldn't overpower the scene itself. The fact that he was just barely recognizable on the level of fame made it even more powerful to focus on what he was doing too.

    Perfect choice for this blogathon. One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies. of course, who doesn't love sniper-a-sniper scenes?

  5. Thanks man! I enjoyed your pick(s) as well. Total scene stealer in Fifth Element.


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