' ' Cinema Romantico: Paul Giamatti Will Play Your Chicken

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Paul Giamatti Will Play Your Chicken

I think often of William Goldman’s anecdote in his memoir “Adventures in the Screen Trade” when he recounts during filming on “Marathon Man” a moment in which Dustin Hoffman halted, more or less, production to hound the director as to why, at a suspenseful moment, his character would have a flashlight on his bed table. “In my opinion,” wrote Goldman, “(Hoffman) didn’t want the flashlight because his fans would think him chicken.” Maybe that’s true, maybe that isn’t, but what I know is this…Paul Giamatti is never worried about his fans thinking him chicken. I thought of this while watching the recently released “The Catcher Was a Spy” (review to come…eventually).

Giamatti plays Samuel Goudsmit, the Dutch-American physicist, one who was involved in the Manhattan Project, though “The Catcher Was a Spy” details his attempts, along with main character Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), to track down German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) and gauge the validity and/or progress of his attempts to create an atomic bomb for the Third Reich. Doing so involves trekking from the background to the battlefront, including a scene where Berg and intelligence officer Robert Furman (Guy Pearce) find themselves in the midst of a shootout as the Allies try to take a German-held town. It is a moment glimpsed in the following still:

In the silhouetted images of Pearce and Rudd you see the traditional sort of action hero, smartly moving forward, determined, unafraid, valorous. As Goudsmit, however, Giamatti is conspicuously a step or two behind, and in a pose suggesting he is holding on for dear life, just as he is holding onto his helmet as if it is about to topple of his head. Granted, his character is, as stated, a physicist, quite decidedly not a soldier, but this commitment to playing the moment, shall we say, well out of his element still got me to thinking about another turn of Giamatti’s in wartime conditions.

That would be “Saving Private Ryan”, Steven Spielberg’s WWII opus of 20 years ago, where Giamatti turned up briefly as Hill, Staff Sergeant in the 101st Airborne at Neuville who greets the squad headed up by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) that has coming looking for the eponymous Private Ryan. In that film Giamatti actually is, as his title implies, a soldier, and one in charge, and yet Giamatti gives his performance the very discernible ring of a man in ove rhis head.

Indeed, his character moans about having a bug in his boot, and when he tries to lead Miller’s squad where they need to go, through a hail of sniper fire, Hill trips, briefly. That stumble is everything; that stumble would be the equivalent of Dustin Hoffman in “Marathon Man” yellow-bellying around with his flashlight. Giamatti included that trip, I suppose, to set up a later moment when, complaining of bad ankles, he sits down at an inopportune moment and initiates a semi-pratfall as a means to expose a group of Nazi soldiers leading to a tense standoff. Still, someone had to play the part and someone had to play the part that way, and that Giamatti was the person is because he is a person willing to do so which is more than you can say for a lot of people in a profession that skews vain.

That small performance is why I found Giamatti’s turn in “The Catcher Was a Spy” so extraordinary. Twenty years on, bless his soul, he is still willing to haplessly dash rather than coolly swagger into battle. A great many actors might not mind moral gray areas, even emotional insecurities, but playing chicken? Hoo boy, that is something else. But Paul Giamatti? Paul Giamatti, filmmakers, will play your chicken.

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