Bright Lights Film Journal

Worthy of the Slaughter? On Saving Private Ryan

It’s not just Ryan who needs saving.

My friend Kevin and I were lingering over one too many bourbons. The jukebox was playing “What If God Was One of Us.” We were running late. “I think we should go now.” “It’s probably a good idea.” Barely walking straight, fighting the blizzard, we were approaching the building.

“Yeah, I saw Private Ryan, I only missed the first 30 minutes,” he joked, referring to the much-heralded opening sequence. We approached the box office. The debarkation was starting an hour after its listing in the Moscow Times. We went for the other half of the bottle. And then we were sitting in the theatre when the film started.

Saving Private Ryan. A war movie. But a different one. Dedicated to preserving human life. Ryan’s life. It’s the story of a platoon, led by Tom Hanks (I forgot the name of his character, as did the Academy come voting time), ordered shortly after the debarkation (25 minutes) on the Normandy coast (sometime during June 6, 1944) to look for an American boy from Idaho (or Iowa), James Ryan, the last of four brothers killed on the front. We, the audience, are asked to believe that military commanders, quite reasonably opposed to sacrificing a platoon for the sake of one man, are mollified by George Marshall’s reading of Lincoln’s lovely letter to Mrs. Bixby, who had lost five sons upon the altar of “freedom” in an earlier war. We are asked not to believe (suspension of disbelief?) that these dewy-eyed, altruistic strategic planners are the same men who refused to divert a single plane from the nearby carpet-bombing of German cities to take out the tracks to Auschwitz, as it would distract from the war effort. “Just find Jimmy and make sure he returns safe to his mama!” Needless to say, some of the guys, having traveled 3,000 miles, aren’t too happy about the idea. On their quest for Mr. Good Bro, the searchers encounter some Germans, some losses, and eventually find Private Ryan, and probably save him, too. End of the war movie.

Nowadays, in Normandy, an American family from Central Casting, led by old Ryan (see especially the apple-cheeked, corn-fed, strawberry blonde granddaughters), walks through the alleys of the American cemetery (the opening sequence as well). Suddenly the elder kneels. Heart attack? No, he found the tomb he was looking for. The tomb of the man who died saving him (I propose a better title: Dying Saving Private Ryan). He then turns to his wife: “Tell me I’ve been a good man.” Tell me my life was worthy of the slaughter to save me. “Yes,” she answers, doubtless. Good. Ryan can now die in peace, since he didn’t die in war. End of the movie.

While, arguably, bringing patriotic gore before a mass audience is a novel achievement – although other, less widely seen pictures (John Irvin’s 1987 Hamburger Hill,for example) have trod this bloody ground before – the rest of the movie is painfully familiar, even hackneyed, The Fighting Sullivans (1944) meets The Longest Day (1962). Since All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930), war movies have all been to some degree character studies (journeys from innocence to experience, from certitude to meaninglessness). Saving Private Ryan, paradoxically, is obsessed with flesh, not character. After three hours of a camera trained on one platoon, I cannot remember the name, face, or much less the character of another American soldier besides the title one who gets a star turn. And while it seems the camera is forever on Tom Hanks (when it doesn’t see through him), he remains a cipher or, at best, a cliché, gentle schoolteacher turned leader of men. Think for a moment of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and the failure is self-evident. Ryan is less a war film than an action movie, set during WWII but resorting to the same narrative tricks and primitive humor of the genre. It is not Ryan who needs to be saved.

Undeniably a brilliant director, the best cinematic storyteller of the ’70s and ’80s, Spielberg now sees himself as the guardian, or better, the popularizer of historical memory, a less crazy and more gifted Oliver Stone. He seeks to shed his past role of entertainer (does he feel the films that made his reputation have marked him as a lightweight?) by making the holocaust (Schindler’s List), slavery (Amistad), and war (Ryan is by my count, if we exclude the Nazi subplots of the Indiana Jones trilogy, his third crack at it) entertaining. A character in Stardust Memories (1980) suggests to Woody Allen that he should make a musical about Jonestown, and one suspects that Spielberg has risen to the bait.

“God, I’m so successful, I feel bad, what should I do?”

“You must use your art to make the world a better place, Steven.”

“But how? I’m just a filmmaker.”

“Think, my son. At the beginning, God created the dinosaurs. Then God killed the dinosaurs, God created men, and …”

“Men killed God. Men created the dinosaurs. I SEE THE LIGHT!!!”

“Steven, calm down, it is not what I mean. I mean you must show the world the terrible things that happened. So history will not repeat itself. And God will not decide to …, you know, like the dinosaurs.”

“But what about Jaws …”

“I’m not talking about giant fishes Steven, I’m talking about our brothers and sisters, humankind.”

“Oh, I see… But it’s not too entertaining, is it?”

“You must choose wisely …”

To make sure people will understand his Kehre, his career turn, he even started from the beginning, with the dinosaurs. And not only did Steven find critical success and “reconnaissance” from Oscar, but he even made more money. He then turned to his wife, kneeling, “Tell me I’m making good movies. Tell me they’re worthy of the slaughter …”

In trying to become more than Spielberg, he has become much less, as by employing the techniques and cinematic tricks so aptly and skillfully developed in his earlier films he not only fails but subverts his attempts to handle larger and graver themes. Think of the shower scene in Schindler, or his use of color on the corpse of the little girl. So it is with Ryan. To tick off a few examples: the long close-up of Tom Hanks following that of the grandfather in the opening sequence to lead us to believe that he has survived, followed inevitably at the end with the morphing of Ryan’s face so that even the dimmest in the darkened theatre will realize that it was he who survived; the use of the German prisoner, who first is saved from a revenge killing when Hanks reveals he was a schoolteacher (?), and then, of all the soldiers in the Wehrmarcht (and the only one not wearing a helmet so our dim patron above will know it’s him), is the one who kills Hanks and is himself killed by the boy who could not kill before; the cloying ending in the cemetery. As a Frenchman, my grandfather, his brothers, fought in this war, my grandmother raised three children under war conditions. So I don’t like it in my guts when this is filmed as any other tear-jerking story.

Best Cinematography, Effects, Sound Effects Editing, Film Editing, Sound, Best Uniforms. OK. But Best Director … Saving Private Ryan is nothing but a demonstration of cinematographic skills in a totally inappropriate context. Why film documentary style (the ultimate idiosyncrasy in ’90s movies) with a shoulder-held camera to capture the chaos, yet so formally stage the scenes, with bodies perfectly falling into full frame, dying perfect deaths? Everything onscreen tells you what came first in the making of the movie: more than the war, its aesthetics possibilities. Spielberg and his skilled band of technicians studied the photo archives and documentaries very carefully. Then they carefully re-created the settings, the shootings, the sounds and furies. And on the seventh day, they decided to superimpose some silhouettes.

The lights came up, I turned to Kevin only to find him, predictably, crying like a baby. “He got me in the end,” he said, and while later he confessed that the question of leading a good life had been much with him of late, the odor of both an atavistic patriotism and the famously impenetrable American sentimentality was unmistakable. Saving Steven Spielberg.