Monday, June 6, 2011

Saving Private Ryan


It has been said that all war movies are ultimately anti-war. The implication is that it is impossible to show the reality of war — the death and destruction, the dismemberment, the endless struggle over just one more patch of land like any other — without showing its horror, brutality and pointlessness. It has also been said, however, that no war movie can ever truly or completely be anti-war. By the nature of the war movie genre, it is inevitable that these films will be exciting and visceral, that they will show the bravery and honor of the soldiers, who are always at their bravest precisely when they are delivering grand, solemn speeches about how they're not brave. If Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan proves the truth of one of these axioms, it is the latter rather than the former. Spielberg's film is all about the honor of war, the bravery of the soldiers. Saving Private Ryan has often been praised for its realism, for its truthfulness to the experience of war, but Spielberg's idea of realism is hiring real amputees to play soldiers who get their limbs blown off. It's shallow realism, a thin coating of the real over a foundation of Hollywood contrivances and rote recitations of familiar ideas.

The script (by Robert Rodat) makes repeated use of the words of Abraham Lincoln's letter to the widow Bixby, who lost five sons in battle during the Civil War, the key words of which refer to those who offer their lives as a "sacrifice upon the altar of freedom." (There's a metaphor for Spielberg's "realism" here, since history has shown that the letter was mistaken, and at least three of those sons didn't die in combat.) This letter is read early on in the film by a general upon learning that three brothers have died within a week of one another during the invasion of Normandy, during World War II. A fourth brother, James Ryan (Matt Damon), has air-dropped into a chaotic region, his location and status unknown. The film bears the name of this Private Ryan, and it's this man, who remains offscreen for much of the film, who serves as the focus of the subsequent action. Later, the words of the Bixby letter are repeated in voiceover, and again they seem like brazen manipulation, an unthinking regurgitation of grand words with a grand name to somehow legitimize them.

Such sentimentality is at odds with the battle scenes, in which Spielberg tries to be unstinting in his depiction of the horrors of war. The celebrated opening (which kicks in after a lame and thoroughly Spielbergian framing device) is a nearly half-hour re-enactment of the invasion of Normandy, a bloody and relentless sequence. The opening minutes of this sequence are especially striking: as the troop boats drift towards the shore, Spielberg shows the men inside the boats, praying and muttering to themselves, throwing up, shaking with fear. And then the boats arrive at the beach, and the gangway at the front lowers to allow the soldiers to charge off... and the enemy machine guns open fire, cutting down whole ranks of soldiers where they stand, before they have a chance to take so much as a step forward. Within seconds, a whole boat's worth of men has fallen, each line collapsing riddled with bullets, clearing the path for the next men behind them to be shot as well. It's horrifying, this devastating slaughter, and the rest of the sequence only intensifies the sensation of being surrounded by death. It's loud and visceral. Limbs fly, the bottom half of a man's body disappears into an impact crater, blood spurts, bullets ping off metal, medics struggle to staunch the flow of blood from men who are soon dead, either from existing wounds or new ones, as bullets continue to fly. In one shot, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), dazed from an explosion, watches as a soldier with his arm blown off wanders aimlessly in a circle, stoops down, and stands back up holding his own detached arm before strolling away like a zombie.

This is powerful stuff. But the film's visceral feel for combat and death doesn't really carry over into the scenes after the battle of Normandy, when Miller's unit is tasked with the mission of locating the missing Private Ryan and bringing him back safely, so that his mother will not have to hear that her fourth and final son has also died in combat. Miller's men resent the mission, resent being asked to risk eight lives for the sake of one, and though Miller mostly tries to keep his reservations to himself, he too is unhappy with the job. He loves and cares for his own men and feels the pain of losing each one, but Ryan, as he says himself, means nothing to him. The bulk of the film consists of this small group's trek across a battle-fraught stretch of France where German and American troops square off in various ruined small towns.


When the soldiers aren't engaged in battle, Spielberg and the script mostly resort to war movie clichés, like one man's never-sent letter to his parents, taken after his death by another man in the unit and then passed from one man to the next as those carrying it are killed in action. Another man regrets a childhood unkindness to his mother. Another man is Jewish and never gets tired of shouting his religion at German soldiers. The home and pre-war occupation of the guarded, private Miller are the subject of a pool in his company, and of course at a key moment he must deliver a big (and unbearably maudlin) speech about what he did before the war. The action is realistic and visceral, but when the soldiers put down their guns there's nothing but obvious scriptwriters' devices and Hollywood speechifying, a reminder that for all the blood and missing limbs Spielberg displays onscreen, this is still just another in a long line of Hollywood war movies, and a rather traditional one at heart.

There is one cliché that Spielberg and Rodat go to great lengths to subvert, and that's the cliché of the cowardly or incompetent soldier who redeems himself at the last moment in a grand act of bravery. Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) is a translator and map-maker who has never seen combat, but who joins the unit because Miller needs someone who speaks both French and German. Upham cowers at the fringes of each battle, watching from the sidelines, but in the film's final battle, a desperate struggle to hold a bridge against German tanks and infantry, he's tasked with running back and forth among the American positions, carrying ammo where it's needed. At some point, his already modest courage utterly falls apart, and he can barely do more than whimper and cower in a corner, trying to hide from the Germans. There is a certain moment that seems to be building towards Upham's redemption, but that redemption never comes. The tension of the scene arises almost entirely from the way Spielberg cleverly sets up expectations for a very conventional resolution: one expects Upham to finally man up and come to the rescue, but it never happens. It's a bracing defiance of convention from a filmmaker who is usually conventional, and purposefully so, even at his finest moments. So it's worth noting that Spielberg defies the convention in order to reinforce another, solidifying Upham's status as the cowardly and ineffectual intellectual figure. He also ties this cowardice to one of the film's most laughable contrivances, the German soldier who Upham had earlier defended from summary execution, only for him to return at the climax, once again killing American soldiers. It's outrageous, especially since it winds up suggesting that Upham was wrong, earlier in the film, to oppose the summary execution of a surrendering enemy soldier. The film seems to be singularly lacking in the perspective that enemy soldiers are, like Miller and his men, mostly just ordinary men doing their duty for their country. Instead, Spielberg, with his blockbuster instincts, has to make this random German soldier the villain of the piece, and everything surrounding Upham and the German soldier is so irredeemably muddled that it's not really clear what, if anything, the film is trying to say about this situation.

Sometimes a movie that isn't very good can still be interesting. A movie that fails in a thousand ways can still capture the imagination, provoke thought, deliver startling insights. Spielberg's movie is the opposite. Saving Private Ryan is a "good movie" that's not that interesting, a well-made war picture with no particularly fresh or interesting insights, only confused messages and silly regurgitations of clichés and leftovers from countless other war movies. In isolated scenes it sometimes seems like a fine film, and at its best it's undoubtedly a great action movie. There are scenes here, moments of awful beauty, that must surely rank among the most powerful cinematic encapsulations of the wartime experience. The red waves washing up over the bodies of men and beached fish at the end of the battle of Normandy, bloody waves gently rolling into the shore, are haunting and unforgettable (though borrowed from Sam Fuller, a towering influence on this film). The film's non-battle scenes don't often rise to this level, though, and the film is torn between two modes, between stark realism and Hollywood artificiality, without ever quite settling on one or the other.

31 comments:

D Cairns said...

That absolutely NAILS it.

The other big failure is the attempt to reach some kind of conclusion about the film's absurd mission, to justify the sacrifice of many lives for one. The film doesn't have any sane arguments to make on this point, so it has to fall back on sentiment, which apparently trumps reason.

When Ryan makes his speech about having tried to live a good life and hoping that's enough to justify the sacrifice, I wanted to shout "NO it's NOT, for reasons STATED EARLIER!"

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, the one/many material is potentially interesting, but the film never really engages with the contradiction in any meaningful way. Instead, the issue is brought up, tossed around, and then turned into sentimental nonsense by the ending. Weirdly, Spielberg also forced the whole "am I a good man" thing on Schindler in Schindler's List; he really wants to reaffirm that his protagonists are good people. It's like he's worried that the audience will judge them in a less than rosy way if he doesn't reinforce how awesome they are. That's why the spectacle of the aging Ryan surrounded by his beautiful family is so absurd and silly. The overcompensation is just so obvious. It would've been a much better movie if Spielberg had been willing or able to really deal with the moral ambiguity of the situation. But ambiguity's not his thing, as the reinforcement of Upham as despicable coward also confirms.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The actor who played the aged private Ryan is (like Harrison Ford) a carpenter. He built bookshelves for my apartment just beofre the film was released.

Haven't seen it in years but rather liked it at the time -- though I suspect your caveats are well-taken.

Ed Howard said...

That's pretty random and cool, David.

The film has its moments, but yeah, caveats galore.

Shubhajit said...

Very well said, Ed.

The half-hour Normandy Beach battle-sequence, as you too've agreed, indeed ranks among the most visceral, powerful & unforgettable war sequences ever filmed. Yet, despite such lofty heights attained by the scene, the rest of the film feels somewhat like a blur.

I saw this film quite sometime back, and yet I distinctly remember the war sequence; but, as expected, the rest of the film hasn't stayed with me.

As for Spielber, it seems some of his "lesser" films (in terms of sheer mass/popular appeal) were actually his best works - movies like Minority Report & Munich. And yes, despite his standing, I wouldn't place Spielberg among American's greatest filmmakers.

lights in the dusk said...

Hi, Ed-

The framing device here is especially galling. Like the "documentary" bookends of Schindler's List, it feels dishonest, if not genuinely pretentious; Spielberg trying to turn what is essentially a glorified b-picture (a grittier take on the "men on a mission" sub-genre popular in the 1950s and 60s) into a definitive statement on war (both the Second World War and military combat in general)

There are other things I dislike as well; the depiction of the Germans, which you touch on here, is jingoistic and two-dimensional. As far as I can remember, the only real German character is a snivelling, deceitful, backstabbing rat-bastard reduced to begging for his life while spouting off about how much he adores American pop culture; his earlier treatment is played for laughs - 'look at this pitiful Nazi' Spielberg is saying - while his return is used to milk the audiences' prejudice against the Germans.

I also think Spielberg's manipulation of the audience is rather insulting, especially during the beach invasion. We're supposed to react with horror and disbelief at the endless slaughter, but then he throws in a tasteless gag like the soldier getting shot through his helmet. He and we breathe a sigh of relief as he realises the bullet has passed through without injury, but then, out of the blue, another bullet hits him between the eyes. The reaction that Spielberg wants from the audience seems to go against the supposed message of the film, as the director disregards human life for the purpose of a cheap shock.

Schindler's List is even more problematic (IMO).

For me, the only successful "issue" films of Spielberg's career are Empire of the Sun and Munich. The former because it presents the war from the perspective of a child - something Spielberg understands and can relate to - and the latter because it's mostly a really great, straight-forward political thriller, with the pompous sermonising bolted onto the end.

Ed Howard said...

Shubhajit, yeah, the Normandy sequence is the obvious high point and really the only worthwhile part of the movie. I think you're right that when Spielberg tries to be "serious" it often falls flat; it's his lighter entertainments that I think are more fulfilling in general. I love Minority Report, for example.

Lights, agreed about the framing device (and the similarly lame one in Schindler's List). These bookends are just all about trying to dress up his rather conventional films about some kind of monumental statement on war or suffering or whatever. I find these framing scenes really icky. And I'm totally agreed about the treatment of the Germans, which is pretty lousy. The main German character is used as a plot device to underline Upham's cowardice - and to call into question the value of mercy and humanism. The film is totally focused on the Americans to such a degree that it barely seems to grasp that any non-Americans are even human.

colinr0380 said...

I have a sentimental attachment to the framing sequence simply because I stood in exactly that spot on a school trip around the Normandy landing beaches in 1995, so was amazed to see it on film! We also visited the Caen Peace Museum, the Juno and Sword landing beaches, as well as the German cemetery (black marble and very austere) and the British cemetery (tiny and situated next to a busy main road, natch!)


That American cemetery is almost intimidatingly huge and 'statement making' in reality. While you don't see it in the film that section of the American cemetery is right next to a cliffside overlooking the ocean, so I thought the transition into the remembrance through the use of the sound of the waves was beautifully done.

However that counts for nothing when set against the greatest cheat that the framing story commits - to flash back from the old man to Tom Hanks on the landing craft would automatically suggest that man is Hanks when older. However (spoiler!) Hanks dies at the end of the film and the old man in modern times is revealed to have been Matt Damon, who was part of a team paracuted into France before D-Day!

Now, doesn't this thoroughly undermine the viscerality of the opening sequence once it is revealed that it is just Damon imagining what D-Day must have been like for Hanks and his men?

Isn't Damon's landing beach reminiscenes therefore not of any value - since they are, just like the rest of us, likely just informed by war films and not by personal experience of that particular segment of war?

Just to provide the cheap surprise of the lead character dying, Spielberg was apparently content to undermine the entire structure of his film (did he care - or did he just think that no audience member would be remembering back to the beginning of the movie at the climax?)

Ed Howard said...

Colin, you make a very interesting point about the framing device's relationship to the rest of the film. I don't see it as a "cheat" but as a bit of purposeful misdirection. Spielberg does clearly signal initially that the old man in the opening scene is Hanks' character in the flashback that starts shortly after. I certainly don't think that alone invalidates the film (I have enough problems with other aspects of what Spielberg is doing) but it's another good example of Spielberg's love for those kinds of Hollywood devices. He's tweaking the flashback convention (cutting from the old man's eyes to Hanks' eyes) and using it to engage in some audience manipulation. It doesn't really undermine the film, I don't think, but it is a pretty cheap manipulation here because Spielberg doesn't do anything substantial with it. He's not manipulating reactions towards a purpose; he just wants to get that surprise.

DavidEhrenstein said...

All things considered I prefer The Americanization of Emily

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: Me thinks you just disagreed with Colin on the "cheat" by proving his point -- one that I agree with, by the way. A "cheat" is exactly what it is.

But back to the review: Saving Private Ryan is a "good movie" that's not that interesting, a well-made war picture with no particularly fresh or interesting insights, only confused messages and silly regurgitations of clichés and leftovers from countless other war movies.

Wow. That really nails it.

I have problems with SPR itself (the cheat, for example). But I have to be honest in saying that many of my deepest problems with the film are a direct result of how the film was received -- which really isn't the film's fault.

For all the supposed realism, there are ridiculous scenes like the one in which the wall crumbles down, revealing an army of German troops (silly in and of itself), and then leading to a silly standoff in which no one fires their weapon until someone finally does -- and while I might be wrong about this, I'd put $5 on it that it's a German that fires first but that only Germans die in the shootout. Silly Germans.

I'm also incredibly irked by the scene in which Hanks' character diffuses an incredibly tense scenario by announcing that he's a school teacher. Rodat and Spielberg have the right idea in that scene, but, come on, the platoon leader is going to get his boys to put down their weapons first and then ease the awkwardness with his revelation.

And I admit it bothers me that so many of the people who implied that no director has ever shot a D-Day scene like this one apparently haven't seen The Big Red One, from which Spielberg borrows several shots.

Oh, and The Thin Red Line is better. There, I said it. :)

james1511 said...

It's a lot of years since I last saw the film (probably about ten), but my memory of it pretty much squares with what's being said: Normandy opening amazing, rest of film... eh. That said, I don't recall anything in SPR as jaw-droppingly misguided as the sex scene in Munich...

Emmitt said...

I have to nth the displeasure with the framing device. Sure the first time I saw the film, I did cry. But afterwards, I felt bamboozled. The reveal that the old man was Damon feels like such a cheap parlor trick, certainly not befitting of a filmmaker I consider to be one of my favorites.

Also, although I'm a huge fan of Schindler's List, I prefer Spielberg's Nazis to be comical and have faces that melt off.

Patrick said...

"Instead, Spielberg, with his blockbuster instincts, has to make this random German soldier the villain of the piece, and everything surrounding Upham and the German soldier is so irredeemably muddled that it's not really clear what, if anything, the film is trying to say about this situation."

Actually, I had a very clear idea of what he was trying to say here (which means I'm probably way off) - at first we are somewhat horrified that American soldiers would consider cold bloodedly executing this German soldier rather than take him prisoner, then we see first that just as a practical matter they can't keep him as a prisoner, and if they do release him, which they do of course, he is going to find his way back to his platoon and kill Americans. The circumstances of the war drive soldiers to do brutal things, things that really go against what we would like to thing we stand for, but things that are still necessary. The seemingly humane gesture is not possible, or at least not reasonable, in fact, it is punished.

Ed Howard said...

Jason, you may be right about the "cheat," but the point I meant to make is that I don't think what he does is intrinsically bad - it's just that he doesn't use it for anything more than cheap shock tactics. It's an interesting device and in a different film, and from a different filmmaker, I might even be praising it as a daring defiance of conventions and upturning of expectations. But Spielberg is not that filmmaker.

I'm glad you brought up that scene with the Germans behind the wall. That was just comical, and not at all in the way that Spielberg doubtless intended. He wants to have it both ways here, to make a deadly serious message picture that is also packed with cartoonish movie cliches. And his understanding of war is on the level of "good guys versus bad guys."

And for all my Malick reservations, I wholeheartedly agree that The Thin Red Line is better. No contest, really.

Ed Howard said...

James, seems like everyone here more or less agrees on this one. I'm a bit surprised by that, honestly - I expected some hardcore Spielberg defenders to jump in.

Emmitt, honestly, I think Spielberg also prefers his Nazis to be comical with melting faces. Certainly, here he seems unable to give the Germans any more depth or humanity than he gives to the caricatured villain of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That Saving Private Ryan attempts to be a very different movie hardly matters, because Spielberg lapses very easily back into his light adventure comfort zone even when he's trying to be SERIOUS. Scenes like the one that Jason mentions, with the wall falling down, would fit better in an Indiana Jones adventure. That goes as well even for some of the touches I like, such as the clever moment when it initially seems like Hanks has blown up a tank with his pistol, before he sees the bombing planes swooping by overhead. That's a cute, funny little moment and I dig it, but it seems so badly misplaced in this movie.

Patrick, I think you've developed that idea more in that paragraph than Spielberg does in the movie itself. My main problem with it is that it's all so contrived, especially when that one German — who's just a soldier like any other, after all, not an evil guy except that he's on the "wrong" side — shows up at the end and Spielberg makes it seem like this soldier is devious or evil simply for fighting for his country, the same way the American soldiers are. There's no room in the film to acknowledge the humanity of the enemy.

Hokahey said...

"If Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan proves the truth of one of these axioms, it is the latter rather than the former. Spielberg's film is all about the honor of war, the bravery of the soldiers."

I ... totally ... AGREE! Thought you might have snagged a dissenter? Nope. I'm not a big fan of this movie. Even in the visceral opening sequence, they use chewing gum to stick to something so they can see around a corner. How corny! Stick to the visceral, Steve!

And then, the visceral is diluted and diluted - especially by Spielberg's caricature of the KRAUT who blabbers about Mickey Mouse but taps into his inner Nazi psychopath at the end.

Ah, Steve. He frustrates me.

MrCarmady said...

Some very good points there, articulating what I find unsatisfying about the film.
However, if you allow me to go off on a slight tangent, I don't think The Big Red One is any good at all, really. Sure, I appreciate that Fuller actually fought, etc., and I also appreciate Mark Skywalker Hamill showing he could have been more than just a terrific voice actor, and of course I appreciate Lee Motherfucking Marvin in pretty much anything, but the film resorts to obviousness, too. Take the post-armistice deaths at the beginning and at the end. Take the scenery-chewing Nazi colonel. Take the ridiculousness of the scene where the soldiers become doctors and nurses. Sure, all of these might have happened in reality, but so could have the capture of the stereotypical evil German and his subsequent actions in Spielberg's film.
It's frustrating, because Fuller puts a lot of fascinating details in - like the ears, the tank hole screams, the importance of having the right numbers. And yet the film feels undercooked. That's the only reason why I still haven't seen any of his early stuff, since Pickup, amongst others, looks fascinating.

Ed Howard said...

He frustrates me.

Yeah, that sums it up, Hokahey. Such a great director in so many ways, and yet with so many problematic tendencies.

MrCarmady, I wouldn't hold back from checking out some earlier Fuller films - Pickup On South Street is really good, as is Forty Guns, with its absolutely brilliant Stanwyck performance.

Adam Zanzie said...

I promised myself I wouldn't engage in another Saving Private Ryan debate, but there seems to be too much misunderstanding going on here, and I need to address it. Ed, I'm happy that you chose to tackle a review of this film on the anniversary of D-Day. But I've seen arguments such as yours raised against this film before, so I'll try to respond to them as best as I can.

Let's start with the most important thing: the Upham issue. Everybody gets the impression that Spielberg is condemning Upham for being the movie's intellectual. That he's ridiculing Upham and Miller for not executing Steamboat Willie. I don't think he's doing this at all.

One of the things which Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line have in common is a realization which Spielberg actually shares with Terrence Malick: that intellectuals, as valuable as they are, do not belong in war. In TTRL, Elias Koteas does the decent thing and puts his men over his mission -- for that, he is fired. Jim Caviezel chooses to seek "immortality" in war instead of bloodlust -- for that, he is killed. Similarily, in SPR, Miller and Upham realize how dishonorable it would be to execute Steamboat Willie on the spot -- and for that, they let him go, even though there will inevitably be consequences. I honestly have a hard time buying the concept that Spielberg and Robert Rodat believe Steamboat Willie should have been executed, right then and there. If they think that, then why did they bother putting this scene in the movie at all? Why did they present audiences with that type of moral dilemma in the first place? A war-loving director would kill off enemy soldiers and ask questions later, as John Wayne did with The Green Berets. No: Spielberg knows that the enemy soldiers are as human as we are. And that is why an earlier scene of Miller looking angrily at GIs executing surrendering Germans at D-Day mirrors the later scene in which Upham murders Steamboat Willie.

You write in your review, Ed, that Spielberg is heavily influenced by Sam Fuller. I agree. There's a scene in Fuller's The Steel Helmet in which an enemy POV cracks a dirty joke about a dead Korean boy, provoking the film's American hero to shoot him right there on the spot -- only to realize his own mistake. Spielberg and Rodat are doing the same thing at the end of SPR, when Upham watches Steamboat Willie shoot Miller, then takes him prisoner and is faced with the dilemma of either shooting him or sparing him. Normally, Upham's obligation as a soldier would be to shoot an enemy soldier. Now, however, his obligation as a soldier is to spare an enemy soldier, in order to maintain the dignity of his country. Instead, Upham kills him. It's his first kill in the movie, and yet it's a further act of cowardice on his part.

An often-missed moment in the film is the moment that follows, in which Upham realizes his mistake, lets the other enemy soldiers go and then looks down at Steamboat Willie's body. Then, Spielberg closes up on Upham. I defy anyone to check and see if there isn't a little bit of self-shame on his face there.

I'm about to go to bed, so I might come back to this later, but another thing I want to address is this supposed idea that the movie is cliched. Aside from the superfluous bookending sequences with the aged Ryan, I don't think the movie is really that cliched at all. When Wade reminsces about his mother, when Caparzo asks for his comrades to send his letter to his dad, when Miller finally reveals his history as a high school teacher -- in order to stop his own men from shooting each other -- I don't see how any of these things qualify as "cliches". These are the kinds of things men really talk about in war.

Ed Howard said...

Aha, at last a Spielberg defender! Glad you've checked in, Adam. I'm willing to accept that the way you describe the Upham/Steamboat Willie scenes is the way that Spielberg intended them to play out - I'm much happier thinking that an idea like that is what he wanted to get across. But if that's the case, I don't think it really works. For one thing, the return of Steamboat Willie at the end is one of the most heavy-handed, contrived ironies I've ever seen in a film: the guy that Upham and Miller refused to kill shows up again at the end to kill Miller? Give me a break. It's so artificial, just another example of Spielberg favoring Hollywood-neat contrivances over the supposed "realism" of the battle scenes.

Moreover, I'd be more willing to accept that Spielberg was truly interested in condemning the execution if he did anything to humanize Steamboat Willie: instead, the German is pathetic in his first appearance and is a relentless killing machine with a cold sneer in his second appearance. Upham is equally pathetic, and Spielberg does emphasize the empty feeling on his face after killing Willie, but I didn't read that at all as regret over killing the enemy soldier. Considering the way Spielberg has framed and set up everything surrounding the German soldier, it's near impossible to feel bad about Steamboat Willie getting killed. There's even a bit of dark comedy in the scene: he tells his fellow soldiers, "oh I know this guy," all excited as though he and Upham are good buddies, right before Upham shoots him.

wiru said...

"The other big failure is the attempt to reach some kind of conclusion about the film's absurd mission, to justify the sacrifice of many lives for one. The film doesn't have any sane arguments to make on this point, so it has to fall back on sentiment, which apparently trumps reason.

When Ryan makes his speech about having tried to live a good life and hoping that's enough to justify the sacrifice, I wanted to shout "NO it's NOT, for reasons STATED EARLIER!""

At this point, aren't we supposed to identify with Ryan and realize that we all have some kind of unpayable debt to the Greatest Generation? I guess I always thought the message of SPR was pretty clear - now that you've seen, "realistically," just how horrible this war was for the people who fought it, you should feel your patriotic obligation all the more keenly. (And, as a bonus, if you thought there could ever a just or honorable war, you are a sniveling coward intellectual.)

The film mines all the tropes of anti-war movies, and you think he is going to use them to do something interesting or complicated. In the end they're just twisted them this simplistic nationalism. I wonder if the feeling that the film's message is confused is more just a wish that that message wasn't so disgusting?

Sam Juliano said...

I knew Adam Zanzie would emerge to save the day for Spielberg! Ha! And one would hard-pressed to effectively counter his passionate defense!

Honestly, this is another spectacular review, and one that for the most part I can stand with,, though (consistent with my own sensibilities) I can accept the sentimentality, and that wrenching cemetery bookend that gets me every time. The opening war sequence is of course a masterpiece, and one of Spielberg's greatest individual sequences.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in the final analysis is a 'flawed' great film, but I've come to see it as clarly inferior to Terrence Malick's sublime and ruminative THE THIN RED LINE among war films.

Ironically, Adam's only reservation are the film's bookend sequences,which I find vital in bringing the film full-circle emotionally. The issues for me appear in the large section of the film between the Normandy invasion and the cemetery sequence.

Ed Howard said...

Wiru, I agree that "simplistic nationalism" is at the core of this film, and I agree that its messages are pretty rotten. About the only place we disagree, I guess, in a small way, is that I don't think the film ever even clearly gets across its uber-patriotic cheerleading message. Spielberg can't even resist undermining the gritty realism of some of the battles with more goofy, over-the-top adventure movie sequences. The tonal inconsistency just adds to the sense that the movie is muddled.

Sam, I would've taken you for a big fan of this film for sure! Guess not, and you're pretty right on in where its relative strengths and weaknesses lie, though I do find the bookends really intolerable. I have my own issues with Malick's work, but I agree wholeheartedly that The Thin Red Line is a much better, more interesting film.

Adam Zanzie said...

"Moreover, I'd be more willing to accept that Spielberg was truly interested in condemning the execution if he did anything to humanize Steamboat Willie: instead, the German is pathetic in his first appearance and is a relentless killing machine with a cold sneer in his second appearance."

...? When does Steamboat Willie turn into a "sneering killing machine"? In fact, if you look at the scene closely, you can see see Steamboat Willie arguing with his comrades in the moments before Miller is shot dead. Steamboat Willie doesn't want to shoot Miller. But to fight for his Fatherland, he is obligated to.

Back when I wrote about the film last December, I debated with Craig Simpson over this very moment in the film, pointing out that there's a lot more to the German characters in the film than meets the eye. I found a very interesting blog piece by critic Karen Jaehne, who has actually been able to translate what Steamboat Willie is saying, in German, in that scene. Jahne reveals that after Steamboat Willie sees Miller out there on the Alamo, he turns to his comrades and shrieks, "I know that man!" in German. But by that point, it's too late, and they shoot him.

When does Steamboat Willie have a sneer on his face? Sounds like you're confusing Steamboat Willie with the Waffen-SS soldier who stabs Mellish. And even *that* soldier is pained when he makes his killing: Jahne writes in her article that when the Waffen-SS soldier stabs Mellish, he whispers to him in German, "Let it be, let it be." (I WILL concede that Spielberg probably should have put English subtitles into these scenes in order to clear up a lot of the confusion surrounding them, and to show that the Germans in the film *are* human beings. Maybe further DVD rrleases of the film should include subtitles?)

Also...

"Weirdly, Spielberg also forced the whole "am I a good man" thing on Schindler in Schindler's List; he really wants to reaffirm that his protagonists are good people. It's like he's worried that the audience will judge them in a less than rosy way if he doesn't reinforce how awesome they are."

But Ed, that's *not* the reasoning behind Schindler's speech. Spielberg did not want his audiences leaving the theater feeling proud to be Gentiles, happy to know that 1,000 Jews were saved. The "I could have done more" speech at the end of Schindler's List is there to remind the audiences that millions of others died. It wasn't just a movie about survival and goodness -- it was also about death, not to mention history's greatest evil.

Emmitt said...

Emmitt, honestly, I think Spielberg also prefers his Nazis to be comical with melting faces. Certainly, here he seems unable to give the Germans any more depth or humanity than he gives to the caricatured villain of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That Saving Private Ryan attempts to be a very different movie hardly matters, because Spielberg lapses very easily back into his light adventure comfort zone even when he's trying to be SERIOUS.

Right, that seems to be a running thing with Spielberg. He gets accused of sentimentalism and pandering from time to time and it's true to a certain extent. I've heard it said often that he doesn't really have the chutzpah, so to speak, that he had 20, 30 years ago. Pointing to Close Encounters of the Third Kind specifically, he said if he were to make that movie now, he probably wouldn't leave the ending the same and opt out for something that's arguably more audience friendly. On the topic of Nazis, the newest Indiana Jones was supposed to be about cinema's favorite villains but he said he couldn't see himself making another movie like that after having gone through with Schindler's List. I think the dark humor that seeps through in Saving Private Ryan is a bit of the 'berg's film brat exposing itself. You can still see this edge even in his latest work, like the eye in Minority Report.

His best work is actually all about his struggles balancing being a populist filmmaker and making deeply personal work. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, AI, War of the Worlds--they're all self-reflexive in a way I don't see Saving Private Ryan as being. I think that the movies that followed SPR act as examinations of it, culminating in War of the Worlds implying whether depicting disaster is possible on film.

Anyways that's a lot of words not really about Saving Private Ryan. As for the issue of the German soldiers' portrayal, I think it humanizes them in that they're never really shown doing anything that the American soldiers wouldn't do under the same circumstances. Isolating the story as to avoid any references or depictions of the Holocaust certainly helps in that but it's also scenes like the American soldiers preparing to execute Steamboat Willie or the duel that has both soldiers flinging their helmets at the other. At the end of the day, it portrays being a soldier as really hard and crappy work.

I'd also be willing to argue that maybe perceptions to Saving Private Ryan may change due to cinema now being post-Inglourious Basterds.

Ed Howard said...

Adam, you make some very good points about the portrayal of Steamboat Willie. There are some shots of him coldly and methodically shooting Americans that, to me, make him seem pretty sinister. But your point about what he says in German would make the scene play out a bit differently. It makes me wonder: if Spielberg wanted people to come away from the scene thinking of Willie as an OK guy, why not subtitle that section? The decision not to subtitle the German language parts is a weird one since the German bits are the ones that would humanize the German soldiers and allow in a perspective other than the American one. In one early scene, when two German soldiers are executed while surrendering during the battle of Normandy, I've read that what the soldiers are saying is something like "we're not German, we're Czech, we surrender," indicating that they were prisoners of war forced into battle, which is something the Nazis often did in their occupied territories. That dialogue really adds something to the scene and I have no idea why Spielberg doesn't subtitle it in the film; as it is, the added meaning can't really be considered part of the film's effect because the vast majority of people won't understand what's going on in that scene. Willie's German lines in the scene where Miller is shot (and it's Willie who actually shoots Miller, right, not the other Germans?) may add some complexity to the character, but if Spielberg wanted us to know that, wouldn't he have subtitled it? (I also wonder if that critic is getting confused: Willie says "I know this guy" about Upham, later, right before Upham kills him; does he also say it about Miller?) To me, the failure to subtitle the German parts is telling in itself: it allows sympathetic critics to point to those lines as evidence of Spielberg's complexity, but what's the point if most people won't get a hint of that complexity while actually watching the film?

Ed Howard said...

Emmitt, I think you're right that some of Spielberg's edges have unfortunately been smoothed out over the years. And I also agree, pretty much, with that list of his better works, though I don't like War of the Worlds at all and have some ambivalence about AI (though that one's probably due for a rewatch since I haven't seen it since it came out).

MrCarmady said...

Oh, I love Stanwyck, I should see Forty Guns.
On Spielberg:
He's one of those directors who is both underrated and overrated at the same time. A.I. is an unfairly dismissed masterpiece, and both Jaws and The Last Crusade are amongst the best films of their kind ever made. Also, he made DiCaprio bearable, that's worth a lot to me. But his more serious films (and sure, A.I. could belong to that, but it exists on a level of a fairy-tale so gets an exemption) always feel off to me, with him letting his Hollywood side take over the issues he's trying to tackle. You mention the "I could have done more" scene in Schindler's, but to me "the girl in the red dress" and the shower scene are far worse offenders. Holocaust is one of those events where audience manipulation really isn't necessary. There's Night and Fog which shows how unnecessary Schindler's is. I haven't seen Shoah, which probably also does the job far far far better.
Also, take Idi i smotri, which is certainly the best World War II film (best war film ever, probably). It never feels manipulative, because it's so stark and real and heartbreaking and scary. Even the beach scene doesn't reach those heights, and that's certainly by far the best bit of Ryan

Adam Zanzie said...

...fuck. I just watched the Steamboat Willie/CaptainMiller scene again. I've been misled!

Turns out Karen Jahne is wrong when she claims that SW says "I know that man!", in regards to Miller. You're right that he *does* say it about Upham. My apoligies, Ed... I was wrong to so quickly quote Jahne on this one.

Now, in spite of this, I still don't get any impressions from Spielberg suggesting that Steamboat Willie is *wrong* to shoot Miller. Studying the scene again, I've noticed one key detail: Miller is so far away on the other side of the bridge that Steamboat Willie likely doesn't recognize him before shooting him. For all he might know, this is just another GI who bears a similar physical description to the captain who lets him go earlier in the film. Spielberg still seems to be portraying SW here as a man who's simply fighting for Germany, not for Nazism. Whatever "sneers" he may have on his face are just like the ones on the faces of the GIs throughout the film

And since Steamboat Willie forms a kind of bond, so to speak, with Upham during that sequence in the middle of the film, I don't think he's merely trying to con Upham into sparing him and the other Germans. When SW brightens up and exclaims, "Upham!", he seems to be sincerely trying to remind Upham that they've met before. Upham's killing of SW also seems to be clearly portrayed by Spielberg as pointless and flat-out wrong: it's hateful vengeance on his part, and it obviously won't bring back Miller. I highly doubt the man who directed something as anti-vengeance as Munich would condone an act of bloody vengeance in any of his war films.

While I'm not defending Spielberg's decision not to give English subtitles to the Germans in the film, I don't think he's doing it to make a political point, or whatever. Spielberg probably just feared that subtitles might interrupt the story; similarily, there are no subtitles in Schindler's List. With SPR, he probably just didn't realize how important subtitles were. On the contrary, a movie like Munich makes extensive use of subtitles -- I'm sure if Spielberg realized that subtitles were just as vital to a movie like SPR, he would go back and include them.

Adam Zanzie said...

In response to MrCarmady:

You mention the "I could have done more" scene in Schindler's, but to me "the girl in the red dress" and the shower scene are far worse offenders. Holocaust is one of those events where audience manipulation really isn't necessary.

What is "manipulative" about the scene with the girl in the red coat? The point of that scene is to illustrate the utter obviousness of the Holocaust: it was as provocative and as disgusting as a little girl walking down the streets of an invaded ghetto. That's why the color of the girl's coat is, tellingly, red.

As for the shower sequence, it is based on fact. Schindler's women really *were* accidentally shipped off to Auschwitz. In fact, in real life they were there for three whole weeks (not just a few days, as portrayed in the film), which means that they would have taken several showers during that period of time (and not just one). How could they go into those showers each day and NOT fear that they were about to be gassed? Spielberg captures that fear in the sequence. I'm curious to hear how it could have possibly been filmed differently. It's not just "audience manipulation" if it's actually truthful.