Saving Private Ryan

Critics across America have fallen over themselves to bestow masterpiece status on Saving Private Ryan, the hefty new war movie directed by Steven Spielberg. I’ll agree with the raves about the battle sequences, which have a cruel, piercing horror, but otherwise the critics sound like a pack of easily impressed 12-year-old boys. A masterpiece? Hardly. Neither as subtly artful as Schindler’s List nor as boringly high-minded as Amistad, this film falls somewhere in the bland middle. It’s forty minutes of steely violence and two hours of cliché-ridden flab — and Spielberg’s draining the color out of the clichés doesn’t make them any less clichés.

The film begins not with carnage but with grief: an elderly man visiting the Normandy memorial, wandering through the rows of white crosses. The image recalls Scarlett O’Hara walking through the dead and dying in Gone with the Wind — just one of many bits Spielberg cribs from other war films. The old man gets one of those sad-thinking-back faces, and we cut to D-Day on Omaha Beach. Men are dying everywhere you look; they die before they even get off the boats, they die underwater when bullets cut through the murk and kick up a cloud of red. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski stage the combat in a jittery, haphazard style that conveys the systematic nightmare of war.

It’s a bit of a distancing style, though — too self-consciously a newsreel effect — and you can’t help being excited even as you’re appalled. Spielberg pays a price for starting things off with a bang: after a certain amount of graphic violence (and this movie is the hardest R I’ve ever seen), you just go numb. And Spielberg can’t help aestheticizing it; even the harsh physical realism becomes almost pleasurable to watch. The staccato noise of bullets thudding into flesh, the shock of sudden death — it all has a feral beauty. (The gray-toned photography further distances us. Was Spielberg afraid to go all the way and shoot in black and white — an uncommercial format — or did he want to avoid comparisons to Schindler’s List?)

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly called Spielberg “our most spectacular poet of war,” which is not a label anyone applied to Kubrick or Oliver Stone or Coppola — or even Edward Zwick, whose Glory and Courage Under Fire captured the moral complexity of war far more effectively than anything in Saving Private Ryan. And has anyone noticed how Spielberg the spectacular poet of war hedges his bets? He doesn’t start with any old battle — he kicks things off with D-Day. If he hadn’t gotten our attention with such a large-scale canvas of chaos, would we not feel that war is hell? In Glory, we got the point without seeing dozens of men get their brains blown out. One head blown off was quite enough to make the case.

At the center of Saving Private Ryan is a rather routine drama. Four brothers are stationed overseas during World War II; three of them have been killed, and the fourth, James Ryan (Matt Damon), is still out there somewhere. The top brass sends a platoon, headed by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), to find Ryan and bring him back alive so he can go home to his thrice-bereaved mother. So Miller and his squad of stereotypes — the faithful sergeant (Tom Sizemore), the cynical Brooklyn guy (Edward Burns), the surly Italian (Vin Diesel), the sensitive medic (Giovanni Ribisi), the skittish new guy (Jeremy Davies), the mordant Jew (Adam Goldberg), the devout Christian (Barry Pepper) — venture into Spielberg’s version of war-torn hell, which is really an anthology of moments from war movies and books: the sniper, the German prisoner, the little heart-tugging kid, and so on.

“Whoever saves one life saves the world entire” — that was the defining line in Schindler’s List, and it could be the epigram for Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat hang their epic on a shaky metaphor. Private Ryan, of course, is us — the abstract American ideal that our soldiers died to defend. “Earn this,” Miller says to Ryan — meaning, Earn the life we’ve died to protect. Yet Spielberg ignores the fact that it was the government, not Ryan — not us — who sent those soldiers to die. The last scene, a schmaltzy reprise of the opening scene, is meant to send us out wanting to be worthy of America’s great sacrifice. And it’s meant to make you feel small for asking why anyone must die or kill in any war.

Saving Private Ryan says nothing fresh about war; it lacks the sardonic vision of Kubrick’s great war films (Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, the latter of which Spielberg swipes from constantly), which regarded war with a hollow laugh, as the sickest of sick jokes. The closest Spielberg comes to Kubrick is in a couple of scenes with the terrified interpreter played by Jeremy Davies, and in a perfectly realized death scene claiming a soldier we’ve come to like. Elsewhere, Spielberg loses focus, and he underdirects his actors. Some, like Edward Burns and Adam Goldberg, come through anyway; others, like Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore, show little personality — it’s as if they had no time to bring anything of themselves to the show. That’s true of Spielberg too. He has a fierce visual precision in those combat scenes. Everywhere else, where it really counts, he shoots all over the place.

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FOOTNOTE: For some reason, I have received some of the most savage feedback for this review (well, this and American History X). Here are some of the comments left by, I assume, good God-fearin’ patriots under my review at efilmcritic.com: “Rob Gonsalves. You complete douche. Jump off a cliff. Pussy.” “Gonsalves needs to grow a penis. The movie was amazing.” “Mr Gonsalves is a stupid fucktard, this movie is beautiful.” I guess it’s not enough for the movie’s fans that it has a 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (where I also got awesome comments like “You’re flab” and “This reviewer is a moron. A movie for true Americans!”); no, everyone must fall into lockstep adoration so that the movie gets 100%. I talk more about this phenomenon here.

Explore posts in the same categories: overrated, war

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