Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998): The Greatest War Movie Ever?

I’ve been asked on many occasions to account for what some consider my overly harsh assessment of Saving Private Ryan.  To begin with, saying a film is overly-praised is not the same as suggesting it is a poor quality film.  Also, to put things in context, we need to remember that the making of films is a new kind of art form, and there are just not that many films deserving of the label of greatness.  And finally, those films that arguably do deserve the label of greatness (i.e. Public Enemy, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, A Streetcar Named Desire, Lawrence of Arabia, Raging Bull, and Fargo) have been heavily critiqued precisely because these movies were controversial and had much to say – unlike epics produced and/or directed by Steven Spielberg.

What can one do when a reviewer touts the film like The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) does in what was only supposed to be a “full summary”?  “Saving Private Ryan opens with a 30-minute war scene that is without a doubt one of the finest half-hours ever on film.”  It is an exciting scene that I still feel borrows heavily from Sam Fuller’s film The Big Red One (more on that later).  Yet IMDB’s description seems like mild praise compared to other reviewers that feel viewing this scene on film is on par with witnessing the Resurrection.  The harrowing depiction of the battle at Normandy in Spielberg’s film does foist upon the viewer’s mind that this must really have been similar to what the soldiers did go through on June 6, 1944.  There was chaos along with many lives lost.  Then the scene ends.  Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) survives the battle only to be given a new mission to locate Private James Ryan (Matt Damon).  This was a mercy mission to bring Ryan back to safety after his mother had already lost three other sons in battle.  Many of the battle-hardened men under Miller’s command perish on their way to locating Private Ryan, but eventually Miller and his interpreter, Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), are able to pinpoint Ryan to a location in France.  Unfortunately, Miller and Upham are unable to persuade Ryan that he needs to abandon his unit so that he can be returned to the states to be the sole remaining child of his grieving mother.  Ryan’s unit made up of paratroopers has been assigned to protect a bridge until reinforcements arrive, and Ryan felt it would be cowardly to leave his friends at the very moment they were facing a German attack.  Miller and his men agreed that they will help Ryan’s unit out.  In fact, Upham (who has no combat experience and up until now shows that he has no nerve for grisly battle) is able to kill that one German on the bridge that may have foiled the unit’s mission.  Miller and Ryan’s unit thus hold off the German attack.

Ultimately, we have that sentimental scene both at the beginning (for a mere few seconds) and at the end of the film where Ryan, now an old man, with his family, goes to visit the military cemetery at Normandy where Captain Miller is buried.  Obviously, the implication is that Miller did not survive the war.  Ryan breaks down into tears and expresses his remorse at Miller’s gravesite that he survived while so many brave men perished.  At the same time, he apologetically explains that he has attempted to live out his years as a worthy citizen to make up for the gift of life that Miller and his men bestowed upon him.

Saving Private Ryan is a salute to those men that fought and died in World War II.  If it was ever intended to be an anti-war film that explicitly depicted the horrors of war, that intention was softened by the impression we get in watching the film that these soldiers were performing a vital duty in preserving our freedom and putting a stop to tyranny.  Putting aside all attributes of chivalry (we don’t want to deprive a woman of her only son) and bravery on the part of the American soldiers, ultimately all the soldiers in Saving Private Ryan were decent men taking on a necessary job of great unpleasantness.  None of the main characters had an unsavory side to their personalities, and if they exhibited fear they were at least all given the opportunity to conveniently redeem themselves.  The remarkable pacing demonstrated in that great battle scene at D-Day gradually slows down almost interminably once the battle is over and the film evolves into melodrama.  The problem with having that battle scene at the beginning of the film is that everything that follows is almost forgotten.  The film is 170 minutes in length. Take away the invasion at Normandy and we have another 140 minutes to figure out where Spielberg is trying to lead us.  Besides making the statement that the American soldiers that fought and died on D-Day deserve respect, a theme that few self-respecting individuals would disagree with, Spielberg gives us little else to ponder.  Saving Private Ryan is a crowd pleaser (like The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur), but it’s not profound.

As I mentioned above, the scene at Normandy (the one scene in the film that deserves the most comment) is reminiscent of the same battle scene shown in The Big Red One.  No question that the D-Day Invasion comes off more impressively in Saving Private Ryan than the Big Red One.  No movie director in history is better at creating visuals on the screen than Spielberg (though when the spectacular visuals take up so much of our attention, one begins to think that Spielberg is showing-off).  However, all we learn about any character during this scene is that Captain John Miller does not panic while under fire.  (In the first two hours of the battle, nearly 5,000 men had already died at Omaha Beach and Miller was supposed to be in the midst of them.)  The problem with this film is that once the special effects end and the story begins, Spielberg is no more than an average director.  Saving Private Ryan is cliché ridden and we could just as well have had John Wayne play the lead role rather than Tom Hanks – except that Hanks is a better actor and John Wayne happens to be dead.  Again, let’s contrast this film to The Big Red OneThe Big Red One did not romanticize the “greatest generation,” and some of the characters in that movie did not have the most delightful of personalities.  Yet these flawed individuals are more fully developed and more authentic than the G.I. Joe plastic figures that walk across the screen in Saving Private Ryan.  This, and the tension depicted between men fighting side by side throughout The Big Red One, made the Sam Fuller film preferable to the one that Spielberg directed.  Once you romanticize characters to the degree that Spielberg does, the characters lose interest if they have not already lost believability.

In 1998 (the year Saving Private Ryan was released), Shakespeare in Love (an average comedy that depicted Shakespeare sleeping with someone that looked like Gwyneth Paltrow) won the Oscar for Best Picture.  If one did not consider the history of the Oscars one would not know what to make of such an aberration.   Considering only the five movies that were up for best picture in 1998, I would agree with critics that say that Saving Private Ryan would probably have been the better choice for the Oscar (although I never saw The Thin Red Line, which might have been good).  But then considering Titanic won in 1997 and American Beauty won in 1999, what won the Best Picture Oscar (or any other Oscar for that matter) in 1998 probably meant nothing.  The original Scarface starring Paul Muni, A Streetcar Named Desire, Dr. Strangelove and Apocalypse Now were much better than any other movies the years that each were released - and nobody remembers what those other movies were that did end up winning Oscars.  Saving Private Ryan will be remembered long after Shakespeare in Love, but it should be remembered mainly for the visual sequences and little else. 

When we think of all of the war films made over time – All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Sergeant York (1940),  Twelve O’Clock High (1949), They Were Expendable (1945), Fixed Bayonets (1951), The Steel Helmet (1951), From Here to Eternity (1953), Paths of Glory (1957), Hell is for Heroes (1962), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Enemy at the Gates (2001), so many movies (with the exception of Apocalypse Now) where the directors were allowed only to spend a fraction of the money that was spent on Saving Private Ryan and yet had so much more to say about war and about the soldiers involved – films that seemed so much more relevant (even if some of these films are more than half a century old), one has to wonder if Saving Private Ryan would not have become a dated film without all of the spectacular special effects.  What would Saving Private Ryan have looked like if Spielberg had been subject to budgetary constraints?  It probably would not have appeared impressive.  In fact, it probably would have seemed old fashioned like those war films starring John Wayne.  Today, movie-goers have become addicted to visual thrills on the screen and imagine that seeing brutality played out is the equivalent of being involved in the mayhem itself.  But just seeing it is not enough to explain the motivations of the characters involved or the fight that went on inside of themselves to help them survive.  We know nothing about Captain Miller other than he is a brave man or Private Ryan other than he is devoted to his family and unit.  The tears that the older Ryan sheds at the beginning and the end of the movie seem almost out of place only because we know so little about Ryan to begin with.  Spielberg doesn’t even understand how to get us to know these two characters better other than the insertion of sentimentality and by having Private Ryan engage in the gesture of saluting the gravestone of Captain Miller.  We have become used to seeing such manipulations in every typical war film.

September 28, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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