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The Statue of Liberty is kaput.

Saving Private Ryan
(1998)

(SPOILERS) William Goldman said of Saving Private Ryan, referencing the film’s titular objective in Which Lie Did I Tell? that it “becomes, once he is found, a disgrace”. “Hollywood horseshit” he emphasised, lest you were in doubt as to his feelings. While I had my misgivings about the picture on first viewing, I was mostly, as many were, impacted by its visceral prowess (which is really what it is, brandishing it like only a director who’s just seen Starship Troopers but took away none of its intent could). So I thought, yeah Goldman’s onto something here, if possibly slightly exaggerating for effect. But no, he’s actually spot-on. If Saving Private Ryan had been a twenty-minute short, it would rightly muster all due praise for its war-porn aesthetic, but unfortunately there’s a phoney, sentimental, hokey tale attached to that opening, replete with clichéd characters, horribly earnest, honorific music and “exciting!” action to engage your interest. There are good things in Saving Private Ryan, but seeing it as in any way hard done by in the Oscars stakes is a bad joke.

Saving Private Ryan is generally depicted as sharing good company with Pulp Fiction, both fully paid-up members of the “We wuz robbed by Oscar” brigade, but Pulp’s rep was – and continues to be, no matter what its director does in an effort to prove he’s equal in technical acumen – built on storytelling; Ryan’s was built on technique, and even that rather palls after that front-ended set piece. There’s something slightly distasteful about Spielberg’s crowd-pleasing aesthetic – approaching tanks causing tremors in the manner of Tyrannosauruses; a life-or-death struggle that finishes with a knife through the heart, rather than Indy triumphing; the (Indy again) comedy of suspense as Paul Giamatti demolishes a wall to reveal a platoon of armed-to-the-teeth Germans behind it – being employed in the name of “serious” filmmaking (this was also very evident in Schindler’s List, but Saving Private Ryan is much more a “genre” WWII effort, an action movie, and therefore much more beholden to the director’s established technique).

This wouldn’t be an issue – or such an issue – if the director wasn’t flashing his pass card bearing the legend “worthy, please donate votes” for all to see. The mere fact of depicting a WWII in which limbs are blown off and the good guys (occasionally) do bad things doesn’t mean one instantly merits “head-of-the-class” praise, yet that’s what Spielberg, in his beta, attention-seeking way, seems to expect. He doesn’t have the depth to offer up a truly insightful depiction of war and its effects on the participants, so he relies on surface detail and fills in the rest through referencing those who have gone before (“I never could shake the impression that all I was watching was every other war film Spielberg had ever seen” observes Jonathan Rosenbaum in a superior piece comparing it to the same year's Joe Dante-directed, Spielberg-produced Small Soldiers). One might argue his desire to apply verisimilitude is genuine, but it comes across as highly calculated and cynical. That’s precisely what the framing Normandy cemetery scene is all about, priming the audience that this is an honest, emotionally-accurate picture, and that to think otherwise would be doing a disservice to every brave American who died in a just war.

There has been much discussion of the bookend, including many critics diplomatically claiming Saving Private Ryan’s still a great film despite such slop. I’d tend to Rosenbaum’s queasiness over it (“I’m wary of trusting the rhetoric of any director who chooses to begin and end a picture with the waving of an American flag”), and I’m less than convinced by The Atlantic’s argument that it’s Spielberg’s method of holding two opposing truths in suspension (“I've begun to doubt that the opening and the closing of Saving Private Ryan are missteps. In fact, I've come to think that, even if maudlin, they are the whole point of the war story they introduce and conclude”).

Patriotism of the traditional kind simply wouldn’t be digestible in the post-Nam era – Oliver Stone saw to that – and while Spielberg may not be an intellectual titan, he isn’t stupid – indeed, in his prime, firing on all cylinders he was the consummate entertainer, able to predict precisely what his audience would respond to if only he dangled the bait in front of them just so – so Miller’s company has to be portrayed with a post-Nam affect. Save the high-flown overview for the top brass. None of that matters, because home is country, and the men dream of home (and wives); instead of the men espousing it, an unspoken patriotism rather speaks through and is underlined by one of John Williams' worst scores, cloyingly instructing us on the appropriately reverential response at any given moment. So sappy, non-partisan homilies save the day, courtesy of Horvath’s nonsensical Hollywood gibberish (“One day we might look back and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole, godawful shitty mess”).

To a degree, The Atlantic’s argument is a lucid one, but I don’t think that’s a result of any kind of profound insight on the part of Saving Private Ryan; it’s simply that Spielberg’s enough of a pusher of product to know his film has to be all things to all people, that he needs to sell it to the disillusioned crowd who see war as a big fix (those who need entrails as confirmation, and American troops intent on maximising enemy suffering: “Don’t shoot. Let ‘em burn”), and he needs to sell it to veterans as something painful but that also elicits pride in a job well done, a duty incumbent on the next generation to recognise (of Ryan, "One can only pity him for the lifetime's guilt laid upon his shoulders by Miller, whose last words to him are: 'Earn it.'" said The Standard). Such a skillset emphasises that the director would have been a choice propagandist in the 40s, and that’s not meant as a compliment (this respectful-but-not-too-much sheen continues where any movie brat wades into the genre, most recently Peter Jackson, although at least he was tinkering with primary materials rather than fashioning his own). Rosenbaum again (I should just copy and paste his entire essay): “That’s why the man capable of claiming that Jaws was “his” Vietnam and that “every war movie, good or bad, is an antiwar movie” can persuade people that Saving Private Ryan is something more than just another recruiting film”.

Revisiting the picture, I found the narrative tidiness of the returning German – the one Hanks’ Miller let go – much, much too much, and much too convenient, in the manner only a glaringly artificial construct can be, one fashioned for easy emotional responses. It’s artificial in the worst ways, Upham (Jeremy Davies) having been singled out as sensitive, ineptand principled (but bookishly so), such that he has to be dragged through a hedge backwards to disabuse him of any high-minded notions. So first he cowers fearfully as a comrade (Adam Goldberg) is slowly killed, cowers when his killer leaves, and then cowers some more as the aforementioned German soldier they let go earlier shoots noble Captain Tom Hanks. Yet rather than continuing to cower, Upham’s suddenly galvanised when the American fighters fly over, herding the surrendering Germans and killing, as a too-late-catharsis, the killer of his also-sensitive Captain. It’s a sequence designed to provoke a range of responses, from “they should have shot him when they had the chance” to “war makes monsters of us all” (rather than continuing to cower, which would surely have been the consistent response for the character). But the real takeaway is one of crude, button-pushing manipulation, a phoned-in “there are no easy answers” message of two dividing ethics. Spliced together, Spielberg blithely believes they make a grown-up war movie (except that, in graveside conclusion, simple values are the best ones).

This kind of schematic approach is present throughout the picture, in different forms. There’s likely a reason screenwriter Robert Rodat (The Patriot, Falling Skies) hasn’t gone on to greater things. Characters exude clichés, with so many moments put in for overt, didactic effect that there’s no sense of natural flow. Every character is a type, The Dirty Dozen-style, designed to provoke a specific response, such that their broad-strokes caricatures (loudmouth, fatherly, gruff, Jewish, Catholic) are then leavened by sensitive, humanising moments of conversational insight. Ones that consequently land as only more unnatural and forced. The “Where’s the Captain from?” device would work a whole lot better – actually, no it wouldn’t, as it’s cheesily transparent either way – if Hanks didn’t seem exactly the type you’d expect to be a teacher in civilian life.

Almost every conversation is contrived. There are occasional breaks in this, such as Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) taking issue with the casual, battle-hardened insensitivity of his peers (including Miller) when they’re sorting through dog tags and his mentally tutting at Miller and Horvath (the since disgraced Tom Sizemore, never better cast) – joking about a former company member who could walk on his hands – while he is copying out the blood-stained final letter of Caparzo (Vin Diesel). But the self-imposed wisdom dispensed by Miller is self-aggrandising sludge (the “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much…” speech). What power the company scenes possess is down to performance rather than writing.

Part of the problem with Saving Private Ryan is its very premise; functionally, the objective is a transparent McGuffin. While Rodat leads with the brothers element, and would like to think he’s using it to discuss important ideas, Spielberg’s interest clearly came from the other way in; the bloody beachhead scene was everything. And it shows. Merely drawing attention to the artifice (“This Ryan better be worth it”) isn’t enough, because everything arising – those encountered en route, Ryan’s refusal to return – comes across as calculated invention rather than natural progression: “What can we put in here to overtly address our theme?” When American soldiers behave with brutality or Miller frets over the point of it all, it’s no less than “This is where Spielberg transposes his Nam statement, in order to recognise the previous two decades of war movies” (don’t worry though, lest it come across as unpatriotic: that flag is bookending everything). Nevertheless, there are scenes here that do convey a sense of the aberrations of war, incidentals such as the wrong Ryan (Nathan Fillion), still concerned over the fate of his siblings when it makes no sense that he should be. Or a tremendously frazzled Lelan Orser (is there any other kind?) recounting how he came to crash his plane; it’s thematically crude, but the actor pulls you in.

Saving Private Ryan’s problems are compounded by the heroic last-stand finale (the area Goldman had such issue with). It’s through-and-through cut from the cloth of the traditional war movie – only fashionably dirtied up – and thus of the least philosophically-refined order (Goldman might actually overstate Ryan’s merits elsewhere, referring to its “fine Homer-like Odyssey hour where Ryan is sought”, as that calculated Odyssey quality is part of the problem). There are effective sequences here, no doubt, because that’s Spielberg’s gift as a director – in the same way that there are in Jurassic Park – but it’s littered with plain bad writing from “Who’s that singing, sir?” to an education in how to make sticky bombs or turn mortar shells into grenades. Miller’s dying “Earn it” edict may as well be “That man, was a bloody hero” for all its vacant import.

Spielberg’s error might be that you can’t simply coast through Saving Private Ryan – it elicits a response whereby you either react against his brazen manipulation or you nod affirmatively in response to his “insights”. Sure, you can play “Spot the actor” – It’s a one-armed Walter White! Why there’s Mal Reynolds! Look, Sam Malone! – but that only takes you so far. Goldman called the third act “false in every conceivable way possible, including giving the lie to its great twenty-four minutes. That sequence told us war is hell, too. The last hour tells us that war can be a neat learning experience for little Matt Damon”.

Saving Private Ryan is hollow in its profundity, then, but that’s to be expected from a popcorn moviemaker – perhaps the very best of them at his height. It’s alsothe kind of hot-air balloon that wins Oscars for its production values alone” (which it duly did) and “a film that sacrifices humanity for technical wizardry”. Except, I suspect Spielberg genuinely convinced himself he was servicing the opposite of that. Why else would he cast Mr Everyman as the embodiment of decent vulnerability (so you’re with him even when he wavers, even if Isaac Kappy might have disagreed with such an assessment)? It gives Miller a head start, particularly if he buys the farm. Divest it of its self-appointed self-importance, and it’s a serviceable war movie. With it, it’s quite objectionable. One thing I’ll give it is consistency, though; the director’s Oscar-bait pictures fall remarkably in line as lesser affairs than the blockbusters that made his name.



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