Saving Private Ryan
Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Harrison Young, Harve Presnell, Dennis Farina, Ted Danson. Screenplay: Robert Rodat.

Steven Spielberg is always going to make a film about the survivors. The wife of the bullying sharecropper will, against all odds, somehow be reunited with her long-lost sister; the dinosaurs will not eat any of the characters that we like; Peter Pan will not have to grow up. Most famously, and most worthily, he will give cinematic voice to the story of Oskar Schindler and all of the Jews he saved from the Holocaust—even if it means making a Holocaust film in which not a single Jewish character with whom we are previously acquainted ever dies in a camp. Needless to say, these would all, in real life, constitute exceptional-case scenarios, given the number of black Southern families that were permanently disintegrated by slavery and its aftermath, or all of the victims of the Holocaust who had no benefactor, even one who was often an ogre of a human being.

It is not fair to fault Spielberg for so consistently celebrating the triumphs of the living, nor to charge that he elides the memories or the importance of the dead—he does not. To his credit, he is one of the fewer and fewer directors who bothers to have a consistent stamp or personal signature in the stories he chooses or the ways in which he elects to tell them. And yet, don’t you sometimes wish Steven Spielberg would deal with the mess of humanity without preoccupying himself with whatever small fragment of it turns out all right in the end? Even in Schindler’s List, surely his premier achievement as a director of "drama"—though I contend that Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws are better films—the daily terror and unbearable sadness of his subject were so brilliantly, indelibly portrayed that only later do we realize how orchestrated were its events: how unlikely that we were going to be confronted with the death of a major character, even of a particularly striking character actor. The madness was controlled, perhaps even where it should not have been, and rendered in a stripped-down, cinema-vérité style that suggested an immediate, unvarnished point of view when such was not always the actual perspective of the film.

All of that seems to change with Saving Private Ryan, but once again, it only seems to change. There is no questioning that the sequences which are bound to be remembered as the beginning and end of this movie are among the most wrenching and vibrantly immediate sequences in this or any war film, in this or any year of films. But then there's the problem of the sequences that actually do introduce and conclude this picture, and they are as clunky, as ornery to our dramatic sensibilities, as was the jarringly false Liam Neeson speech at the end of Schindler, or the eloquent but overly studied John Quincy Adams speech in the last act of Amistad. I came to this movie profoundly ambivalent about Spielberg’s filmmaking, and I leave it feeling the same. Saving Private Ryan is an extraordinary experience at many moments, and it deserves to be seen; unfortunately, a few of the traditional Spielberg safeguards exist to keep this from being the wholly compelling, wholly real work of art it could have been.

The "first twenty minutes" that everyone is talking about actually begins about five minutes into Saving Private Ryan, but it’s galvanizing and time-stopping in a way that movie art alone can really be. What we witness is the Omaha Beach invasion on D-Day of World War II, and though the point of view is not defined as any one character’s, the queasy, color-drained camera makes clear that we are just as seasick, just as blanched and nervous as the other soldiers squatting in the boat lurching toward the biggest ordeal of their heart-breakingly short lives.

Then an extraordinary thing occurs. The first line of boats hits the beach, the ramps open up to let the men out—and almost every soldier at the front line of every boat dies instantaneously. The guns positioned up the beach take them all out with lightning speed and incontrovertible authority; these men never had a chance. What is calamitous for the American forces is a huge step forward for Spielberg, who yanks the breath out of living bodies right before our eyes, and resists any temptation to highlight clear favorites or survivors, or even to let that vandal John Williams slather on some bombastic musical track that will find courage or honor or uplift in what in fact is just senselessness and desperation. The camera of the great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski works overtime here—dashing from man to man, unable to keep up with the speed of death; again, men keep dying before Kaminski (as our stand-in) has even focused his “eyes.” The movements are herky-jerky, the colors bleed almost as profusely as do the soldiers. The virtuoso dives under water to reveal a Dante-esque confusion of limbs and wounds that are not saved from fire and shrapnel even when submerged beneath the sea.

The possibility of a vision this bleak and intense enduring for the length of a standard motion picture is a challenge to imagine, but it is not really Spielberg’s intention here to do so. Rather, he wants to follow the poor souls who make it through this firestorm and essentially show us how the nightmare of their arrival broods over and throughout the longer, more lingering terror of their movement into France. Here, characters begin to emerge as focal points, though there could have been little doubt from the first few frames of the battle sequence that Captain Miller, the commander played by Tom Hanks, would stick around—if for no other reason than that he is played by Tom Hanks, Hollywood’s eminent symbol of competence and dignity, and therefore a perfect and indispensable interpreter for Spielberg’s sorts of visions.

The primary vein of the narrative begins when Miller and his troops, while recouping on the beach, get word that a Private James Ryan is to be summoned out of duty in France and returned home to his mother. All three of Ryan’s brothers have been killed in battle, and in a short scene, we see all three death telegrams arrive at the Ryan farm on the same day. If the levels of military and political authority (including Army Chief of Staff George Marshall) who weigh on in this situation seem a bit improbable—and if the bizarre and incoherent speech by which Marshall makes his case is a typically Spielbergian moment of false verbal grandstanding—the decision to retrieve Ryan is actually not so unlikely as some commentators have suggested. These sorts of missions have been conducted before. It is not, however, clear to all of Miller’s men, especially the hothead played by Brothers McMullen auteur Ed Burns, why they have to be the ones to find this guy. The effort of quelling their arguments becomes in its own way as true a test of Miller’s leadership as his governance of the Beach invasion.

Captain Miller is a figure whom we feel we know very well. His position of leadership and the casual grace of his command are the defining aspects of his persona, to us and to his men, and so we assume everything about him to be equally good and righteous. Moreover, the canniness of Spielberg’s casting of Hanks in this role cannot be underestimated, and the film all but invites us to translate all of those pleasingly do-good attributes of Hanks’ public persona onto this wary and un-cavalier but proud-standing man.

The script and supporting characters, however, often remind us how little of Miller’s “real life” his soldiers (and, by extension, we) actually know. There is an escalating bet among the troops to be paid to whomever pops the secret of Miller’s stateside day job. The detail is one of writer Robert Rodat’s cleverest gestures, since it not only reveals much about Miller's personality, but it provides the soldiers with the tentative sort of camaraderie that gives them a common discourse from which they withhold any real personal investment. These guys want to have something to talk about, but they don’t want to know so much about one another that the separation or death of a mate would be lethal to general (or individual) morale.

The quest to find Ryan is a sort of secular Pilgrim’s Progress, a noble pilgrimage conducted through more than its share of Sloughs of Despond. The soldiers’ hesitation to really know one another continues as a theme, though the construction of so many of them as too-familiar “types” unfortunately makes them rather easily knowable to the audience. Burns, as stated earlier, is the second-guessing provocateur. Adam Goldberg (of Dazed and Confused) plays Private Mellish strangely just shy of a busy, stereotypical “neurotic Jew.” Vin Diesel and hyped newcomer Giovanni Ribisi are sort of standard-issue grunts, but there is a superior triad of work from Tom Sizemore as the rock-solid Sergeant Horvath, Barry Pepper as the God-invoking Private Jackson, and especially Jeremy Davies as the milk-livered and often overwhelmed Corporal Upham. Davies' work in particular is a movie unto itself, and a mighty good one; Upham's seismic quakings of conscience and confidence are of a sort that war movies rarely confront so earnestly, but which myself and, I suspect, many other filmgoers will recognize as our own worst nightmare of enduring a tour of duty which we do not fully understand and of which we may not even feel capable.

For all the proficiency of Davies' performance, however, and despite the collective impact of the actors' bleary eyes and burned souls—the ultimate measure by which their ensemble work must be praised—most of these men are trapped playing familiar figures who are at the same time supposed to be, at least to some degree, guarded, self-concealing, “anonymous.” The script in this way works against itself, not sure if we should know these men in a way only a war could allow, or to not know these men to a degree that only the anxiety of war recommends. Even Hanks, who quietly transmits Miller’s troubled self-confidence and dutifulness, is unnecessarily saddled with a quivering-hands symptom that crudely makes obvious what is quietly, more elegantly shown in the actor’s dependably subtle work.

The symbolic value of Private Ryan, who is as lost to these men as the very ideas for which they are fighting, is nicely woven by Rodat, although Spielberg—as you can see, there are often simultaneous pluses and minuses to Ryan’s gestures—does not allow his pursuants so much to despair or to actually feel hopeless as to whine and casually protest. The events of their travels are portrayed a little too neatly as discreet, self-contained incidents that belie a plot structure, when their journey itself seems rather pointedly unplotted, of uncertain destination. Thankfully, the events themselves are affecting even when the structure of the film feels a little programmed. An incident of trying to save a little girl gets the unit in more trouble than they realized. Internal discontent comes to a hilt when Miller orders a charge that some consider “unnecessary.” Also affecting, but most transparent in its dramatic convenience, is a late-night group conversation inside an abandoned church that is obviously partitioned as a moment of truth-speaking and emotional honesty, separate from the confusion and frustration outside.

Kaminski, so challenged by the opening scenes, gets to take a couple of breathers as the film goes on, and sometimes his camera is jittery and hand-held for no reason than to call attention to itself: a frequent annoyance in indie cinema because, as in this film (and I extend the argument partially to the battle scenes), there is nothing more “real” or “artless” about a hand-held camera moving between obvious Points A and B than a clean tracking shot or a simple cut. The honesty and emotional conviction of the performances and the writing, however, keep Saving Private Ryan from being distant or grandiose, and the drama extends richly and interestingly beyond the eventual contact with Private Ryan. It helps to have as charismatic and efficient an actor as Matt Damon play Private Ryan, since he instantly transforms the character from a symbolic figure to a tangible, real-life infantry man.

Spielberg executes another astonishing battle sequence toward the film's end, but here we must finally discuss Saving Private Ryan's most off-putting and unnecessary feature, which is the opening and closing scenes set in the American Cemetery in Normandy. An elderly veteran and his family walk through the acres of tombstones, which themselves are an eloquent and doleful index of the amount of loss experienced by our nation during World War II. What Spielberg is equally interested in stressing in these scenes, however, is the heroism and honor achieved by those Americans who died in or who lived through the war. It's an important message that deserves reiteration but—did he forget?—he has just shown us a movie that for more than two hours spoke with exquisite force and articulation to that very tradition of honor, that very importance of remembering the men and women who gave their lives.

Either because he does not trust his own clarity of expression, or because he misjudges our own sensitivity as an audience to the ideas he has set forth, Spielberg tacks on this closing epiphany of one man's sorrow, his grappling with history, and his family's belief in his own heroicism. Steven, we get it. It will be a major breakthrough for this director to effectively and unobtrusively end one of his dramas, and finally quit the cloying pattern by which he clumsily announces the "meaning" of his pictures rather than trusting our own abilities to think and feel. For all of Saving Private Ryan's tribute to the survival of American values, it is much more a dictatorial project than a democratic one, since we are finally forced to accept a pre-packaged "conclusion" rather than invited to witness a terrible, epic spectacle and derive our own meanings.

I wish Saving Private Ryan didn't end on such a maddening note, and I wish that Spielberg occasionally chose a project whose morals and messages were open to some subjective vision, or else were not loud-speakered from the mouth of an angel in the final reel. He encloses his films in an envelope of incontestability that would be fatal if, his own cultivated righteousness aside, they were not such well-orchestrated and visually involving events. More particularly to this film, there is as much to be taught through the image of Upham's distress as there is to be visualized in the sun shining through a flag. It trivializes the force and the meaning of loss to prioritize so obviously and declaim so overtly the lessons and emotions, however divided, of the triumphant victor. Spielberg is such a good storyteller that Saving Private Ryan remains one of 1998's best films, but also one with enough predictability, fussy finger-wagging, and patriotic chest-beating that it translates as less than the sum of its often ground-breaking parts. There are dozens of worthwhile stories to derive from what we see in Saving Private Ryan; do not let Spielberg's weakness for one of them and his stream-lining of certain others reduce or overwhelm the urgency of the moment he chronicles, or of remembering that era in our history. B+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Steven Spielberg
Best Actor: Tom Hanks
Best Original Screenplay: Robert Rodat
Best Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Best Art Direction: Thomas E. Sanders; Lisa Dean
Best Film Editing: Michael Kahn
Best Original Score: John Williams
Best Sound: Gary Rydstrom, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson, and Ron Judkins
Best Sound Effects Editing: Gary Rydstrom & Richard Hymns

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Steven Spielberg
Best Actor (Drama): Tom Hanks
Best Screenplay: Robert Rodat
Best Original Score: John Williams

Other Awards:
Producers Guild of America: Best Picture
Directors Guild of America: Best Director
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Picture
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Cinematography
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Cinematography
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Sound; Best Visual Effects
Satellite Awards: Best Film Editing

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