Saving Private Ryan opens and closes with an identical image — an American flag, rippling in the wind. Given that we too often take images at face value, it’s easy to figure this for stock patriotism. But look more closely. This isn’t standard-issue symbology. The flag is blasted out, leached of all color. It signals that something fundamental has been lost forever, bled from our national psyche. But its mere presence in the frame insists that something else — perhaps something still more important — remains behind.
That “something else” may be America as concept, the United States as an abstract entity worth dying for in the mud of another continent. The characters that Steven Spielberg follows through Saving Private Ryan spend time openly debating the validity of their missions. They run the numbers in a bizarre kind of math that counts lost human lives against the number of lives thus saved, insisting on quantifying the greater good that grisly death can serve.
If war strategies are mathematical, then Saving Private Ryan‘s opening battle sequence is the epitome of chaos. It comes close to being too much — there’s a law of diminishing returns in the world of the cinema, where conventional wisdom has it that less is almost always more. Nothing if not doggedly confident, Spielberg demands as much from the very medium of film as any mainstream director in recent memory, aiming to put us right in the middle of a pitched battle by demanding more, more, and more from everyone involved.
And what he gets amounts to a harrowing marvel. Apparently taking real World War II documentary footage as its model, Spielberg’s invasion of Omaha Beach was shot documentary-style. As we see it, it’s sapped of color and flickers oddly on-screen, with the stuttering-shutter quality of newsreel images. The long sequence is horrifying on a literal blood-and-guts level, but it’s held together by a point of view, a riveting sense of terror and helplessness as random soldiers are gunned down in the sand, underwater, or before they even hit the beach. Verging on Grand Guignol, Spielberg’s gory, ironic vision of D-Day is saved by its awesome hellishness, the feeling that each new atrocity signals a new circle reached in some Dantesque inferno.
How else to film a war? Saving Private Ryan has earned comparisons to Oliver Stone’s Platoon for its revelations of torn flesh and combat, but the whole film seems somehow closer in overall tone to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a chilly study of Vietnam War absurdity, or even Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The moral guides for such stories are the soldiers trapped in the wars, cursed with a preternatural, often cynical awareness of what it means to be an agent of the military in a time of conflict.
The difference between Ryan and Vietnam pictures like Jacket or Platoon is largely that, while the Vietnam War is generally acknowledged to have been a botched job, it’s far harder to dismiss World War II as military folly. Spielberg’s own Schindler’s List was an epic registration of the horrors endured under Nazi Germany, a regime that will forever be remembered as the ultimate bad guys of the 20th century. So Spielberg is faced with straddling two realities. The one is that, as he has noted in interviews, films about war are nearly always anti-war films by their very nature. The other is that it’s impossible to deny the historic impact or the apparent necessity of the fighting of World War II.
The main storyline of Saving Private Ryan may seem appalling on its own random terms. Eight men who survived the bloody assault on Normandy are sent on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines in order to find Private James Ryan, whose three brothers were recently killed in combat. Orders from the brass back in the U.S. are that Private Ryan is to be rescued and returned home before he winds up in a body bag. The soldiers recruited to search for him, under the command of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks, once again playing the easily charming Everyman), are understandably perturbed by the subtext of their mission, which seems to be that saving the life of one Private Ryan is worth risking the lives of eight more soldiers.
The film simultaneously recoils at and accepts such a notion, which is key to Spielberg’s understanding of war. War is about dodging bullets, about killing other men, about seeing your comrade’s entrails rotting next to his body on Omaha Beach. It’s also about following orders — that is, dedication to the greater many-lived organism that is a military force fighting a war. In the face of such a horrifying subjugation of the individual to the group mind, Spielberg figures out a way to be an optimist. In the end, it’s argued that the dead of our great wars will not have died in vain as long as we, for whom those lives have been given, make it our responsibility to live wisely and well in the long shadows of their sacrifices.
So does that American flag signal that Saving Private Ryan is a “patriotic” film? How could it be anything else, possessed of such reverence for the suffering endured by so many soldiers in the defense of a nation? As difficult as it may be to toe the line between national pride and blind nationalism, Spielberg makes his picture work by insisting on visualizing, in the most visceral terms possible, an overwhelming sorrow at the loss of so much human life, and a similarly devout gratitude for the sacrifices that have been made.
Talk is cheap, and it’s not enough for Spielberg to just state his case. It falls on the filmmaker’s shoulders to make us feel his convictions in our very bones. Accordingly, the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, taken on its own, is not only a masterpiece of action filmmaking, but an indication that Spielberg remains interested in formal innovation as a conduit for good storytelling. Special kudos must be given to film editor Michael Kahn, whose facility with these completely unhinged battle sequences should shame anybody who’s ever worked on a Michael Bay movie; to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has given these scenes a dull grey cast evocative of nightmares torn from America’s sleeping subconscious brain; and to sound designer Gary Rydstrom, who has crafted a World War II soundscape that rattles and unnerves you even when your eyes are closed. In technique even more than content, this is certainly more adventurous material than anything else Hollywood is likely to muster this year.
It’s important, I think, to keep Spielberg’s technical facility in mind, since a director’s personal style is often the hammer that drives the nails in. Saving Private Ryan is long on irony and profundities and even has a couple of speeches that are sure to draw the attention of Academy members. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s also the work of a born entertainer who knows exactly how to play a crowd. The Omaha Beach sequence is pure grandstanding, a calculated risk that pays off dramatically because Spielberg knows that he knows how to make it work. There’s a second big battle scene, late in the film, which allows Spielberg to display the chops he earned on pictures like Jaws and Jurassic Park. The film’s single most ominous moment takes place in the bombed-out ruins of a French town, as the soldiers kill time waiting for the arrival of German troops. Of course, we hear the approach of the tanks before we see them, a dreadful, faceless rumble that owes as much to Spielberg’s experience with Tyrranosaurus Rex as to any insight into the art of war.
The only disappointment, then, is with the film’s extended midsection, which leans heavily on a slightly underwritten screenplay and consequently drifts into the realm of the banal. The film is carried on the shoulders of able performances by Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns, and especially Jeremy Davies as a translator and journalist who’s never seen combat before. (As the Ryan of the title, Matt Damon is mostly relegated to the periphery.) They make the most of some carefully deployed dialogue that articulates their intellectual struggles (imagine — a big Hollywood summer picture with the courage to depict its characters grappling thematically with the action they’re involved in). Still, their journey across the French countryside seems less epic than perfunctory, as though a certain amount of screen time must be expended just getting them from here to there so they can muse on something new. A long sequence at the middle of the film, having to do with the soldiers’ responsibility toward a captured German, labors mightily to traverse some pretty familiar moral territory. It also sets up a development later in the film that makes perfect narrative sense but smacks of contrivance. And finally, the framing device set in the present day feels like far more of a sop to audiences than the similar (but almost unbearably moving) coda at the end of Schindler’s List.
It’s little transgressions like these that keep Spielberg from making a 100 percent successful “serious” film. (Schindler’s List exhibited an unfortunate urge toward melodrama that broke the otherwise complete spell it had over me.) Undervalued as a genre filmmaker and perhaps overexposed as the standard-bearer of “serious” Hollywood filmmaking, Spielberg’s most vexing feature may be the double-edged hyper-reality that his best tricks bring to bear on historical drama. On the one hand, his recent films deliver a compelling intellectual experience to a wider audience than most “intellectual” filmmakers could dream of, and that’s an admirable agenda for an artist with the resources of all Hollywood at his beck and call. But on the other, he’s so enamored of clever ironies and tidy storytelling that the fuzzy-lined unreality of his “realistic” films speaks in counterpoint to their supposed verisimilitude.
The Hollywood establishment too often values realism above more aesthetic virtues, and so it’s no surprise that a terrific movie about the Holocaust, or about the experience of soldiers fighting in the Second World War, commands their tears, and thus their respect, in a way that Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kindcould never quite manage. I don’t mean to knock Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, both of which verge on greatness. But Spielberg seems unable or unwilling to muster the fierce, wholly uncompromised intensity that would take these stories to the next level. I get the feeling that Spielberg’s still-robust sense of wonder sends interfering signals through these “serious” pictures, ultimately blocking the creation of the clear-eyed, unsentimental masterpiece that is so clearly desired. As good and powerful as it is, none of Spielberg’s recent work has spoken quite as personally, or apparently sprung as effortlessly from the core of his being, as those early tales of daring archeologists, little men from outer space, and the great white forces of nature that chill all of us to the very core and demand their own ultimate sacrifice.