Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns

One of the cliches of Oscar history is the lament that the awards for 1998 passed over Saving Private Ryan in favor of Shakespeare in Love. “Passed over” is a little strong, seeing as Private Ryan racked up wins for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Film Editing, and swept the Sound categories. Tom Hanks, whose acting performances in the ’90s (PhiladelphiaForrest GumpApollo 13, and Saving Private Ryan) are like the acting equivalent of Kubrick’s four-peat ’60s, failed to pick up a third Best Actor award within the decade, and of course (one of) the Elizabethan period piece(s from 1998) won Best Picture and not the World War II epic. Merely from a factual point of view, Private Ryan was richly awarded, winning five Oscars in primarily technical categories. Janusz Kaminski’s win for Cinematography is an especially deserved award, because this is a film That dominance in technical categories is not typically the realm of the prestige drama, although admittedly Private Ryan is not your typical prestige drama. (The only other example that leaps to mind isThe Hurt Locker, in many ways a close parallel to Saving Private Ryan. It did much the same thing for 2009, only it yielded Cinematography to Avatar but picked up Original Screenplay.)

Is it a better movie than Shakespeare in Love? I dunno. Shakespeare in Love is every bit as corny as Saving Private Ryan, but at least I’ve had the thought, “I could stand to see Shakespeare in Love again.” I could barely get through Saving Private Ryan, a mess of posturing and empty dialogue and predictable, undramatic encounters, a homosocial algebra problem with right answers you can check your work for.

There are two good sequences in Saving Private Ryan, and both of them are combat scenes. The scene at Omaha beach is a little heavy on people screaming for their mothers, as if anyone could be moved by the sight of someone acting their fake entrails off, but the camera is right. I’ve never enjoyed the shaky camera – films can be realistic with a camera on a tripod, too – but in Saving Private Ryan Kaminski and Spielberg hit on the right level to make the scene work. It’s not trying to make you feel like you’re there (whatever Spielberg has said to the contrary), as it does in Cloverfield or, sometimes, in The Hurt Locker. It’s evincing chaos, and the camera knows how much to evince while still telling a coherent story of the people pinned down under fire on Omaha. It’s an introduction to our characters; Captain Miller (Hanks) is in charge, leaning on Sergeant Horvath (Sizemore) to keep the i’s dotted. Jackson (Barry Pepper) is the sniper who has Psalm 144 memorized and rattles that off while he’s shooting people; apparently, when Jackson saw Pulp Fiction, he skipped the part at the end where Jules explains that “Ezekiel 25:17” wasn’t just a cool thing to say, but actually meant something. Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) is the medic. Reiben (Burns) and Mellish (Adam Goldberg) and Caparzo (Vin Diesel) shoot people. This basic group comes together to eliminate significant German resistance and make it safe for more men and materiel to land on the beach. They are diverse, maybe a little too self-consciously diverse, and as cocky as we’ve all been led to believe American Men were back in the ’40s, when the cigarettes were cigarettes and women were disposable.

Saving Private Ryan puts its cards on the table early on the film. This is a just cause, and Americans play fair; they refuse to shoot a German who surrenders, even though he’s responsible for killing some of their number later on. (When he surrenders a second time, it’s the most cowardly member of the American company who shoots him down, even though he was too scared to help his companions earlier.) It’s sort of like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in that way (except with the English), watching Clive Candy standing tall upon a trench, exulting in the fact that despite the dirty tricks the Jerries used, the Allies still came out on top. There are two key differences between Colonel Blimp and Private Ryan for this comparison. First, Colonel Blimp tells the story of a man’s entire adult life, much of which is based in peacetime, where Private Ryan takes a week or so from the climactic moments on the Western Front in World War II; in the former, there’s time for Roger Livesey’s character to be a fleshed-out human being in a way that there isn’t time to know anything important about Tom Hanks’. One of those characters speaks bombastically but characteristically; the other is a bad Hemingway caricature whose silence is glory. Second, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp active wonders if it’s possible to “fight fair” and win a war; the film was released in 1943 and is really concerned about the outlook of World War II. More than one character is actually really pessimistic about what “fair fighting” can do against the Nazis. Saving Private Ryan, released fifty-three years after the end of World War II, stands on that trench (in whatever movie studio the Archers were using at the time, probably) and crows that America did it right. We won the war against the bad guys, and we were the good ones all the way through, as if Americans somehow managed to go through four years of the most all-encompassing war in human history without committing a single war crime. It’s curious – and dispiriting, frankly – that a film made in 1943, without the benefit of hindsight or historical study, can be so much more insightful about its own time than the film which has thousands of resources to draw on. How childish Saving Private Ryan is, and to so little gain.

Paths of Glory is another war movie which gives the lie to Saving Private Ryan’s hypotheses. Colonel Blimp largely avoids the tedious televangelist moralizing that Private Ryan indulges in regarding soldiery and war; even when it indulges itself, Colonel Blimp problematizes Candy’s monologue later on. Similarly, Paths of Glory and Saving Private Ryan are interested in a like problem: how do we cope with the fact that war does not discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving? Saving Private Ryan makes this question the basis for much of its last hour. Once Miller’s unit finds Private Ryan (Damon), they discover that he’s not willing to leave the bridge he’s defending. (Private Ryan, like James T. Kirk, is from Iowa, where the real Americans, presumably, are from.) It is a key to the Allied conquest of Normandy and his fellows have orders to fight for it to the last man. I don’t deserve to leave, Ryan says. I don’t deserve to go home any more than any of these men. After the second good sequence of the film – a long one, genuinely tense twenty minutes which follows Miller’s men and their new paratrooper friends as they fight off German infantry and tanks for the bridge – Miller sits dying on the bridge. “James, earn this,” he tells Ryan, one of the few Americans to hold out long enough for American fighters to end the German assault. “Earn it.” We understand, thanks to an aggressively schmaltzy scene at the end, that Ryan has spent his life trying to earn this special dispensation.

Paths of Glory also considers what it means to be undeserving in war, but from the opposite direction. Three men are chosen to die for the supposed sins of their comrades (although, of course, it is the sins of their leaders which precipitate the violence). Die they do, even though none of them is deserving by the standards of war. One of them has been frequently cited for bravery; one of them has shown his bravery earlier in the film; one of them is a member of an entire battalion that failed to rise from their trench to join in an attack. Saving Private Ryan has this very Protestant vision of war: you may not be deserving of life, but you are obligated to make the most of your life in honor of those who died. Paths of Glory has a much more realistic one, and it rings true: you may not be deserving life nor death, but who cares? Saving Private Ryan turns war into a way to mete out justice, which war emphatically is not. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who knew much more about war than Steven Spielberg or Robert Rodat, said that “war means killing.” Just causes – especially when the just cause makes as a prerequisite the deaths of vast numbers of people  who might otherwise die natural deaths – are for propagandists, not soldiers. Paths of Glory makes the most graphic and transparent example of killing into the most remarkable miscarriage of justice in a movie that’s filled with them. It’s a shame – though quintessentially Spielberg – to focus on creating incredible verisimilitude for the action sequences while layering in utter fantasy everywhere else. If Saving Private Ryan is so “true,” then why are its three hours so transparent that you can see the wires?

If there’s a moral worth taking from Saving Private Ryan, it’s that a great number of sins can be covered up by a good screenwriter. Robert Rodat’s screenplay might literally be the worst one to ever be nominated for an Academy Award. The moments that are meant to be memorable are forgettable, the worst lines are the ones that stick with you, and the best parts of the movie drown out the voices of participants with the roar of gunfire or the squeals of tank treads. There’s a speech that Tom Sizemore gives to someone not long before the panzers close in on the bridge. It’s supposed to be meaningful; I can tell because of its placement in the film, and because Horvath hasn’t said too too much, and because the camera looks up at him, and because the music does a thing. When I say that it’s a speech that Tom Sizemore “gives to someone,” I mean it: I have no memory of who he’s talking to, and I have no memory of what he says. It’s such cynical filmmaking; it knows I know where the important moments are, and it lazily wants me to feel the feeling I’ve had before rather than giving me a good reason to do so.

I can watch propaganda with the best of them, I think; all I ask is for my propaganda to be good.

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