Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and the Critics

I have no doubt that if these two movies had come out in 2018 instead of 1998, the Discourse would have reached absolutely incandescent levels. As it is, one can tell from reading the old reviews that the Discourse, analog and slow as it was in 1998, was lit.

You know it’s bad when the critics are all coming out of the woodwork to talk about the other critics. David Sterritt led his review of The Thin Red Line with the results of the New York Film Critics Circle: Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture, Terrence Malick for Best Director. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of The Thin Red Line begins with the story of how Out of Sight won Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics: they were split on the World War II movies. Charles Taylor, waits until the end to get to the part where he talks about his fellow critics, but when he does, he certainly lets them have it:

As misguided as I think those reviews are, I understand where they’re coming from. Read between the lines and you can see movie critics wondering if their job is still worth doing in a time when studio execs, not filmmakers, rule. It’s as if by creating a swelling chorus of praise for Terrence Malick, they believe they can bring back the glory days of American movies of the ’70s when, at good movies and bad, the constant seemed to be that audiences were treated like adults, and it wasn’t assumed they would reject the unfamiliar or the unresolved. And there seems to be an unspoken fear that if “The Thin Red Line” fails without any support, the studios will use it as an excuse to quash other chancy projects and feed us more of the same pap.

This strikes me as a bizarre critique on a few levels (most of all the self-importance, as if professional critics have the last word on anything in the movie biz) but you can hear the frustration. You can smell the savor of a viral thread in the air in this paragraph like you can smell the coming of a thunderstorm. Taylor is hardly the only person who lays down some takes on one movie or another, and in the present day there would be a thousand of him and a thousand opponents finding something to be outraged about in both pictures, doing the La La Land and the Three Billboards and the Nomadland backlash. (I’m kidding about the last one. We’re sophisticated enough to have questions about depictions of race in movies these days, but poverty still really stumps our critics and professional tweetsmiths.) Maybe it would have been the reading of the Melanesian as noble savages in The Thin Red Line, or maybe Fox News would get involved in some way. Maybe Steven Spielberg would say something in an interview like “Of course, every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie.” I mean, I can’t imagine him saying those exact words or anything, but hey, who knows. All I can say is that in the present, this would be an enormously meaty issue for the Discourse’s slightly more articulate and far more incessant little brother, Content.

I’ll be rewatching both movies soon for an episode of Sub Titles, and as someone who has strong opinions about both movies after the initial viewings, I wanted to go back in time a little bit to see what the critics made of the pictures. (In other words, I’m doing this because I’m as addicted to the Discourse as the next guy, and I didn’t want to overwhelm an episode of a podcast with stuff that doesn’t really have to do with the movies.) It is more or less what you’d expect, although, in the spirit of the ’90s, there’s a willingness to recognize both movies as at least very good, even if Saving Private Ryan has the better notices overall. If Saving Private Ryan is an A or A+ movie for the average critic out there, then The Thin Red Line is a B or B+. If there’s outright competition between the movies for the average critic, it’s sublimated in the reviews a little bit, mostly noticing that it’s interesting the two came out so close to one another and then lodging a preference for one or the other.

That Saving Private Ryan beat The Thin Red Line to theaters by five months (and more, for the average moviegoer who didn’t get it until it went wide in January) is important, and while it’s unknowable how things might have gone differently in terms of critical appraisal if those dates had swapped, I do think that it’s worth noting this sequence. Those reviews of Saving Private Ryan are about Saving Private Ryan; several reviews of The Thin Red Line are about The Thin Red Line but also about how it compares, positively or negatively, to Saving Private Ryan. Because it got there first, Saving Private Ryan is a sort of benchmark for the late 20th Century WWII movie for these reviewers, a statement of possibility of what it can be and a statement of quality for what it should be. That The Thin Red Line fails to meet those benchmarks (or, indeed, recognizes that those benchmarks might even be in place) is an issue for a number of critics, although no one puts it quite in those terms. Nor does The Thin Red Line even try to meet the benchmarks that other war movies have set down. I think if Malick had gotten that movie out in ’95 or ’96, we would be able to read criticism of how the movie is less focused than a Battleground, The Guns of Navarone, or They Were Expendable, but instead we’re treated to how formless it is compared to the tight plot of Saving Private Ryan. Sean Gondert, writing well after the fact, notes wisely that not only does Thin Red Line ignore the good guys-bad guys formulation of many war movies, but even ignores the rules of “traditional storytelling undercut by their directors’ [Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Sam Fuller] cynicism and distaste for war.”

Many reviews also note that this is the first directorial effort from Malick in two full decades, and those expectations, or hopes, of what he might put out are in the reviews too. Taylor and Manohla Dargis were both down on Malick—like Taylor’s aforementioned review, Dargis’ review goes out of its way to look for reasons that Malick’s work receives the praise which is baffling to her—and both of them look back at Thin Red Line through the prism of Badlands and Days of Heaven. David Edelstein also has the previous Malicks on the brain, and compares the “Pynchonesque” Malick to the much more accessible and ever so much more present Spielberg. (Edelstein’s review is pretty interesting, especially if you’re one of that rare species, a Malick agnostic. His admiration for the movie’s attempt to think about this idea of war being hell beyond the porridge of blood and guts is countered with his frustration with the airy voiceovers. “Whether or not these pearllike epiphanies are strung is another matter,” he muses.) On the other hand, you have someone like Roger Ebert, who is up front about his enormous admiration for the first two Malicks. He longs for the focus that those two movies have; it’s worth noting that you could watch Badlands and Days of Heaven back to back, and it would take you like, twenty minutes longer to do that than watch The Thin Red Line.

Over and over again, you read reviews which talk about the hell of the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan. William Goldman’s sardonic, critical review of the film is neither of those things about the initial twenty-four minutes of D-Day: “Fabulous, brilliant, extraordinary, whatever you want…it goes pulverizingly on and on.” This, even after leading with a pretend interview in which he makes fun of the way that people won’t shut up about how violent the movie is. Todd McCarthy’s very positive review notes, “Nonstop action lasts 24 minutes, and every one of them is infinitely more intense than anything in the standard work on D-Day, The Longest Day.” Richard Schickel refers to it as “quite possibly the greatest combat sequence ever made.” Rex Reed: “the most overwhelming and agonizing half-hour I have ever spent in a theater.” Michael O’Sullivan says that the “near flawlessness of the…lyrical, scorching start” of the movie basically negates the occasionally meh stuff that follows. (O’Sullivan, as Rosenbaum notes in a different context in his column, is interesting because he’s one of the rare people who seems capable of giving both reviews pretty similarly good reviews, like Saving Private Ryan is an A+ and Thin Red Line is an A. In other words, although he’s not my favorite critic of the group I surveyed, he is among those I find most interesting in this context. You can find similar takes, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, from Keith Phipps, who ranked Saving Private Ryan fifth and Thin Red Line third on a list of war films for Vulture. And while we’re still in this parenthetical, I cannot find Stanley Kauffmann’s reviews of either one of these movies hanging around, which is too bad, because to the best of my knowledge both of them are negative and I am dying to know how he got there.) In the moment, the praise for that long sequence is basically universal, although that praise is, as Goldman noted, primarily about the violence. Only Janet Maslin—one of the rare women critics I could dig up for this activity—looks at the D-Day sequence primarily as something cinematic as opposed to seeing it primarily as bloody spectacle. She is interested in the movement of the camera, the sound design, Tom Hanks’ acting. I’d almost forgotten you could read the movie that way.

This discussion of whether we foreground the first half-hour of the movie or give more weight to the other 140 minutes or so of the picture is not that different from what suffuses the kind of conversations I have with other people about this movie. Talk to enough folks, or even read enough reviews, and you could get the impression that this is a half-hour short film instead of a relatively lengthy feature. Last summer, there was one of those tweet prompts running around which asked what the best first scene in a movie was, and so many people picked Saving Private Ryan, and then so many people responded, “You mean the scene in the cemetery with the old guy, or do you mean the second scene of the movie on D-Day?” I think that impression is so stark for many viewers, including the ones who get paid to do so, that it basically replaces a scene that I’ve never actually seen praised in any outlet. I don’t think there’s anything that strange about a prologue getting swept away by an early action sequence, but maybe there’s some matter there; it’s possible that a great deal of the movie is swept away for people who grew up on The Longest Day or Sergeant York or something, and never dreamed that there could be more bloodshed in a scene than those have. The way the critics talk about it, it’s like you’re hearing the initial reaction to the voyeuristic violence of Psycho or Bonnie and Clyde all over again, only it has to do with war movies instead of crime. It’s a way to suggest importance, which is to say a way to diminish a discussion of quality. (That link to the podcast up there is predicated on using the 2007 AFI list as a portal to talk about other movies…I have had to suffer through thoughts about the “importance” of movies more doing that podcast than I have at any point since I was saying there were “movies” and “films” as a twenty-year-old.)

I don’t think there’s any one element about The Thin Red Line that receives the kind of focus that the D-Day stuff does in the Saving Private Ryan reviews, although what is most frequently written in these tends to annoy me a little bit. You can find Rosenbaum, Dargis, Edelstein, and J. Hoberman comparing Guadalcanal to Eden and, implicitly, the battle there to the fall, although it’s a metaphor that seems to appeal to people whose pretensions are more literary than religious. (The idea of Eden is that the residents of the place have done something to deserve getting kicked out; what have the Melanesians done to deserve this war?) There’s a concern that you can find in some of these reviews which gets into the way that the voiceover narration doesn’t sound like soldiers so much as it sounds like Malick. I’m sort of sympathetic, I guess, but I hope they’re just as upset that Darl Lundren sounds less like an uneducated Mississippian and more like Faulkner. This gets back to the expectations business too, I think; we want an earthiness from our World War II soldiers. We left Wilfred Owen dead for a reason, and who turns up their nose at the butterfly at the end of Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front? But World War II soldiers are Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, William Holden, John Wayne.

When you read writing from that world after Vietnam but before 9/11 and the forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there’s a vibrant and crimson thread, a little rough to the touch, that you can see in it. Here’s some from a guy who was emphatically not a critic, Charles Krauthammer: “This is not a movie about glory. It is, as The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter has elegantly elaborated, a movie about duty. And in duty there can be glory.” Krauthammer is punching right in this article (seriously, guys, it was a different time), and explicitly appears to have been teed off by John Podhoretz’s review of Saving Private Ryan in the Weekly Standard. I cannot believe that I am like, litigating who has the better perspective between these two dudes, but I don’t think that Krauthammer is all that fair to Podhoretz’s review. Podhoretz makes the case that “Spielberg takes World War II and, in the interest of paying tribute to the almost unimaginable sacrifices made by those who fought it, minimizes the war beyond recognition.” His issue is that none of the people seem all that real, and like the murdered of Schindler’s List, the shock value of the fallen is minimized. “The same is true in Saving Private Ryan. Hundreds die on screen, but they’re just extras,” Podhoretz says. “We just watch them die, and if their guts weren’t hanging out, we wouldn’t respond at all.” (That idea of “beyond recognition” is in Rosenbaum’s review of the idea as well, although sort of flipped on its head as recognizing everything: “And what he’s learned turns out to be something for everyone rather than a single vision: war is hell, war is absurd, war is necessary, war is unnecessary, war is uplifting, war is depressing, war is a lesson in morality, war is a lesson in immorality, and so on.”)

Anyway, where Krauthammer takes that is to talk about how you see in Spielberg’s film the depiction of dutiful men, which is not really what Podhoretz is on about. Even if there’s not much flag-waving in the picture, or much discussion of what principles they’re supposed to be fighting for, there is a sense that these men are doing what they have to do, and that they do it because they are doing their duty in a just war. I think the further away we get from this movie, the more we find that idea percolating in the heads of the people writing about it. Phipps praises Saving Private Ryan because it “never questions the importance of the fight…and emerges as a stirring tribute to those who died saving the world in which we now live.” Writing for the Atlantic, John Biguenet says a lot of words to basically get to the conclusion that Saving Private Ryan is asking, “What is our responsibility to those who have gone before us?” (I’m making fun, but it’s worth noting that Biguenet is grappling with the old Ryan stuff with a seriousness that very few professional critics seem to ascribe to it.) Writing very dubiously for Reverse Shot, Michael Joshua Rowin calls out the earnestness of the scene where an older Ryan asks if he “earned” it, if he lived a good enough life, if he’s a good enough man, although unlike Phipps and Biguenet he finds the movie’s attempt to grapple with that question of duty, whether to one’s brothers-in-arms or to one’s past, unconvincing. 

There are some overtones to that idea of duty in the actual film reviews from the time, too. Reed and Sterritt both note the way that Hanks’ Miller has to work out ways to justify the mission over the lives of his men.  And for the most part, most film critics generally go with Ken Masugi of the Ashbrook Center:

He asks his wife whether he is a good man. Uncomprehending, she nonetheless reassures him. Are we worthy successors of our Founding Fathers and of those who “gave the last full measure of devotion”? Do we deserve to be linked over the generations with them? These are the questions the film poses to us at its end.

The action involved in the saving of Private Ryan symbolizes what national salvation requires: We must be good.

Whether or not most of these critics would find themselves on the same political wavelength as Masugi is its own question—this Ashbrook Center is named for Representative John Ashbrook, who went down in history for finding Nixon insufficiently right-wing—but I think the basic idea that “we must be good” tacitly underpins the praise for Saving Private Ryan. What we’re supposed to do with POWs is essential to the plot of Saving Private Ryan. The German soldier the squad lets go comes back to personally shoot Tom Hanks, but there’s also some mention made of the Americans who shoot down German soldiers after they’ve surrendered. That comes up a fair bit. John Hartl brings those killings up in the same paragraph as the dead fish on Normandy Beach. Gary Kamiya sees it as adding to the grittiness of the war as one of the “dark revisionist elements.” Reed calls them “atrocities,” but ends his paragraph by saying “Above all, they are human.” It’s difficult to imagine these people referring to Nazi atrocities with the sort of glibness that they use here, in much the same way that no one ever gets mad about a guy on their own team who commits cheap fouls. Maybe it’s fandom, or maybe it’s the supposition of a just war. The phrase “just war” comes up for the conservatives and is not mentioned much by the critics. A noteworthy exception is in Schickel’s review, where he says that Saving Private Ryan is “a film that more than any other justifies the justness of World War II,” and I guess he’d never seen any movie about the Holocaust? Owen Gleiberman drops a “Good War” in there. (Perhaps more interesting on this front is the connection that Rowin draws in 2012 between Saving Private Ryan and the Boomer-hugging The Greatest Generation.) In any event, the concept of a “just war” is not bandied about much when we read about Saving Private Ryan. For The Thin Red Line, that concept becomes extraordinarily important for some reviewers.

Edelstein is mad about Malick’s basic ambivalence concerning World War II:

I think I’d have an easier time with Malick’s metaphysical speculations if I had a sense of some concomitant geopolitical ones–central to any larger musings on forces of nature as viewed through the prism of war. Couldn’t it be that the German and Japanese fascist orders were profoundly anti-natural, and that the Allies’ cause was part of a violent but natural correction? You don’t have to buy into Spielberg’s Lincolnesque pieties in Saving Private Ryan to believe that there’s a difference between World War II and Vietnam (or, for that matter, World War I and the invasion of Grenada or our spats with Iraq). While he was at Harvard, Malick might have peeled himself off the lap of his pointy-headed mentor, Stanley Cavell, the philosopher and film theorist, and checked out a few of Michael Waltzer’s lectures on just and unjust wars. Maybe then he’d view Guadalcanal not in an absurdist vacuum (the soldiers come, they kill and are killed, they leave) but in the larger context of a war that was among the most rational (in its aims, if not its methods) fought in the last several centuries. For all his visionary filmmaking, Malick’s Zen neutrality sometimes seems like a cultivated–and pretentious–brand of fatuousness.

Dargis makes this a much more central tenet of her argument about the movie, I think, though like Edelstein she ends with it: “Of all the remarkable things about The Thin Red Line, a film at once beautiful and utterly repulsive, the most remarkable is that Terrence Malick has made an amoral movie about one of the most deeply moral moments in modern history.” Others are on this wavelength too, likewise at the end of their reviews: you can see it in Gleiberman, for instance. And then there’s Rosenbaum struggling with this question a little bit too, although I find his search for “particularity” that might have more to do with Guadalcanal more interesting than the sort of moral outrage other critics are feeling. 

Up to a certain point I’m sympathetic to the arguments Edelstein and Dargis (and Gleiberman) are making. My own idealism, morality, call it what you will, occasionally pops its head up when I’m writing about a movie; more than any single element of moviemaking in The Florida Project, for example, I find the assumptions of its premise loathsome, and I’ve used words like “fatuous” and “repulsive” and “amoral” about it before. I also happen to agree that it is better for the history of the human race and the planet itself that the Allies won that war and not the Axis. But there’s also this suggestion in here that there’s something uncomplicated about America’s war history, perhaps even especially uncomplicated about America’s World War II history, and here one can and should raise as many objections as possible. What of the alliance that the United States made with Stalin, years after everyone knew what kind of man he was and what kind of society he’d created? What of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What of Japanese internment camps and the Korematsu case? What of the strength of Jim Crow at home, and the inspiration that Hitler took from it? 

I could go on, but I think what Edelstein and Dargis and Gleiberman are guilty of (and “guilty” is a strong word) is writing while under the influence of the 1990s, when the liberal/centrist position on American wars was “these are basically solid and we were the good guys and sort of tangentially our recent Cold War triumph proves that we were on the right side of history.” (I find the conservative backlash to Saving Private Ryan so fascinating, because the position that “this movie doesn’t glorify America enough” is on one hand sort of true as long as you excise “enough,” and on the other hand it’s not like conservatives are all hanging on tenterhooks waiting for Oliver Stone to deliver another condemnation of American military intervention in Southeast Asia.) There’s a credulity in these rebukes, I think, not because I think they’re ill-reasoned, but because they honestly aren’t all that far off from Krauthammer being a little bothered that the soldiers in Saving Private Ryan don’t glory enough in their accomplishments.

In just a couple years, we’ll have hit the 25th anniversary of both movies. Podcasts will be recorded, retrospectives will be written, and we’ll probably get to rehash this all over again. In the end two things stand out to me. The first is that we (yeah, guilty) are drawn to comparing these two movies to one another instead of comparing them to other World War II movies or other movies from 1998 or whatever other comparisons you like. The second is that, for all the tsuris that I think was being felt by pro critics at the time, that sense that both of these were good movies and that Saving Private Ryan was a little better is pretty plain in most of the reviews. Obviously there are holdouts and dissenters for both, but for the most part, most of these people took a very ’90s position and went for “They’re both good!” This is not necessarily praiseworthy, but so often this is true for the majority of people talking about the big movies of the year or addressing the major trends of the national cinema.

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