No Guts, No Glory
Michael Joshua Rowin on Saving Private Ryan
The last decade-plus of Steven Spielberg’s career has resolutely proven that there is no longer any set definition for “Spielbergian.” Steven Spielberg has for a while been no mere mastermind of blockbuster entertainment, but instead a filmmaker of thrilling and maddening diversity, one able to make The Adventures of Tintin as personal a film as War Horse, Munich, Jurassic Park, Empire of the Sun, and—egad—Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Yet even now to talk about a “Spielbergian” brand of moviemaking or Spielberg himself is still to put into play a host of reductive associations and impressions: for many he is a visionary as much as a calculating businessman, for others a heart-string-tugger as much as chance-taker, and—for almost all, I would venture—the embodiment of the Hollywood juggernaut in both its worst and best aspects and machinations.
I myself have relatively recently come around to appreciating Spielberg. Of course, I grew up on his output, on E.T. and the Indiana Jones films and even—as I got a little older—Schindler’s List. But at a certain point—around the time I decided to become serious about movies—I began to hate Spielberg. He became the exemplar of everything that was syrupy and compromising and escapist—everything that was wrong—about commercial filmmaking. Only in the last several years, and especially after watching for the first time A.I. Artificial Intelligence (a film I had nearly boycotted out of allegiance to Stanley Kubrick) did I reconsider my position. But there are still certain Spielberg films that I cannot abide, that continually remind me that there was indeed something substantive to my once unmitigated antipathy toward everything “Spielbergian.” One of those films is Saving Private Ryan.
Despite the enormous attention it received at the time of its release in 1998, on its own Ryan is finally a forgettable war movie and prestige picture. If anything from Saving Private Ryan endures in the collective consciousness, it’s the overwhelmingly chaotic and graphic recreation of D-Day. When Ryan first hit theaters, discussion of Spielberg’s success at raising the bar for cinematic depictions of combat drowned out nearly all other issues related to the film; as a macabre compliment to its unprecedented ultrarealism, many veterans were reported to have re-experienced psychological trauma while watching the 24-minute D-Day sequence that is the pinnacle of that ultra-realism. Yet a decade and a half later this sequence invites serious skepticism. In many ways it works as an expertly and powerfully accomplished short film: the constantly moving and unflinching documentary-style handheld camerawork; the flawlessly executed and intricately choreographed large-scale mayhem; the searing, unforgettable surreal details amidst the major movements of the invasion (blood splashing on the camera lens, a soldier holding with one arm the other that has just been torn off, dead fish floating to the surface of an ocean littered with human corpses). But there are three aspects of this scene that stand out as egregious aesthetic choices, each of which serve as a telling example of how Saving Private Ryan as a whole resorts to the very clichés and indulgences of the war movie genre it pretends to have transcended.
The first problem is that the scene twice employs cheap irony to drive home how unfair and unsparing war can be. Throughout, bodies are decimated by explosions, bullets, and immolating fires. But as if the viewer couldn’t grasp from these brutal portrayals that the modern battlefield is a haphazard slaughterhouse, the film offers a couple of occasions in which a miraculously saved life is taken only moments later. This initially occurs when Giovanni Ribisi’s medic stabilizes a fallen comrade who then immediately gets shot in the head. Soon thereafter another soldier’s helmet obstructs a headshot, but when he takes off the gear to marvel at his luck he receives a bullet to the same area of his body, now unshielded. On their own these similar events take up barely two minutes of screen time, but they smack of—pardon the term—overkill, unintentional and ill-fitting pieces of slapstick bluntly highlighting the vagaries of fate in combat. They are the first signs that Saving Private Ryan will not only persuade its audience to think and feel, but also cover every base, no matter how manipulated, in doing so.
The second problem is that almost from the beginning of the sequence we follow a single soldier, John H. Miller, through the hell of Omaha Beach. Miller is played by Tom Hanks, and by experiencing events through his eyes we’re offered relative security: all those bullets and bombs are meant for unrecognizable extras, not one of the world’s most likeable and bankable movie stars. Just after the landing of American troops on the beach, Spielberg dramatically decreases the sound accompanying shots from the point of view of a psychologically paralyzed Miller—the idea is to evoke a soldier’s temporary breakdown from shell shock, but despite this interlude our identification with Miller simply provides a safe haven from horrors happening to characters we never have to know or care about. The D-Day sequence—as well as the entire film—intends to evoke the frightening, intense, and disorienting madness of war; but how much more successful it might have been had Ryan depicted the invasion without giving a hint of which soldiers—all played by unknowns—will meet what fate, or perhaps had introduced us to a platoon comprised of familiar actors and yet allowed them to indiscriminately live or die.
The third problem lies at the heart of what Ryan purports to be, and do. With the film Spielberg assumes that visceral verisimilitude possesses inherent truth-value. This is nowhere more evident than in the D-Day sequence, which intends to impart to its audience not a vicarious sense of what the event looked and felt like, but a precise facsimile. And it does so with such realistic style and detail that it implicitly sets the standard for depictions of its subject. In the wake of Ryan, realism ceased to be an aesthetic choice or strategy among countless others that might be employed to cinematically portray war; it became a de facto principle, an attitude taken for granted as the obviously correct one for approaching said material. (It’s interesting that in the Spielberg oeuvre Ryan should be followed by A.I. and its critique of mankind’s desire for perfect technological verisimilitude.) I could be overstating Ryan’s influence on cinema, but it seems that ever since its release Hollywood has portrayed war in particular and violence in general exclusively via ultra-realistic means and methods. Ryan seems to have spurred everyone from Ridley Scott to Mel Gibson to Quentin Tarantino, the last of whom credits the film as a direct inspiration, to up their game in executing ultra-realistic styles (released the same year as Ryan, Terrence Malick’s impressionistic, WWII–set The Thin Red Line has produced virtually no cinematic heirs, at least not at the multiplex). Yet since Spielberg has nothing new or significant to say about the meaning of war—its social causes and contexts, its political origins and consequences—ultrarealism becomes for him a mere decoration, a pose, a fetish object by which he promotes his own technical virtuosity.
By attending to war movie expectations with almost painful and conservative earnestness, the rest of Ryan—everything after the D-Day invasion—neatly demonstrates such aesthetic hollowness. Moving deep into France to pull James Ryan (Matt Damon, whose immaculate pearly whites contrast unconvincingly with the film’s pretentious wallow in blood and grime) out of combat so he can avoid the same battlefield death of his three brothers, Miller’s platoon is comprised of a multicultural variety pack of soldiers, each possessing one or two personality traits: the pious Southern sharpshooter (Barry Pepper), the brash yet sensitive Italian (Vin Diesel), the Nazi-hating/fearing Jew (Adam Goldberg). We are all united, Ryan blandly suggests. A quasi-picaresque structure, meanwhile, imparts valuable lessons about war, such as: Never Disobey Orders (Diesel dies when he goes against Hanks’s command and tries to save a little French girl); Nice People Die (Ribisi snuffs it the day after an emotional soliloquy about his mother); Cowards Make Bad Soldiers (Jeremy Davies’s preposterously klutzy, sputtering, and inept translator puts the troops’ lives in danger); and The Craziness of War Can Make Even Allies Enemies (Edward Burns and Tom Sizemore almost come to blows, but are reconciled by a stirring personal revelation by Hanks). Aside for the question surrounding the fairness of sacrificing an entire platoon to rescue just one man, the biggest dilemma pondered in Robert Rodat’s script concerns the treatment of POWs. The answer is narratively idiotic and politically offensive: Hanks decides to let a captured German go (blindfolded, and hopefully toward another American troop; this platoon cannot take on prisoners) against the misgivings of some of his troops, only to have the same German come back to kill him at film’s climax. Damn the Geneva Conventions, implies Ryan, as every eye in the theater clouds over for capital-lettered concepts of patriotism: Valor, Honor, Courage, and Sacrifice.
There exist images in Ryan that truly trouble and disturb convention: the shooting of two surrendering Germans at Normandy—succeeded by their American killers’ joking laughter—and the death of Goldberg, excruciatingly fighting for life as a German places a knife in his heart with glacial menace. (The latter I take as a Holocaust metaphor—Goldberg perishes while Davies stands idly by). But mostly the film sells the same comfortable nostalgia as Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation (published the same year as Ryan), with the abovementioned ultra-realistic violence to remind audiences that The Last Good War was actually a war. The film ends on an elderly Ryan crying in the Normandy American Cemetery, asking his wife if he’s “earned” the life that was granted him by the deaths of all those men. But for those unmoved by billowing American flags and inundating John Williams scores, there remains a feeling that Saving Private Ryan hasn’t earned anything complex or compelling amidst its cheap appeals to national pride and military heroism.
Even when Ryan and Greatest Generation mania was in full swing dissenters voiced their misgivings with the film, and perhaps the most famous argument against Ryan at the time came from legendary scriptwriter William Goldman. I remember reading his article and feeling a sense of camaraderie—while everyone else was unthinkingly lapping up Ryan’s sanctimoniousness, Goldman was deflating hallowed scenes like the opening cemetery tour by deeming it “The Man With the Big-Boobed Girls.” (Talk about Band of Brothers—as a 19-year-old I thought I had been the sole horndog paying more attention to the elderly Ryan’s stacked granddaughters than the solemn proceedings). It’s interesting now to look back on Goldman’s article and see where he was dead-on and where he might have overstated his case. Particularly interesting are his premonitions about Spielberg’s career. At the end of his takedown, Goldman fears for Spielberg’s future in light of his increasing propensity to manufacture movies as awards bait; in the process the screenwriter makes a couple of predictions about, and passes harsh judgment on, The World’s Greatest Director:
What to say about Spielberg at this stage of his career? He will win his second Oscar for this work, and probably a third when he finds another “importante” subject to hide behind. . . . I have never met him, never been in a room with him, but no person can come so far in such a killingly competitive business without having a reservoir of anger and rage and darkness hiding in there somewhere. I just wish once he would let it show.
Goldman was dead wrong: in the decade following Ryan Spielberg sought no comfortable topicality to mine for Oscar gold, but instead fully expressed his “anger and rage and darkness” in a run of strange, disturbing, and challenging films (excepting The Terminal): A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, War of the Worlds, Munich. There had of course been darkness and risk in Spielberg before; but what led him into such unprecedented territory—on which he thoroughly questioned societal conventions, national allegiances, technological advancements, and ideological certainties—is difficult to surmise. Whatever there is of such courageousness and innovation in Ryan exists only on the surface, in the cinematographic lip service to guerilla filmmaking and choreographed virtuosity meant to merely inspire awe for stunning life-likeness. Deeper and more profound reasons for Spielberg to direct movies would arrive not long after Ryan, yet a hundred artistic and philosophical light-years from it.