For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
I’m gonna warn you. This post is a big one. An epic response to the war epic “Saving Private Ryan.”
The first thing I need to let you know is that most of these clips are not safe for work. In addition, most if not all of this film is not safe for viewing at all.
I really struggle with “Saving Private Ryan.” The film is lopsided and jingoistic. The visuals are well crafted, but manipulative and sentimental, or excessively violent and offensive. I take real issue with the fact that this film was made in 1998, when we had some historical perspective and the ability to look back to World War II with less clouded vision.
But director Steven Spielberg chooses to slap on the rose-colored lens and create this simplified and reductive view of the war. I couldn’t rewatch this film without back up. So I invited my friend Ryan Farney to join me. Afterward we had a conversation about the film, which was fruitful and I will quote from it throughout the post.
Let’s start with Omaha beach. This takes up roughly the first 20% of the film and is what Spielberg uses to introduce the main character, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). Careful folks, this clip is rough. (Sound starts at 5 seconds.)
In the same way that Eli Roth makes torture porn, this is Spielberg crafting war porn. Roth, director of “Hostel”, uses creative violence exacted on poorly or underdeveloped characters in order to give the viewer a cheap sense of catharsis.
Spielberg isn’t trying to give us a sense of catharsis, but is attempting to replace development of story and character with spectacle. Through Omaha beach and even up to the point that Miller is given the task of finding Private Ryan (Matt Damon), we are given almost no character. We do see people react to gunfire and the opposition as they storm the beach, but beyond the G.I. Joe card stats, we know nothing about these people. Ryan makes a strong point concerning this.
“The whole first half hour when their storming Omaha beach, this whole first half hour, it’s beating you over the head. It’s numbing you. It’s jarring, because it doesn’t really set you up for the rest of the film. It’s just sort of left there. Then the characters aren’t really developed until an hour into the film.” –Ryan
My take is similar.
“Spielberg shows us this violence and expects us to get an emotional response, but what I would argue is that what we get is a physical response, a knee jerk reaction, nausea, a headache, because I’m just watching violence happen.” –Trey
I’m not saying that the Omaha Beach scene isn’t a visually stunning technical achievement, but it doesn’t tell us who Miller is, or what’s at stake beyond staying alive. The way one should make a film like “Saving Private Ryan” is to start building the characters in your ensemble cast from the moment the film starts. That’s the only way you’re going to get us to feel anything about them.
There is a scene that I think is a great little moment of visual story telling. This is the moment when the telegrams, notifying Mrs. Ryan of the deaths of three of her four sons, are delivered.
No dialogue, but from the moment the scene starts we know what’s up. The winding drive helps to build tension, until Mrs. Ryan meets the men at the front door. 30 seconds, not 30 minutes, and yet we know exactly what we need to know.
In the next scene, a plan is hatched to go and rescue the remaining son, Private James Ryan.
That is an exceptionally moving quote from Abraham Lincoln, but in a film made post-Vietnam and post-Desert Storm for that matter, where is the quote from Wilfred Owen?
“If the point of the first 30 minutes is that war is senseless, then why is there not more push back against a mission that seems pointless and will most likely lead to more deaths.” –Ryan
And it’s not as though Ryan and I were the only people thinking it. Even Miller’s men question the validity of the mission.
Never does Spielberg offer a legitimately satisfying answer.
The men continue across the French countryside, and they encounter a German machine gun nest. They lose their medic (Giovanni Ribisi), but capture a German soldier.
This moment, in which the American soldiers encounter a moral crossroad, makes for more complicated and real characters. Unfortunately instead of pursuing this and allowing the “Good” guys to become tarnished, Spielberg lets the German soldier go. This sets up the German’s betrayal of our group of American soldiers, because according to the narrative in “Saving Private Ryan” all German soldiers are bad.
“This movie falls into the trap that so many bad war movies fall into which is playing on stereotypes. We have the Americans, who are undoubtedly good, but then every single German soldier that we see in this movie is a cut out, is a caricature. We get no sense of the other side.” –Ryan
We’ve had many war films, which reflect on the moral ambiguity of American soldiers as well as the complex makeup of any adversary we faced on the battlefield. “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “The Thin Red Line,” and “Apocolypse Now” are just a few examples. “Saving Private Ryan” with its overly simplistic, single-minded vision of right and wrong is not relevant in world where people understand the emotional and psychological intricacies of war.
I am not arguing that the “other” side was right, but I’m sure that the individual German soldier was just as caught up in a situation that he couldn’t control as the Americans.
This brings us to a moment where we finally discover something about the Captain.
An hour and a half in is too late to give me character. We should have known more about this person long ago. All we have really seen from him is a dutiful soldier, and a small remembrance of a lost man. That’s it. We know that he keeps to himself and tries to protect his men, but that is all gloss. We needed to know what differentiates this person at the beginning, not towards the end.
There are a number of overly coincidental or lucky breaks that Miller and his men have. One, which is almost laughable, comes as Miller has run out of ways to find Private Ryan and begins yelling in a group of injured soldiers.
I’m not sure if the deaf soldier is intentionally played for comedy, but all I can think of is this.
The other “lucky” moment is straight up deus ex machina. (Sounds starts at 4 seconds.)
All is lost and yet somehow the titular character makes it out alive.
And finally we arrive at the condemnable final bookend, with old Ryan (Harisson Young) at Miller’s grave. (Sound starts at 14 seconds.)
True, and I would go further and say that it doesn’t matter what he’s done. He can’t earn it. He will never earn it. A single man is never worth the lives of numerous other men. We all have a sense that there is an unjust exchange going on and it is a flaw, which should not be ignored.
Brent Jackson suggested that “Saving Private Ryan” is a less cool version of “The Dirty Dozen” with characters we don’t care about. I think he’s right.
Up Next #70 “A Clockwork Orange” (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)