1 Year, 100 Movies #71 Saving Private Ryan 1998

by Trey Hock on September 27, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

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.)

Was I a good man?

“We have no basis on which to answer this question.” -Ryan

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)

1 Year, 100 Movies #72 The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

1 Year, 100 Movies #73 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

1 Year, 100 Movies #74 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

1 Year, 100 Movies #75 In the Heat of the Night (1967)

1 Year, 100 Movies #76 Forrest Gump (1994)

1 Year, 100 Movies #77 All the President’s Men (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #78 Modern Times (1936)

1 Year, 100 Movies #79 The Wild Bunch (1969)

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)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier September 27, 2010 at 10:17 pm

I agree with about half of your views on the film, the germans were a bit caricatured, Private Ryan was not given enough character development or screen time for us to determine whether he was good or not, and there are too many coincidences. But as far as the opening storming of the beach and the slow development of the character’s, I think both were successful. If you found the opening scene too much and if you find it numbing and jarring, then I think Spielberg has got his point across and is viscerally putting you in the war zone yourself. Also leaving the character development until later, you can see the anonymity of the soldier, and the scale of the wasted lives earlier in the film, before hitting the audience with the realization of the humanity behind it all, that every one of those fallen had their own stories and lives back home.

Reply

2 Trey Hock September 28, 2010 at 3:47 am

Xavier, here’s my response.

“I think both were successful. If you found the opening scene too much and if you find it numbing and” jarring, then I think Spielberg has got his point across and is viscerally putting you in the war zone yourself.”

The problem is that no matter how hard Spielberg tries to put me, you or anyone “in the war zone” we are all sitting safely in a climate controlled theatre, drinking soda, and munching popcorn. That is why the best Spielberg can do is catharsis or a physical response, not an emotional one. If someone has an emotional response to this scene, then it is due to their own personal experience, or a desire to sympathize with characters they don’t know, and not because Spielberg has created characters you’re attached to.

“Also leaving the character development until later, you can see the anonymity of the soldier, and the scale of the wasted lives earlier in the film, before hitting the audience with the realization of the humanity behind it all, that every one of those fallen had their own stories and lives back home.”

Or you could just create a situation where I don’t know who to focus on, so I stop caring about anyone that crosses the screen.

I’m glad that you enjoyed parts of this film, but it sounds like you were willing to overlook some major flaws with the storytelling. Leaving out character until later, and relying on spectacle instead of character and story development were mistakes.

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3 Xavier September 28, 2010 at 6:04 am

You’re right I am willing to overlook certain aspects of the film, a physical response is probably the best he could do to affect people in their seats with their sodas, and I saw the slow, postponed character development as a positive, I must admit that a lot of the character’s deaths didn’t hit me with the emotional impact they should have, and Tom Hanks’ character was one of the few I really cared about, but I didn’t feel I couldn’t tell who to focus on. Now whether it belongs on the 100 best american movies of all time is a different matter altogether and I would have to answer no.

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4 Streams of Whiskey September 28, 2010 at 8:28 am

Solid review. I have now seen this movie twice, and while it held my attention each time (Spielberg can definitely keep a story moving, even in his weaker efforts), I probably don’t need to see it again. I just don’t think it has aged well. The first 30 minutes or so of violence is compelling, but I don’t think it’s as effective as it could have been with a little more character development. Using excessive, shocking violence is always a risky proposition, anyway. It can be extremely effective– here I’m thinking of Tarantino, but there are others– but it can also detract. I’m still not sure what it does in this film.

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5 Streams of Whiskey September 28, 2010 at 8:35 am

I forgot to add my customary bit of useless trivia to the comments: I believe, without looking it up, that this is the first film to feature both Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi, who would collaborate again in 2000′s underappreciated “Boiler Room.” Perhaps not as dynamic a duo (or trivia question) as Corey Haim and Corey Feldman (can you name all three movies where the Coreys appeared together?), but still…

Oh, and total deus ex machina at the end of Private Ryan.

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6 You know who I am. September 28, 2010 at 9:06 am

Did you also mention, or did I read too fast, that the ending is the exact same as Schindler’s List? In other words, Spielberg is atrocious in his need to ring out the exact emotional response that he assigns: watching late Spielberg is like going to a 1st grade class with an ignorant teacher. He has all the ambiguity of a mechanical shark that will not swim.

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7 dbmurray September 28, 2010 at 10:15 pm

The opening scene is visually gripping and memorable. If Spielberg had beat that drum for the entire movie, I’d call it violence for the sake of pure shock value, but he dialed it back after he accomplished what he set out to do. Omaha in real life must have been every bit as shocking to someone on the ground as what was portrayed in that opening scene.

The underdevelopment of Private Ryan as a character is the film’s biggest flaw. I wish we’d seen him introduced early on. Some might argue that the story focuses on the characters played by Hanks, Pepper, etc., which is true, but Ryan is in the title of the film.

The premise of the story is a bit far-fetched, but not beyond the realm of possibility. In war, it’s typical for men to question their orders, and orders often don’t make sense. It’s not out of the question that propagandists back home would be willing to risk the lives of several men to save one just for the PR value, though I don’t remember the PR value of such a rescue being emphasized in the film.

I don’t care at all that it’s “jingoistic.” That has become a knee-jerk word to describe any movie that is the least bit pro-USA or patriotic. Yeah, it’s all mom and apple pie at the end, but I don’t think it would have been a better movie had everyone died trying to rescue Private Ryan, and ended with every American looking like an idiot. (Yes, I’m thinking about films like _Inglourious Basterds_).

We have entered a few wars in more recent decades with less than honorable motives, but I have no doubt we were the good guys in WWII.

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8 Trey Hock September 29, 2010 at 2:00 pm

DBMurray,

Here’s my detailed response.

“The opening scene is visually gripping and memorable. If Spielberg had beat that drum for the entire movie, I’d call it violence for the sake of pure shock value, but he dialed it back after he accomplished what he set out to do.”

You’re right it was visually gripping and memorable, but so is a gruesome car crash. I never said that Spielberg used the scene for shock value. What I said is that he uses the scene in place of development of our main characters. I do think it is vulgar, gratuitous, and doesn’t serve the story well. And no he doesn’t ever really dial his violence back. I could have put up close to an hour’s worth of exceptionally violent footage. That’s roughly a third of the movie.

“Omaha in real life must have been every bit as shocking to someone on the ground as what was portrayed in that opening scene.”

Wrong. Real Omaha Beach would have been worse, and that’s my point. You can’t get to theatre goers with bullets, but you can get to them through solid characters, which Spielberg never fully develops.

“The premise of the story is a bit far-fetched, but not beyond the realm of possibility. In war, it’s typical for men to question their orders, and orders often don’t make sense. It’s not out of the question that propagandists back home would be willing to risk the lives of several men to save one just for the PR value, though I don’t remember the PR value of such a rescue being emphasized in the film.”

Perhaps, though you are arguing outside of the film at this point. If you have to make up portions of narrative, such as your PR fix, then it points to a flaw in the actual story.

“I don’t care at all that it’s “jingoistic.” That has become a knee-jerk word to describe any movie that is the least bit pro-USA or patriotic. Yeah, it’s all mom and apple pie at the end, but I don’t think it would have been a better movie had everyone died trying to rescue Private Ryan, and ended with every American looking like an idiot”

I’m sorry, but I do write and edit these posts and understand what jingoistic means. Perhaps you should check out my review of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a film that I found thorougly enjoyable and one that is more overtly patriotic than “Private Ryan.”

http://www.scene-stealers.com/blogs/1-year-100-movies-98-yankee-doodle-dandy-1942/

I am not arguing pro or con WWII, or pro or con America. I am critiquing a work of fiction and a work of art. I don’t believe the characters on either side of the story of “Saving Private Ryan” were believable or sufficiently complex. 6 of the 8 original group members die by the end, so I’m not arguing death count. The characters were never real enough for me to care much one way or the other. I’m not asking for all the Americans to be bad guys, but if one or two act out of anger in a way that changes the story, then that makes the movie more compelling.

“‘Yes, I’m thinking about films like ‘Inglourious Bastards.’”

Inglorious Bastards was a fable, much like “Once Upon a Time in the West.” The characters are stylized and built up for a purpose. In short it is a very different movie with very different goals. Still in “Bastards” there were good and bad characters on both sides. I don’t think any were idiots. Even the bad guys were interesting, and that’s more than I can say for “Private Ryan.”

“We have entered a few wars in more recent decades with less than honorable motives, but I have no doubt we were the good guys in WWII.”

Again I was critiquing a work of art and how it functions, and not the United States’ motives or actions in the actual WWII.

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9 dbmurray September 29, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Trey,
I admit I don’t have the advantage of a very recent viewing of this film. It’s been several years since I’ve seen it.

The fact that I can remember some bits of it vividly speaks to the value of the film, though. I don’t think it was a movie that was undeserving of inclusion on the AFI list. I should probably watch it again before replying to you in detail, but I will raise a couple of points.

You wrote:
“Wrong. Real Omaha Beach would have been worse, and that’s my point. You can’t get to theatre goers with bullets, but you can get to them through solid characters, which Spielberg never fully develops.”

No doubt, the film would have been better with more developed characters, specifically Private Ryan, but the others as well. I disagree regarding the violence of the opening scene, though. You can get to theatre goers with bullets, though, if you convince them that could have been how it happened. Spielberg made the opening scene convincing to the point that the war itself became a character.

It isn’t logical to say the film is tamer than the real event and also call the depiction gratuitous. Kill Bill was gratuitous, because it was pure fantasy. Private Ryan shows a situation that really happened (with fictional characters), coming as close as possible given the limitations of film…compared to any other war film I’ve seen.

(Of course, as I stated, I agree that the character development wasn’t what it should have been in the film overall.)

“I’m sorry, but I do write and edit these posts and understand what jingoistic means.”

I have no doubt you know what the word means. My point is that the word is often automatically employed as a negative adjective to describe movies of this sort…not by you specifically, but by movie reviewers in general.

As for your specific use of the word here, it probably does apply to this film. Again, I’m going on long-term memory. I just got the impression that you meant it as a negative where I don’t view jingoism in and of itself as a negative aspect in a film. I can appreciate a narrative told from the German perspective, for example.

More later…if I can get around to watching the film again in the next few days.

Thanks for the response.

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10 Trey Hock September 29, 2010 at 9:42 pm

DB-

I am glad that this film made a connection with you and appreciate your comments. Actually I was expecting more people to respond as you did. Perhaps you are the only brave one of your ilk.

Just to clarify.

“It isn’t logical to say the film is tamer than the real event and also call the depiction gratuitous”

In the above review I made the claim that no matter how hard Spielberg tries, he can never put us on the battlefield. When watching “SPR” we will always be sitting in a theatre, or our own couch, recliner, etc. This makes the scene inherently less dangerous than the actual event.

What I mean by the scene being gratuitous, is that Spielberg pushes it far beyond the point at which the scene gives the viewer any new information. The violence of minute 23 tells us no more than the violence of minute 5. Therefore I feel that its overkill and the time could have been better spent furthering story or character.

I understand at first glance a scene that is both safe for the viewer and yet gratuitously violent seems like a paradox, but that is how it works. Spielberg can’t make it dangerous enough to ever makes us feel like we are going to be shot and yet he shows us too many nameless soldiers getting shot. I hope my explanation helps.

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11 Mike October 3, 2010 at 7:41 pm

An excellent review of an immensely overrated, evil, infantile and wholly regressive war film.

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12 C138 March 18, 2011 at 2:59 pm

The Thin Red Line shits all over Saving Private Ryan. Much better and much more re-watchable, in my opinion. However, I will give Ryan the credit it deserves for being an incredible technical achievement. Tom Hanks also gave a solid performance, as did Jeremy Davies. The rest of the characters were pretty flat to me. My biggest problem lies in the screenplay. I could say all of what I just wrote for Black Hawk Down as well, although I think that movie is even more ‘jingoistic’ in it’s depiction and distorts historical events for the benefit of the American perspective.

Anyways, I recently watched Letters from Iwo Jima again for the first time since it was in theaters. I think that is one of the few films which gives a fair portrayal of both sides of the conflict, and does a good job balancing patriotism and humanity without going over the top, for both the Japanese and the American soldiers. The Americans and Japanese are equally portrayed in my opinion; both sides are shown as frightened, some very brutal and nasty, others much more sympathetic and kind. That’s something that I can’t say for Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down, which are indeed well made, but very one-sided and simplistic views of much more complex situations.

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