Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg)


Steven Spielberg is one of the best filmmakers in the world, living or not, and I would defend him tirelessly against those who argue that he’s a manipulative force of homogenization, a commercial salesman whose shadow conceals smaller pictures of greater talent from us. I recognize this; they said the same thing about Alfred Hitchcock until the critical establishment turned around in the ’60s. Spielberg is so pervasive in our culture that we probably have good reason not to notice how good he is until he’s dead. But he is capable of pumping out some pretty dismal projects when he feels like it. I must say, as little as I expected out of this movie — war films aren’t my thing — I am amazed by how boring it turned out to be. In only one other Spielberg film, The Lost World, can I honestly say I have been bored. The battle sequences on top of battle sequences in this movie — miles of them — zoned me out, and I was a goner.

Saving Private Ryan has many detractors, many of whom concentrate on the heavy-handed patriotism and the many Spielbergian closeups, the boxing in of WWII to fit the director’s almost propagandistic needs. These things are problems. They are not The Problem. It’s more than a little annoying that the subject matter of this amazingly empty film makes it immune to criticism in so many eyes; there’s nothing wrong with a conventional war movie from this director, particularly such a painstakingly realistic one, but to call this script lazy is giving it too much credit. It’s appallingly dumb, spoken in endless writerly monologue and with an ever-pervasive artificiality, and if a less skilled filmmaker had handled it, it’d be deservedly forgotten before another 169 minutes were past us. The storyline is so slapdash and anemic that it seems almost inevitable that it leads to the director’s sloppiest filmmaking to date. His own Schindler’s List weaved a meaningful character arc into a historical context far more skillfully — there’s no dimension or depth to these people, and as a result we are never invested in their story.

The insights are nonexistent, the story is completely ordinary, and next to nothing is here to separate this from several hundred black & white WWII movies you and I have never heard of. I have never before seen a Spielberg movie in which he failed so consistently at establishing connections with the viewer. Ryan enjoyed an appreciative audience in WWII vets, which is understandable because it contains some realistic portraits of combat, something that generally is absent from war movies of earlier decades (but not nearly as unusual as DreamWorks’ press for the movie would have you believe; Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front is so ruthless and nightmarish it makes Ryan look like a dinosaur, and not one of Steve’s raptors either). But in those cases, the audience is filling in the blanks. Not even Tom Hanks’ character is really awarded the great force of identification, the skill that is precisely what makes Spielberg the heir to the Hitchcock throne.

Let’s put it on the table: Portions of Private Ryan are mind-bogglingly right, as in fact is its general idea, that war is a wasteful hell even when it’s necessary, which is a smarter and deeper message than a simplistic pat on the shoulder from a pro- or anti-war movie. The direction and the work of Spielberg’s indisputably masterful stock team of Janusz Kaminski and Michael Kahn, as usual, is close to immaculate. You can sense the brilliance of the production today, but it’s already aged horribly because it was so influential; so many of its innovations rapidly became clichés and are now extremely annoying. The handheld, personalized vision of a sprawling battleground is gloriously disturbing, but the desaturated colors, the slow motion, and many of the rapid-fire camera movements are tiresome, especially since when confronted repeatedly with the pretty face of Mr. Tom Hanks, the contrivances of the exercise become all too naked.

My major beef with the movie is probably the inherent wrongness of its narrative. The movie opens in the present day and segues into D-Day with a flashback, and the Titanic-like zooming of the face and eyes of the old man staring at a grave is quoted later in the movie with Hanks, who is the central character for the entire picture. So of course, the old man is Hanks, right? That’s the only way the characterization and the structure of the film would make any sense. Wrong! In an irritating “gotcha!” moment, Hanks gets killed off, and the surprise celebrity guest who plays Private Ryan (introduced 2/3 through the picture) turns out to have grown up to be the old man at the beginning. This makes absolutely no narrative sense. How could Ryan flash back to events he had nothing to do with? If the film is supposed to be Ryan’s story instead of Hanks’, why doesn’t it stay with Ryan? Why would the guy flash back to a story with a different protagonist, a guy he barely had time to get to know? This subverts the movie so completely, makes it so incomprehensible, canceling out anything it might have to say, that even if there weren’t any other problems with it, it would basically deserve to be marked a failure. Not only is it an uncomfortable jolt, it’s simply awful writing, which leads inevitably to weak moviemaking.

The only thing I can find to praise without qualification in Saving Private Ryan is Tom Hanks, who is believable and consistently good. It may help somewhat that we don’t really come to know or understand his character, because Hanks never plays his parts with much mystery, and the script forces it on him this time out. This is one of his very rare “serious” performances that really works, despite the hideous monologues he’s hampered with, so it’s a pity to see it wasted on such a hackneyed story.

I can picture the business meetings that produced this film, and I can identify the problem. Schindler’s List was a springboard for its director to go farther and deeper in an exploration of the Holocaust than anyone before or since. But it was always a story about people, not a story about the Holocaust. In Saving Private Ryan the producers seem to have gotten it backwards; the result is a movie without a center, a recipe for disaster, a cinematic grab bag of war movie highlights with the Spielberg twist. The consolidation recalls a better film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is slightly weaker than some of the director’s earlier efforts because it’s an attempt to tackle every corner of its genre at once. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg isn’t directing a war story; he’s directing the fucking war-film genre, attempting a summary of every film of its type ever made, and it’s an exercise in dreadful futility. Mr. Spielberg did receive an Oscar for his efforts (and that was the idea behind making the movie, right?), and maybe in some abstract way he deserved that, but when somebody can go unrewarded for phenomenal, multifaceted, complex, intense, brilliant work like The Sugarland Express, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind but get showered with praise for this, there’s some wiring in the system that needs to be adjusted, in my opinion.

Oh, it’s also too fucking long. (Could we please linger on that opening AND closing shot of the American flag for a few minutes longer? I don’t think we all got the point.) And so is this review. Goodnight, everybody!

[Slightly expanded version of a review posted at another venue in 2007.]

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