Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Steven Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan is the most troublesome film in Steven Spielberg's filmography. It, far more than the contested Schindler's List, Amistad or even the tonally inconsistent The Color Purple, is the best evidence for Spielberg's supposed unsuitability for drama. Those films counterbalance Spielberg's worrisome moments of misplaced sentimentality with glimpses of an actual understanding of the gravity of the situation. The understated tilt up from the infamous shower scene in Schindler's List to show the consequences of actual gas chambers works as a response to both accusations that the director was exploiting a world travesty and his supposed lack of subtlety. Saving Private Ryan lacks such a moment. No, that's not right; it does contain such moments, but they feel artificial and forced, feeling like the work of a man who threw them in desperately at the last minute instead of finding organic depth.

In essence, Saving Private Ryan is the Holy Bible of war movies, in the sense that it contains so many contradictory, half-baked themes and morals that it can be used to justify practically any outlook. As such, I cannot say that it is a bad movie, per se; in fact, some moments display an almost overwhelming sense of form. But it is a schizophrenic movie, filled with competing influences of other war films. That indeed is the problem: for a supposedly realistic document, this is a film founded on other films instead of history.

And it starts off so well, too. The D-Day sequence is among the most justly famous in modern film, a strategically planned setpiece that ports over the most important lesson from the similarly masterful Battle of Shrewsbury in Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight: war is chaos, no matter how well-trained soldiers are. Spielberg's tracking shots and steady, deliberate progression are offset by a careening, bewildering sandstorm of whump-ing bullets and enough blood to turn an ocean red. As clear as the movement through the sequence is, and despite the sequence's gargantuan length, Spielberg did not storyboard it, getting spontaneous moments The horror takes on a surreal flavor: from a soldier shuffling around with dead-eyed determination until we see he's been looking for his own severed arm to the shot of a flamethrower erupting out of a bunker like some belching dragon. Of those who make it to the top of the beach, few feel any real sense of victory, only shuddering relief at being alive.

Yet the sequence also brings out some of the major issues of the film: Spielberg, for all his earnestness, has always had a fair grasp of irony, but many of the dark twists scattered across the D-Day scene and the film at large seem cheap and mean-spirited. Men clamor to safety or survive a glancing bullet, only to be cut down a second later. The issue of perspective arises: as we later learn, the entire fabrication of the framing device is already suspect if not outright abysmal, and the further jumps into the POV of Germans mowing down American GIs essentially shatter the notion of this being a passed-along remembrance.

Furthermore, by opening with an epic battle, Spielberg elides over the need to build character from the outset (there is a time and place for character motivation, and it ain't Omaha Beach). But that absence of fleshed-out character carries through the entire film. Instead, we get stereotypes: you've got your brash Brooklyn Jew (Adam Goldberg) looking to get back at every Nazi for crimes against his people, another Brooklynite (Edward Burns, a roaring vacuum of charisma who doesn't even have Noo Yawk charm to get him by), an Italian (Vin Diesel)—enough with Brooklyn, already—a Bible-quoting, redneck sharpshooter (Barry Pepper), and other clichés. Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) leads them, and his withholding of personal information is almost laughable. The reveal that he was a schoolteacher back home is so unsurprising even Miller notes that people back home say, "Well, that figures" when he tells them his occupation.

Sent to retrieve James Ryan, a paratrooper whose brothers all died in the D-Day invasion, Miller and his men find themselves at the heart of a treatise on the nature of war, though what that treatise seeks to argue is a mystery. The men are human enough to resent the absurdity of their mission, being sent deep behind enemy lines, but eventually they fall into line, and some of them even come to embrace the task in a facile way. Spielberg does not even attempt to defend the premise that sacrificing many for one is noble, and at times he even seems to attack it before ultimately relying on sentiment over any lucid argument to sell his point. Thus, the men become not soldiers but icons, symbols of the valiant struggle of our last great conflict. But also, war is hell. But it can also be good. But not really.

The constant oscillation between lament for the horror of war and Greatest Generation paean makes every quiet scene a toss-up: will it give the characters dialogue about the pointless waste of war, or will it exalt the valiant struggle of the American soldier (and only American, as the film omits the perspective of the Germans and the presence altogether of other Allies)? If Saving Private Ryan has any true merit as an overview of war, it is in giving visualization to the liberal inner turmoil of supporting the troops but hating the war. Spielberg, whose father served in the war, who made war movies with his Super 8 camera, does not want to fully condemn the act of war, especially not this one. Truthfully, some wars are necessary, and they don't get much more so than World War II. But Spielberg cannot find a way to note the waste and destruction of war, not without sentimentalizing it as glorious. That leaves the film trapped between elegy and irony, creating a muddled tone that dirties his romanticized view and pretties up his disgust.

What Spielberg is trying to figure out is not easy, and I might be inclined to sympathize with his attempts to grapple with conflicting feelings if he treated a deep, multifaceted moral conflict with anything approaching a complex thought process. Instead, he uses a narrative transparently plotted around action sequences and speechifying, all featuring characters without dimension, motivation or, frankly, anything to distinguish a number of them besides geographical background and corresponding regional behavior.

The most troublesome of these characters, and a repository for the film's annihilating collision of opposed ideas, is Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies). A translator without combat experience forced to join Miller's excursion because of the deaths of his unit's own translators, Upham is first portrayed not simply as farcically incompetent in a battlefield but, frankly, as a human being. He awkwardly slaps men on the shoulders and asks fatuous questions like an alien sent to monitor this curious phenomenon known as warfare. It's amusing that the film gets thrown into competition with The Thin Red Line, as Upham feels like a paper-thin version of the drifting souls of Malick's film. Upham quotes Emerson, looks innocent and would generally prefer to sit this one out, fellas, thanks.

The general line on Upham, from supporters and detractors of the film alike, is that he is a coward, a charge supported by his collapse in the climax. But I will give Spielberg some credit and say he really is trying with this character—the character, it is worth noting, he openly said he identifies with most in the film. When the medic, Wade, dies in an attack on a machine gun placement, the men corner the one surviving German, dubbed "Steamboat Willie," and mean to execute him. Upham intervenes and ultimately sways Miller into letting the German go, the jeers he receives from the other soldiers and, most likely, a number of audience members, do not disguise the fact that he is right to object to an execution. But Spielberg brings Willie back at the end and even makes him the German to shoot Miller, prompting Upham to execute him, an act that occurs shortly after he is reduced to a simpering pile incapable of saving Mellish.

Adam Zanzie, who has posted the only support of the film that has ever tempted me to change my opinion of this movie, defends this:
"I think the reason why Steamboat Willie ends up becoming the man who shoots Miller is so that Upham’s senses of right and wrong, in regards to killing, can be put to a test: the previous times in which Upham has failed to kill were times in which he should have. Now that he has to live with the shame of those previous failures, can he still manage to avoid killing at a time when it would be wrong for him to do so?"
This is an interesting take, and the best one for trying to figure out what Spielberg at least wanted to accomplish with this character. Upham is a coward throughout, ducking any engagement in battle and falling into such a state outside the room where Mellish is slowly stabbed to death that the emerging German does not even waste time killing him. But the belated execution is the ultimate show of cowardice, ironically inverting the cliché of the weakling achieving wartime manhood in killing. Looking at it on paper, the execution is one of the strongest points of the film.

But there's the matter of the tone hanging over Upham's actions: by making Willie Miller's killer, Spielberg openly puts out the suggestion that Upham bears responsibility for the captain's death for not letting the execution occur when it was first attempted. It is difficult capturing a film's tone, especially in a film with such an inconsistent one, but Upham's killing of Willie feels vindicating rather than expressing the dark complexity of Upham's moral failing. Even the look of self-loathing on Davies' haunted face seems as applicable to his anguish at not acting sooner as his realization of a mistake. I don't think the film condemns Upham for not killing, mind you; I think the film is too confused to say anything about him.

This back-and-forth is why I hate even thinking about this film, much less talking about it. This is not a film demanding serious unpacking of complex themes; it is a simplistic movie that is nevertheless trying so hard to be smart that it elicits apologia even from those of us who do not care for it. This is one of the most visible entries in the type of film I call a "Yeah, but" movie. Regardless of what position you take on it, arriving at it necessitates wading through a sea of contradiction until you're as likely to believe the opposition, whatever side that might be, when you reach the other side.

One aspect of the film that can and should be definitively addressed is the ridiculous notion of the film's realism, something that wouldn't be an issue so much if the film itself broadcasts itself as a depiction of war as it really is. Not even the D-Day sequence, with its skewed feeling of the passage of time, is realistic, and the film only spirals further out of control from there. The entire sequence at Neuville is a wash, featuring the ridiculous sight of Caparzo grabbing a French girl given by her parents to find safety, something he does despite the presence of Germans still within the village. And after several exchanges of gunfire, a nearby wall collapses to reveal Germans standing around idly, leading to a standoff without tension (either the Germans would surrender or they'd just open fire; they're too outnumbered to just stand there making threats). It's all a means to empty, calculated tension, lacking the spontaneity of the D-Day setpiece and feeling like manipulation at every turn.

The entire climax at the bridge assumes gross incompetence on behalf of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, an elite, battle-hardened unit seen here behaving like fools—besides, they wouldn't even have made it to Normandy at that time, delayed as they were by French Resistance efforts, but then this film doesn't give a damn about anyone but us so perhaps we can assume the resistance flatly does not exist in the film. They arrive at a strategic point that is wholly silent and proceed without caution. They drive open-top vehicles through streets lined with tall buildings with endless vantage points. As for the Americans, the gunners task Upham with toting around belts of ammo when surely they'd each drape some over them before the ambush, knowing full well of how much displacing they'd be doing. Upham carries the ammo solely to set up Mellish's death, which could have been prevented if he'd fixed his bayonet like anyone anticipating close-quarters combat would do. Not a damn thing in the climax, up to and especially the deus ex machina of intervening air support, feels real.

These problems stem from basing the film on other depictions of war instead of war itself. Spielberg incorporates a flood of references, none clearer than Sam Fuller. As far as looking to filmmakers for insights into reality goes, at least Spielberg went with the one who actually served. But he misses the point of Fuller's films: Fuller hated subtlety but pursued a clearly defined point with such confrontational verve that his bluntness was ultimately subversive. Nothing here save the gore, which loses its shock rapidly, is truly confrontational. The Fuller influence does at least give us Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), a gruff, stocky sarge who looks and sounds like he really did fall out of one of Fuller's films. He's the sort of man who can collect some dirt from each place he's fought in tins, one of which is unhelpfully labeled "Africa." But Spielberg ultimately tears even him down by foisting a schmaltzy monologue upon the sergeant in which he goes against character to muse "saving Private Ryan might be the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful mess."

Horvath's sudden turn to prosaic sub-poetry is but one of several clanging moments of lofty dialogue in a film that's supposed to be a realistic trek through the Western Front. Gen. George Marshall, by all accounts a remarkable, singular man with a genuine care for his troops, is nevertheless pushing it here by A) needlessly being informed of the deaths of the Ryan brothers and B) quoting a letter written by Lincoln as some kind of justification for ordering the extraction and ticket home for the surviving Ryan. And when Miller and co. finally find fresh-faced poster boy Ryan (Matt Damon), he spits in the face of their own sacrifice with the chest-thumping message, "You can tell [my mother] that when you found me, I was with the only brothers I had left," a moment so thick and nauseating it goes down like Castor oil.

And that framing device. Dear God. For one thing, it's a manipulative cheat, clearly leading the audience to believe that the old man is Miller, something communicated by the matching zoom-ins on the elder man's face before the gravestone and Miller's at the conclusion of the taking of Omaha Beach.

And when Spielberg fades Damon's face into Harrison Young's at the end, the sheer awkward hilarity of it is the only thing that can offset the rage of the ruse. Adam says the book-ending shots of a washed-out American flag are ironic, and maybe that's true, but nothing about the framing device suggests any sober rumination on what was given up for James Ryan to have a family of prop blondes. Ryan's simpering question, "Am I a good man?" is a shallow means of sidestepping the total lack of thematic resolution—I mean, honestly, what the hell is his wife going to say? "Actually, James, you were a drinker and emotionally distant and I never got to live my dreams." But I shouldn't take it out on poor James; who wouldn't be psychologically scarred by a dying Miller yanking him close and whispering, "Earn this" into his ear. That might be the single most offensive moment in the film, a disgusting moral imperative extended to the audience watching, sternly reminding us that we owe something to the Greatest Generation. Spielberg seems to think he's fulfilling his own obligation here, which is wishful thinking at best and insulting at worst.

There are aspects of this film I quite like, to be fair. Apart from the D-Day sequence, I enjoy the scene in the church in the aftermath of the disastrous Neuville section. It's the one place in the film anyone acts like a person, Miller quietly voicing his disdain for the mission to Horvath as the rest of the men deal with Caparzo's death and rest up for the next move. And compared to the cheap comedy of the aforementioned sneering deaths in the opening battle, the gallows humor of the men going through paratroopers' dog tags as if playing a game as surviving troopers walk by too tired and scarred to even register disgust, is an unsettling but darkly amusing moment.

But these are flashes of inspiration in a film that doesn't know what it wants to say and goes about looking for answers in the clumsiest manner possible. The film tries to set up its moral core with Upham, but the true spirit of the film might lie with Steamboat Willie, the German with a by-the-nails grasp on English who spits out fractured, stereotypically American references with desperation to win over a cynical, bloodthirsty crowd. Spielberg tackled the subject of World War II with great subtlety and grace with Empire of the Sun, a film that allowed him to use and subvert his sentimentality in brilliant fashion. In seeking to find the deromanticized truth of a necessary, horrid conflict, Spielberg only serves to weaken every interpretation of World War II.

As I said, this is not a bad film, per se—I still watch it from time to time without needing to be coerced into it—but it is a directionless one, and certainly his biggest dramatic misfire. Were it not so self-assured about itself, though, I might be inclined to forgive its excesses. But where Schindler's List and Amistad were prestige pictures, this is the first time you can actually catch Spielberg putting one eye on the viewfinder and another on Oscar gold. The best thing I can say about it is that Spielberg and Hanks went on to produce Band of Brothers, a miniseries large enough to contain the multitudes that are overstuffed and underdeveloped here. So, the single best aspect of Saving Private Ryan is that someone eventually made a smart version of it. Bully.


  1. Another very well thought-out post on a Spielberg essential. This was my take on it a few months ago...


  2. Zanzie should be along any minute now with a rebuttal. I'll just say I agree with your take wholeheartedly.

  3. I like your review, Hatter. You note the absurdity of it and wrestle with the mission. I think one's interpretation of the film depends on whether one accepts the unanswered worth of the mission as a sign of Spielberg's depiction of the madness of war or a crucially undeveloped show of laziness. I swing toward the latter because the film at every turn feels so self-confident. It never truly sinks into the moral conundrum raised by the mission, just offering a few thick lines in protest and then accepting the premise at the end without anything like true resolution. It's so frustrating, because this could have been a great film if it was more humble and accepting of the insolubility of war and the morality of it. It's the damn air of self-satisfaction that tears it down for me.

    Craig, I fear Adam might be running out of new themes to address pans of the movie, but his review is certainly my favorite support of it.

  4. Nice post, Jake, and I totally agree. You expressed the problems with this film much better than I did, you nail pretty much all the big issues. Like you, Adam does come pretty close to convincing me that I'm wrong on this one, but as much as I like his interpretations of the film, it seems like he's nailing what Spielberg wanted to do, while the film itself is too tonally inconsistent to really pull it off. I love what you say especially about the tone of Upham executing Willie: it really does play out in the film like we're supposed to cheer for this, even though there are other thematic threads that could or should contradict that feeling.

  5. Impressive work, Jake. I like the way you appear to keep wanting to dismiss the film even as you sustain your analysis. Quite an in-depth study for a "simplistic movie."

  6. Interesting. Thing is, the film can't dive too deeply into the moral questions surrounding the mission, because that would involve questioning orders.

    Much as soldiers like Rieben want to scoff at the directive openly, and Miller wants to mutter about it privately, they are all still Rangers and know they have a job to do. I don't think they get to answering the question of "what's right", because they wouldn't - couldn't? - do so on the front lines.

    I don't believe the film accepts the conundrum in the end so much as it just says "We gotta keep moving". When the unit meets Ryan, the distaste they have for him is written all over their faces. Then they *really* get thrown off when Ryan thinks the order is bullshit too. They want to hate him for smacking their hand away when they arrive to pull him out, but all the same they gain a bit of respect for him (Evidenced by a small moment I love - when Rieben gives him the small nod in Ramelle before all hell breaks loose.

    I'll openly admit it has flaws - the coda and lack of any international allied presence annoy me - but getting hung up on details of accuracy, or comparing it to what it could/should be is a bit of a disservice.


  7. Why doesn't it seriously question orders, though? Sure, the men don't have time to deliberate on the morality, but the film itself is clearly trying to make a moral statement at every turn, something it catastrophically fails to do. Spielberg wants to have his cake and eat it too, to make this overbearing message movie but also to assure people that he's in on the front lines with these guys. But he has no clue how to bring the elements together.

    And I don't really care about doing a disservice to the film considering what a disservice it does to soldiers and the idea of war. This is a film that went out of its way to promote itself as accurate and realistic, and nothing in it is. There will always be creative license (The Hurt Locker's whole final act is a tonal break from realism in order to make a subtle but crucial point about the Iraq War), but Spielberg explicitly wants to paint a realistic portrait and does so only through the violence, which is frankly the easiest part to get right. And I think the coda you cite as problematic is Spielberg just accepting the good of the mission without earning it. And I don't think Rieben really respects Ryan so much as he figures they're all going to die anyway and it's just not James' fault. But then, it's hard to tell what Rieben really thinks, as he's played by wooden plank Edward Burns, so any interpretation is possible.

    This is why I prefer Band of Brothers: we get to actually delve into the morals and ideas of soldiers who are also on the front lines, because the miniseries understands the tedium of war. I think you're basing your assumption of the soldiers being unable to contemplate their station fully because they're on the front lines. Even the front lines are dull; in looking to Sam Fuller for guidance, Spielberg left out the most important lesson of The Big Red One: there is a LOT of doing nothing. Saving Private Ryan paints a picture of men ceasing to fight only so they can march to the next skirmish. That's one of the key issues I have with SPR: it not once captures the banality of war, despite its considerable running length. It's all horror and glory, with no in-between. That "We gotta keep moving" vibe is its chief flaw: it brings up all these ideas but just keeps shuffling on to the next action sequence, examining nothing and forging ahead with blind obedience.

  8. Debating about this movie does require a lot of energy... I can see why you hate thinking about it. I haven't run out of new arguments yet -- in fact, some of the points you've raised here have provided me with new ones. I'll skip past the Upham thing, though, since we've all heard each other's viewpoints on that matter and it can't really be pushed any further. My only comment on that particular matter is: the earlier moment at D-Day, when Miller sees the GIs cowardly shooting two surrendering Germans, tells you everything you need to know about Spielberg's feelings regarding the execution of prisoners in war.

    First off, the characters. I don't think it's fair to say the characters are stereotypes. Two-dimensional sounds more accurate. Though Mellish seems like a wisecracking Jew who loves to harass Germans, he's actually very broken by the internal conflict of the war: at D-Day, when he examines the "Hitler youth knife", he doesn't go along with the joke -- he bursts into tears (making his eventual death at the end of a knife all the more painful). Reiben may be a Brooklyn cynic, but you can definitely see wavering bits of sympathy in his face; consider how, when they first see the wrong James Ryan, Reiben cracks "Told you he was an asshole", then is moved by this Ryan's breakdown, then is angry at Miller for his indifference after they find out it's the wrong Ryan. Or look at Wade's rememberence of his mother. Or Caparzo's last-minute forfeit of his machisimo to have a letter sent to his dad.

    All of those individual moments are human, reflective, real. They may not be enough to make the characters wholly flesh-and-blood, but they make sufficient support for the film's four characters who *are* three-dimensional: Miller, Upham, Horvath and Ryan. The only real stereotype in the film is Barry Pepper's Jackson, although there's some irony in the way that Jackson is trustworthy with a rifle but defenseless in the face of a Panzer tank.

    Next, the matter of the film's realism. You write:

    "One aspect of the film that can and should be definitively addressed is the ridiculous notion of the film's realism, something that wouldn't be an issue so much if the film itself broadcasts itself as a depiction of war as it really is. Not even the D-Day sequence, with its skewed feeling of the passage of time, is realistic, and the film only spirals further out of control from there."

    How is the D-Day sequence not realistic, Jake? I'm curious to hear how you think it could have been improved on. D-Day historian Stephen Ambrose called it the most truthful depiction of D-Day ever committed to film. Veterans in audiences nationwide were horrified by it -- and so were millions of others, including Spielberg's filmmaking peers. Quentin Tarantino says of the sequence:

    "Spielberg is doing something unheard of with the opening of this movie. When you watch the sequence of the landing, it’s no longer possible to look the same way at The Longest Day, or even Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One. The idea that forty men on a boat are exterminated in seconds by a volley of machine gun is terrifying. Can you imagine the most atrocious carnage? Obviously, yes. Except that throughout the scene, you are persuaded to attend the worst slaughter in history. The sequence of the knife fight between a U.S. soldier and a Nazi at the end of the film is also as notable as the landing. I hate war movies where they show a soldier killing his opponents without sweating, as if it were insignificant. If I was fighting to save my skin, I think it would be a little more difficult. It's hard to kill someone, it takes sweat, and even with this, you have no guarantee of reaching your goals. Spielberg managed admirably to stage this scene with that dimension."

    (to be continued...)

  9. And Tarantino's right. That certainly sounds like realism to me.

    Your issue seems to be more with the dialogue and with occasional historical inacuracies stretched for the sake of drama (like the 22nd SS Panzer Division), but I don't see how the rest of the film isn't realistic... especially if we take into account the way the actors behave as GIs. Spielberg hired Dale Dye to put Hanks and Co. through a real-life boot camp, and it shows admirably in each of their performances.

    We disagree, also, over your charge that the movie "not once captures the banality of war, despite its considerable running length. It's all horror and glory, with no in-between." That's not true.

    Look at the extended wait after D-Day. The waiting in the church. The lengthy sequence of Miller's men examining the dog tags. And, most importantly, the final battle at Ramelle: it takes up the entire last hour of the film. Spielberg DEFINITELY emphasizes the long wait for the Germans to arrive at Ramelle; that's why the sequence leaves so much room for Upham's conversations with Reiben and Mellish, Miller's private talk with Ryan, etc. There's enough "doing nothing" in this movie for the kind of war movie that it is: a war movie structured around a rescue mission. Obviously Miller's men, as Mad Hatter points out, have to keep moving. If they don't, then that's a surefire way of not getting to Ryan in time.

    I don't really understand why you think the "earn this" line is so insulting. The movie is about earning the right to go home, isn't it? Miller tells his men he'll do whatever it takes to get back home to his wife. Horvath doesn't want their entire mission to be for nothing. The movie *is* about our debt to the fallen generation. Why does this bother you? Spielberg recognized that he had to make a film for the veterans -- fast -- before they were all gone. It's a sentimental notion, but it's essentially true: we're here because of them. Maybe Jonathan Rosenbaum doesn't think so, but there can be no convcing argument against it.

    Regarding the thing about confusing old Ryan's eyes with the eyes of young Miller, I don't think Spielberg stretches this device enough to make it a "cheat", per se; after all, we *don't* cut immediately from old Ryan's eyes to Miller's eyes (in fact, here's what happens: we cut from a close-up of Ryan's eyes to a shot of the beach, then to a WIDE shot of Miller drinking from his canteen). But as for your complaints regarding what the movie is trying to say about war, I think, at that point in the review, you start making appreciation for the film a much harder exercise than it really is. Spielberg's movie isn't pro or anti war: it's reminding us of the sacrifice of the fallen generation, and it's asking us if we possess their same strength.

    The movie's not perfect. I'll be the first to concede that it is even more requiring of a defense than Schindler's List or Munich, two films that I find so remarkable that I would argue they shouldn't need a defense at all. Still, I guess I still don't see why appreciating a film like Saving Private Ryan should be so difficult. I noticed you didn't give it a star rating. What would you give it, in terms of your five-star scale? Because, to be honest, this review reads like it was written for a 1-star film.

  10. I don't see how 2-D characters are much of a step-up from stereotypes. Spielberg doesn't have Fuller's edge, and he can't pull off the lack of subtlety that Fuller could pervert until it really was something unexpected. This movie feels like Spielberg went through with a checklist, awkwardly dropping facile moments for each character to give the illusion of depth. And you keep linking the Hitler Youth knife to Mellish's breakdown, but his crying seems more related to the trauma of the preceding battle than some lament for the Jewish people.

    As for the realism, only the D-Day sequence has any kind of verisimilitude. Everything else is so obviously staged. And even the D-Day piece skews the sense of time of the Omaha fight to make it seem as if it plays out in real time instead of over hours and hours. And arguing that the actors behave like GIs because they went to boot camp...I honestly don't know what to say to that. That's like saying Ben Affleck makes a believable astronaut in Armageddon because he went through NASA training. I'm sure Spielberg had the same line of reasoning, though, and it's one of those half-measures that he thinks makes him film real while its simplicity and shortcuts undermine any connection after the D-Day sequence.

  11. As for the tedium charge, the existence of scenes without action does not equal true ennui. The film only stops to moralize, not to craft a deeper portrait of war. Compare the outright slog of The Big Red One to the perfunctory insertion of talky moments here. These men aren't ever bored; they're merely given clearly marked space to talk about themes. It's like moral recess.

    "Spielberg's movie isn't pro or anti war: it's reminding us of the sacrifice of the fallen generation, and it's asking us if we possess their same strength."

    And at last we come to the single worst aspect of this film. It's a simpering, childish message, one that suggests the most worthy contribution is that of sacrifice. That is jingoistic horseshit of the lowest order. It promotes war as a means of testing greatness and tells us we're not good enough for not having a great conflict to kill hordes of us as some sort of proof of our worth. You're right, it's not pro- or anti-war; it's both. It awkwardly talks about how bad war is and then it glorifies war to make sense of the waste.

    That's the problem: in his paean to a group of people he already simplifies and robs of their humanity, Spielberg tosses his insecurity upon the rest of us, demanding to know why we're not good enough when that's his own issue he has to deal with. The insecurity extends to the film and its hodgepodge of culled wisdom and incessant backpedaling. Finally, this movie wraps itself in the flag so snugly that it equates itself with the Greatest Generation, so that any criticism of it is somehow a criticism of the sacrifice of WWII. This despite how lazily Spielberg appropriates their sacrifice; and I'm not about to hear that bullshit about us not being here if not for them in a movie that doesn't even show another country's servicemen. It is base and offensive to look only at America's frankly minor losses as the display of heroic sacrifice in that war, a war we were perfectly happy to let play out regardless of horrors until it came to our shores. If Spielberg wanted to make a taut genre picture about a group of GIs extracting another soldier, that's fine; but he wants to make a Statement, and he can't do so with his narrow, exclusionary view.

  12. I'd argue Spielberg's got Fuller's edge, though. The soldiers in SPR are comparable to the soldiers in The Steel Helmet; Spielberg's decision to make Mellish a wisecracking Jew who breaks down only at the reminder of the Holocaust is much like the Japanese soldier in Steel Helmet who's "bell" isn't rung until a POW asks him about the Japanese internment camps. I agree with you that part of Mellish' breakdown has to do with the impact of the battle he's just participated in, but the "shaballah cutter" line means something else, too. Now, a counterargument can be made there that Spielberg (as he admitted to Richard Schickel) is getting too much of his information from Fuller, but -- as you said -- Fuller actually served. He saw soldiers like this in the war.

    The question of the time spent during the D-Day invasion spawned that memorable debate which I had with Craig and Tom over at my site, but to repeat what I argued over there, the scene presents itself so that Miller's men arrive somewhere around the tail-end of the beach assault. Craig and Tom argued that it's presented in such a way to suggest that Miller's men are part of the first wave, but I see no evidence in the sequence for that claim. All I see in it is Miller landing on a beach that's already infested, as well as a climb up the hill that, for all we know, occurs in the last 25 minutes of those several hours.

    I'm still not convinced that those sequences at Neuville and Ramelle are any less realistic, either. You're picking on details like Caparzo reaching for the girl, the Germans and Americans screaming at each other over the fallen wall, the Panzers leaving their tops down, and, well: how do we know these kinds of mishaps didn't happen in the war?

    "And at last we come to the single worst aspect of this film. It's a simpering, childish message, one that suggests the most worthy contribution is that of sacrifice. That is jingoistic horseshit of the lowest order. It promotes war as a means of testing greatness and tells us we're not good enough for not having a great conflict to kill hordes of us as some sort of proof of our worth... finally, this movie wraps itself in the flag so snugly that it equates itself with the Greatest Generation, so that any criticism of it is somehow a criticism of the sacrifice of WWII. This despite how lazily Spielberg appropriates their sacrifice; and I'm not about to hear that bullshit about us not being here if not for them in a movie that doesn't even show another country's servicemen."

    You've... lost me there, Jake. In your review, you acknowledge that you think Spielberg means well, but that you believe the movie makes some unfortunate contradictions. Now you're accusing it of being a war-mongering, right-wing extremist piece of propaganda that's insensitive to the feelings of the veterans? We clearly didn't didn't watch the same film.

  13. "Now you're accusing it of being a war-mongering, right-wing extremist piece of propaganda that's insensitive to the feelings of the veterans? We clearly didn't didn't watch the same film."

    Not insensitive, at least not in the meaning of Spielberg rejecting the feelings of veteran. But it might be insensitive in the sense that Spielberg can't really pick up those feelings and translate them without screwing up the result. It isn't outright war-mongering because Spielberg doesn't intend it, but he does bring up jingoistic thoughts in his attempt to enshrine the Greatest Generation. That's why I didn't accuse it of promoting war like some have (I know some who indirectly tie it to our post-9/11 zeal to prove ourselves), but this film at every turn feels like what Fuller himself used to dismiss as a "recruiting picture." You say the film asks if we have the same strength as our grandparents, something you intend with the same starry-eyed respect Spielberg wants to impart. But the flip-side of that is a dare to prove ourselves, something Spielberg does nothing to dispel. Hell, when promoting The Pacific, Tom Hanks said we should be ashamed of ourselves compared to the Greatest Generation. It's not the lauding of heroes that disturbs me (why would it?); it's the backhanded swipe that we can't find a conflict worthy enough to die for. This film is celebratory in all the wrong ways; it places these heroes on a pedestal and asks if someone will do the same for us one day. Frankly, I fucking well hope not.

  14. Wow. There’s a lot to chew on here and a lot to respond to. Let’s see: there’s an open corner. Let me set up my soapbox and … here we go:

    I want to start my by acknowledging, Jake, that you call this a “Yeah, but” movie: “Regardless of what position you take on it, arriving at it necessitates wading through a sea of contradiction until you’re as likely to believe the opposition … when you reach the other side.” Still, I found some contradiction in your review, too.

    The Characters: First, I agree with Adam that two-dimensional is a better description than stereotypical, for the most part. (Whether two-dimensional is more or less offensive than stereotypical is another matter.) And yet Hanks’ Miller, a schoolteacher, is anything but a stereotypical WWII movie soldier – in occupation and treatment. And when Spielberg allows Sizemore’s Horvath to be something other than a wide-eyed maniac you suggest he tears the character down, “foisting a schmaltzy monologue upon the sergeant in which he goes against character.” Point being, if you want characters to be something other than stereotypical, you have to give them room to be.

    As for Upham, this is the first time I’ve read that Spielberg has said that he most identifies with that character, but I’m not surprised because that’s been my take on Upham since I first saw the film. He serves two purposes: First, he’s a stand-in for the audience (more on that in a bit). Next, he’s a stand-in for Spielberg specifically, a Spielbergian habit that has its roots in Jaws with the Richard Dreyfuss character. Personally, I find Spielberg’s need to put himself on screen like that a bit tiresome, but that’s just me.

    As an audience surrogate, Upham works fairly well. I see and respect all the reasons to find contradiction in his actions – contradiction against himself and contradiction against the film’s overall themes. But to me Upham is the character for those of us who grew up without a war to fight, those of us who think that somehow it would be easy to remain moral and/or ethical in war, those of us who believe that we wouldn’t make the mistakes of the past but would learn from history, those of us who believe that we could serve without getting dirty. I loath that Spielberg is so on-the-nose that we have to encounter Steamboat Willie twice. But I don’t find any fault in the ambiguity of the scene. Yes, I think Upham feels guilt for not killing him earlier, even though he was behaving according to his morals. Yes, I think Spielberg wants us to celebrate Upham’s war-necessitated actions and admire him for his restraint in the first place, even though those things conflict. Yes, I think Spielberg uses Upham to show that there’s no room for cowardice in war, and that either those people must avoid war or must change themselves to survive it. I think Spielberg strains credulity with the degree of Upham’s paralysis in the face of war, the way he’s stared down by the German, and that’s my problem with the presentation. But Upham’s character serves its purpose: war turns people who otherwise abhor violence into people who succumb to it and even thrive on it.

    More coming …

  15. The Realism: My biggest objection to the review/comments here pertain to the number of times that the film is invalidated (by Jake or others) or validated (by Adam or others) based on its realism. In almost every case, what’s really being argued here isn’t the movie itself but the hype about the movie. Did Spielberg send his guys to boot camp and try to honor WWII with an accurate depiction? Yeah. But all of that stuff isn’t on the screen. All that stuff was covered in profiles on 60 Minutes and by typically misguided and unthinking Hollywood celebrity “news” reports – reports that, let’s remember, benefited by glorifying the then-especially-hip Greatest Generation as much as Spielberg does. We cannot fault Spielberg and this film for being asked about the boot camp in each and every interview and then answering the question. Likewise, because we know more about this film’s production than, say, The Hurt Locker’s or The Thin Red Line’s, it’s slightly unfair (if admittedly difficult to resist) to use that knowledge to manipulate what’s actually on screen here. It doesn’t matter what Ambrose thinks; that guy made his money by catering to the generation that buys his books. He’s hardly impartial. The existence of Saving Private Ryan increased Ambrose’s profile and book sales. But at the same time, just because Spielberg sent his actors away to bond and learn how to be soldiers doesn’t mean he actually believes that they’re fit to invade a foreign country and that his film achieves realism.

    If my point is failing to come across, let’s look back at an unrelated and recent example: Consider the number of times last year that you read pieces about Black Swan that argued whether the ballet was realistic – an incredibly simplistic reading that assumes that because Natalie Portman studied ballet and danced ballet in the film that the movie must be about ballet. They hype around a movie is noise, often the result of inane questions by unsophisticated celebrity-worshiping, audience-pleasing media and/or marketing savvy. (Jake writes that “this is a film that went out of its way to promote itself …” but, no, the film did not promote itself; marketers, media and fans promoted the film.) It would be fair to argue that Saving Private Ryan is no more or only slightly more realistic than other war dramas. But to choose this film as the portrayer of textbook realism is to be unfair – it’s to adopt the viewpoint of many unsophisticated or overly emotional reactions and reinterpret those as the film’s primary intent. The Hurt Locker includes numerous moments of John Wayne-style unrealistic drama that was laughed at by guys who actually do that work, but that’s not its point. It’s a human story. It needs to be just realistic enough to tell its story. The same is true here. SPR isn’t above having its accuracy questioned. But we should be careful to see who or what we’re debating: is it the film or is it what the director or media or fans have said about the film?

    Still more …

  16. The Sacrifice: Jake’s reading is interesting. I understand how you get there, and I can’t argue your reading away, but here’s mine:

    You wrote: “It’s a simpering, childish message, one that suggests that the most worthy contribution is that of sacrifice.”

    What if we changed just one word of that: “worthy” to “admirable”? See, I don’t think Spielberg is in any way implying that we cannot be good, worthy people without a war. I think SPR suggests that sacrifice is admirable and worthy of ultimate respect. SPR is all about sacrifice: sacrifice of the regular soldiers who are mowed down before they even reach the beach and the sacrifice of these soldiers, who go on this crazy mission for someone else. Ryan isn’t spitting in the face of their sacrifice at the end. He’s honoring it. He’s saying they have become his brothers by sacrificing their lives for him. Jake writes of the film’s message: “…war is hell. But it can also be good.” Well, yes. I mean, is there any real argument to that? SPR is about honoring the people who sacrificed themselves in this war. Yes, it’s only about Americans. So what? Going back to the realism argument, why must Spielberg tell the story of the entire war? Americans did sacrifice, it doesn’t matter whether our country’s sacrifice was greater or smaller. Sacrifice is sacrifice – in any country, in any number, in any social class. I roll my eyes when Miller whispers “Earn this!” and when Ryan’s granddaughters (who wasted their talent in the pre-Go Daddy age) rush to console him, because it’s Spielberg at his worst: once he’s stabbed us, he can’t resist twisting the knife, and then twisting it once more. But all I hear in that line is a reminder to appreciate the sacrifice of those who served and died. I hate war, but I’ve got no problem with that. (You’re free to have problems with it, of course; I’m just saying that I don’t think Spielberg is creating a scenario in which only the Greatest Generation is “worthy.”)

    One more coming …

  17. The Cheat: Adam, it’s a cheat. There’s really no way around that. Spielberg uses a device to fool us into thinking that elder Ryan and Miller are the same guy. He further cheats by taking us through an experience through Miller that Ryan wasn’t involved in. If Adam and Jake are standing next to one another and I walk up to Jake, stand an inch away from him and point my finger in his face and say, “You are a genius,” sure, I guess I could be talking about Adam, but my actions specifically suggest otherwise, and even in retrospect, if I told you that my comment was directed at Adam, you couldn’t make that supposed reality line up with my actions. That’s what Spielberg does here. It’s a cheat.

    Prestige: Really, Saving Private Ryan seems more interested in Oscar gold than Schindler’s List or Amistad? How? The films are unequal in quality, but I think they’re quite similar in intent.

    Wrapping Up: Jake, I can find a number of observations that I wholeheartedly agree with in your review, but I’ve picked out moments here in which I thought that the arguments were a little off, even if I agreed with your ultimate conclusion. All in the interest of a good debate, of course. Thanks for letting me weigh in.

  18. "Spielberg uses a device to fool us into thinking that elder Ryan and Miller are the same guy. He further cheats by taking us through an experience through Miller that Ryan wasn’t involved in."

    But how do we know Reiben didn't tell Ryan what happened at D-Day? Or that Reiben and Upham didn't tell Ryan about the rest of their story? Spielberg later uses this device in Munich, too, when Avner keeps having visions about an incident he never witnessed (the Munich Massacre), and yet it keeps popping up in his head -- as a sort of conditioning device -- to remind him of the purpose of his mission. And so, Ryan starts thinking about Miller's mission (most likely related to him by the mission's survivors) in order to remind him why he's there.

    Now, to be fair, Spielberg used this narrative device a little more successfully in Munich, but he doesn't use it in SPR to the extent that it's worth losing any sleep over, I don't think.

    "See, I don’t think Spielberg is in any way implying that we cannot be good, worthy people without a war. I think SPR suggests that sacrifice is admirable and worthy of ultimate respect. SPR is all about sacrifice: sacrifice of the regular soldiers who are mowed down before they even reach the beach and the sacrifice of these soldiers, who go on this crazy mission for someone else."

    Exactly, Jason -- this is the point I was trying to convey to Jake. This movie, in my opinion, is not "jingoistic" in any sense of the word; Spielberg isn't celebrating violence or trying to make it look like America won the war. He recognizes that the war was necessary, but he doesn't like this fact any more than we do. (Didn't Malick do the same thing with The Thin Red Line, too? The Travolta character in that film lays out clearly in that one scene on the cruiser that "The Rock" needs to be attacked in order to cut off Japanese trails to American seaports)

    Here's the thing: Schindler's List was made to help prevent another Holocaust. Similarily, Saving Private Ryan was made to remind us of just how hard and difficult D-Day and the entire war was: Spielberg's not asking us if we possess the strength for *another* war, but whether we possess the strength to get things done around the world while ensuring that another world war *doesn't* happen again.

    I forgot to mention this, but Spielberg's father served, too. So, he and the other veterans in the audience were certainly aware of the sacrifice they paid. Spielberg's film wants us to recognize their sacrifice, aware that too many of us take it for granted.

    And Jake, with you dismissing the magnitude of their sacrifice -- calling it "horseshit", etc. -- aren't you kind of proving Spielberg's point?

  19. I'll try to be brief.

    Adam, you're a terrific critic. 99% of the time, I think your reviews are awesomely written and well supported. regardless of whether I agree with you or not. With Spielberg, however, and this movie specifically, you fall back too much on specious argumentative tactics. There's the "Appeal to Authority" (Spielberg/Tarantino/Ambrose said this, therefore it's a fact), the evidence-of-offscreen-action (which can't be disproven as having not happened), and just plain denial. (Please stop with the "Miller's Rangers weren't on the first wave" claim, when it's one of the few instances in the film where Spielberg shows us exactly what he intends; it's getting embarrassing.) Now we're applying to Spielberg some ludicrously grandiose intentions: the guy's making movies to prevent holocaust and war. Not too successful in either instance, was he? Ah, but that's all part of this dubious line of argument: We failed because we didn't listen to him. Please, be serious. Tom Carson thinks the movie is horseshit, and his father served in WWII as well.

    As Jason suggests, it's what's onscreen that matters, and to each his own there. Yet the more external "evidence" that gets pulled into somebody's opinion, the more justified I feel that what is actually onscreen is poorly rendered.

  20. I know it's a little late for me to be posting this, but I just wanted to say a few words. This debate has been troubling me for the past few weeks, and I was hoping to clarify some things in an attempt to make peace with it all. I must confess that the stuff Craig said in that last post -- about me "falling on specious tactics" whenever I talk about Spielberg; about his refusal to believe Spielberg's movies have ever made a difference regarding Holocaust and war; his differences with me regarding the D-Day sequence -- aggravated me immensely when he made that post. And for a long time I wasn't sure if it would be right for me to respond. I feared it would only open more wounds. But taking into account Craig's praise of my other work (and mine of his), I'm sure we can move past the two of ours' major differences regarding this film.

    In fact, Saving Private Ryan is probably a movie we should all agree to disagree on. Our feelings about the movie appear to be colored by our own individual perceptions of Spielberg, WWII and politics -- with none of our feelings towards any of those subjects residing on the same page. I think that's where all of us are differing, for the most part -- not merely with the movie itself. We all came into this movie with our own beliefs and tastes, and that has -- above all -- affected the way we have perceived the movie.

    Anyway, I hope nobody's feelings were hurt here, and thanks for hosting such a lively discussion, Jake. Here's to many more.

  21. I'll never forget what my father, a historian, said, after we'd watched Saving Private Ryan in the cinemas for the first time. He just looked at me and said "powerful, eh?". I nodded my head and he smiled: "I didn't think they made fascist films like this anymore. The yanks are gonna love it."

  22. very well thought out, however let me explain the Upman thing, since it seems to have baffled you. Often we are the most blind to that which we are ourselves. Upman is the typical left wing pompous intellectual - a character you surely must know . The war is BELOW him. Soldiers are below him. This whole world is belooow him , and so your labeling him an alien is true in a way. He reminds me of Robespierre prior to the greatest bit of God irony ever- his head being cut off. But he also reminds me of the left wingers that took over Cuba and promised us a government by the people, as they slaughtered thousands who disagreed. Apparently that's ok with liberals, since its for a "higher good" and they seem to forgive mass slaughter in the name of Mao and Castro since it supports their ideology in the end.

    Anyway, Upman did the noble thing, the Jesus thing by arguing for the German's release from the firing squad. Bravo for him! He was now content, his higher mind had indeed proven the other worms wrong, he had upheld his belief in his superior morality.

    When in the end he sees that his kindness came back to bite him in the ass because this same soldier killed his Captain, he now saw his "higher good" as having been less than ideal, thus releasing his inner punk, who then carried out the execution his higher self had saved him from earlier. This is similar to how sweet women who have been abused by men often become hardened. We all have Jesus and Hitler in us, but when one takes a slap to the face, the other extreme often makes its debut. For example, after Jesus saw what all his goodness led to, how little it was appreciated by those who then strung him up, he likely came back to earth as ..the devil. Upman was now destined to leave the world of the intellectual, and become a drug dealing pimp for a decade or so, as his inner devil had now been released.

    Although, Im sure you already knew that.

  23. I thought it was fairly obvious that Upman shot Willie, not because Willie killed his captain, but because he was the one person who knew that Upman was not noble, but a coward.

  24. I imagine its one of Donald Trump's favourites with its noble message of patriotism, justice and gunning down enemies when you get the chance. The element that gets me is as others have commented is its claim for documentary realism; when there's very little. To support those who think the same:
    Did the Americans apparently forget to bring any tanks with them? There were lots at Omaha.
    Why did bullets on Omaha blow people to bits but everywhere else they just make neat holes in them?
    Why was the most important bridge in the whole of Normandy just defended by Matt Damon and a few of his mates?
    How did Tom H and his band of brothers manage to wander across a hotly contested battlefield and only come across an lonely machine gun nest?
    and said machine gun nest is out in the open where everyone can see it, with no other Germans for miles.
    But, my biggest bugbear is the notion the Upman is a naive 'coward' - who nevertheless is selected to be one of the first on a hostile shore, even before Mr Hanks find him - and everyone else is not. Its the idea soldiers always charge machine gun nests and duck bullets as if there were no more dangerous then a wasp. In truth the whole army of young men, many conscripts, most in combat for the first time, is scared. Sometimes they refuse to move or run away, they often look for the least rather than the most dangerous way to do something. Its overcoming this fear that the heroism that some showed (though not all of the 'glorious generation') showed is really about. This certainly happened on Omaha were part of the problem was soldiers refused to leave cover until a few brave officers made them. This of we never see; because of course, as Mr Speilberg knew full well, the great American patriotic ticket buying public would never watch it.