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Jerry Don’t Surf

Saving Private Ryan

a film directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Robert Rodat

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which was released in July and has become one of the summer’s biggest hits, is the story of eight American soldiers who, after surviving the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, are ordered to find a private named Ryan who parachuted in during the invasion and is now somewhere in Normandy. This Ryan is the youngest of four brothers; the other three have died in action. The army wants to find out whether the remaining boy is still alive and, if he is, to bring him home to his mother. The rescue patrol runs into some hairy situations, but they get their man, and although they suffer terrible casualties themselves, they manage to kill quite a few Germans along the way.

There is nothing unconventional about this story. It is possibly the most tried and true dramatic plot known to man: a life is saved. Spielberg himself has used it many times before. It’s the plot of both of his other big historical pictures, Amistad (Africans saved from slavery) and Schindler’s List (Jews saved from the Holocaust), but he’s used it in some of his big science-fiction entertainments, too, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind (persons missing and presumed dead turn up on board a spaceship) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (alien dies and comes back to life, twice). It is a plot guaranteed to melt stone. It’s the little girl pulled safely from the well, the hostages’ release, the last-minute reprieve for the innocent man. It is Christ risen from the tomb. No audience can resist it. You may walk out of the theater rich with indignation at the shamelessness of it all, but you cannot get rid of the lump in your throat.

Yet the consensus is that Saving Private Ryan is not a conventional movie.* It has been received as something like a breakthrough, a new thing in the cinema of combat, so far beyond earlier efforts once praised for their realism, such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, that those movies are scarcely mentioned even as points of contrast. People concede that the story is a little hokey, but they insist that Spielberg has not treated it in a hokey manner. He is said to have given us, as though for the first time, war without sentimentality or patriotic fakery, to have replaced the cartoon violence of special effects extravaganzas with a picture of the true horror and inhumanity of organized violence.

This judgment rests chiefly on two scenes, one near the beginning of the movie and the other close to the end. Saving Private Ryan opens with a shot of the American flag, followed by a brief scene, set in the present day, in which a veteran is shown visiting a military graveyard in Normandy. Then we flash back, with a cut suggesting that we are now inside this man’s thoughts, to D-Day, and a twenty-minute re-enactment of the landing at Omaha Beach. This introduces the story of Private Ryan, the climax of which is another twenty-minute battle scene, between American soldiers and a German tank unit. Then we return to the present and our veteran, his identity now, of course, known to us. He salutes, weeping, a grave marker. There is a repeat shot of the flag.

The battle scenes are, as everyone has said, virtuoso movie-making. The second one is somewhat crammed with incident: the characters are now fully developed, and so can’t be killed off too casually. But in the first sequence, on Omaha Beach, we don’t know one character from another, and the casualness, the randomness, of the violence is just what makes it terrifying. As bullets tear into the sand around him, a man searches a pile of dead bodies for his severed arm, picks it up, and wanders off; a soldier removes his helmet after a close call and an instant later a bullet rips away the top of his skull. We don’t simply see men die in Saving Private Ryan; we watch them bleed to death, screaming for their mothers, their intestines spread out beside them on the sand.

Spielberg is a wizard with spectacles on this scale. His shots have an unusual visual and aural clarity, almost a hyperclarity—like life, but with better lighting. The images never imitate confusion by being confused, and even when the noise is nearly deafening, as it is in the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan, the sounds composing it are discrete and identifiable. The landing at Omaha Beach is like the drowning of the Africans in Amistad and the destruction of the ghetto in Schindler’s List: it gives you the feeling that you are looking at something you were not supposed to see. It is uncannily indelible. But it does not represent the transcendence of special effects. It represents their consummation. It is a triumph of technique.

This is not to disparage the accomplishment, only to give it due proportion. Spielberg aimed for an exceptionally high degree of realism in Saving Private Ryan, and, by using elaborate special effects (what else would he use?), he achieved it. But in the service of what idea? What does Saving Private Ryan tell us about war? That it is gruesome. Also that it is noble and necessary. The general view that Saving Private Ryan teaches revulsion for war because it contains revolting images of war seems to me to have the logic of the movie completely inside out. I have always thought that what makes war appalling isn’t the possibility that someone will maim or kill you; it is the possibility that you will maim or kill someone else. War is specially terrible not because it destroys human beings, who can be destroyed in plenty of other ways, but because it turns human beings into destroyers. There are many heart-wrenching deaths in Saving Private Ryan, but they are all American deaths. When Germans are shot, they go down like ten-pins, and they stay down. Their deaths are movie deaths. And the more agonizingly the Americans suffer, the happier we are to see the Germans slaughtered. The realism just ratchets up the enthusiasm.

I doubt this was Spielberg’s intention, and the disjunction between the aim and the effect points to the main problem with the kind of movie he is now trying to make. He wants viewers to receive when they are accustomed merely to reacting. He wants to bear witness in a mass entertainment medium. The incongruity shows up in the difference between the response most reviewers have had to Saving Private Ryan and the response of paying moviegoers. Reviewers see most movies in screening rooms. It’s like seeing them in church. Everyone is quiet and attentive; no one is getting up for popcorn or rummaging around for a Life Saver. People in screening rooms do not talk back to the movie.

But people in movie theaters do. I saw Saving Private Ryan in a large theater in midtown Manhattan on a Saturday night, a day after it opened, along with about two thousand other people. It was not an audience in idle search of cheap thrills. They had read the reviews; they were prepared to be affected. There is a scene toward the middle of the picture in which a particularly likeable member of the rescue patrol (they’re all pretty likable, actually) bleeds to death in considerable anguish during an assault on an isolated German machine-gun nest out in the French countryside. After he dies, his buddies rush up to the enemy position and begin beating the only German survivor, who is trying frantically to surrender. They decide to make him dig a grave for their dead comrade, and then to shoot him in cold blood. A wimpy interpreter who has never seen combat is along with the patrol, and he objects hysterically to this brutality. “What is this?” he screams at the other Americans as the German babbles in terror. “It’s called war,” the man on my right (who had earlier been weeping) explained to no one in particular. Later on, the interpreter finds himself confronted with the chance to shoot another German soldier. “Kill him!” cried out a woman down front. She was clearly expressing the sentiment of the house.

This doesn’t mean that Saving Private Ryan is worse than most other Hollywood war movies in which good men kill bad men, to our applause, and die, to our sorrow, for a just cause. It only means that Saving Private Ryan isn’t, in this respect, any different from most other Hollywood war movies. Spielberg’s good men—led by Tom Hanks, who has grown from a remarkable actor reminiscent of Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart into a remarkable actor reminiscent of Gary Cooper—are more realized, and their deaths are more, so to speak, lifelike. But they are nearly as gung-ho, after their naturalistic fashion, as Robert Duvall’s cartoon colonel in Apocalypse Now, who flies into battle playing “The Ride of the Valkyries” and expresses his disdain for the enemy with the line—a movie line if there ever was one—“Charlie don’t surf.” Ambiguity is no less a stranger to Saving Private Ryan than it was to The Longest Day.

The filmmakers, in fairness, do take a stab. The Private Ryan story is meant to raise an ethical question: Should eight lives be risked to save one? The patrol debates the point at some length. But how complicated can this be? If soldiers do not fight for motherhood, what do they fight for? None of the men really believes the mission is frivolous, nor would it be credible if the screenplay made it seem as though they did. When they’re not talking about the war, they’re talking about their own homes and mothers—which, of course, is how they come to appreciate the deeper significance of their mission. Fighting to return the only remaining boy to his grieving mother is a thousand times more concrete than fighting to liberate France, and ten thousand times more amenable to movie sentiment. If the men manage to liberate a few Frenchmen while they’re at it, so much the better. But what’s France to them (or, for that matter, to us)? What’s France to a mother?

There were ways to make the Private Ryan story carry some plausible moral weight. One was to have made Ryan, when he is finally found, a character of less than admirable proportions. In this movie, of course, he’s so fresh-faced and noble he refuses the offer of safe conduct home; moved as he is by the news of his brothers, he’d rather stay and face death side by side with his comrades. It’s that kind of movie. The possibility that Ryan would turn out to be an unworthy beneficiary of daring and sacrifice was plainly never even in the cards. The other option was to have made the mission a product of corruption and calculation—to have put the men in the position of having to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, to make them suffer and die so that some vainglorious general or ambitious desk jockey back at headquarters can advance his career. This possibility was so obvious that the makers of Saving Private Ryan seem almost to have made a point of refusing it.

Conflict between officers and men is a staple of war stories, just as conflict between chiefs and detectives is a staple of cop stories. The courage of the people on the front lines is highlighted by the selfishness and incompetence of the people who give the orders. Dramatization of this conflict is perfectly compatible with a certain style of patriotism. It’s the whole premise of the Rambo movies. When Tom Hanks, near the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, refers to the assignment as a public relations exercise, he is displaying the exact degree of cynicism we expect from a tough and righteous army captain. But he doesn’t go any farther, and he couldn’t without damaging the appeal of his character. For we have already seen how the idea for the mission developed, and we know that there was nothing cynical about it.

This portion of the movie seemed to me beyond Capra. A female civilian in Washington, supervising in a pool assigned to type letters to families announcing the deaths of their loved ones in battle, discovers she has recently had three letters typed for the same Mrs. Ryan (who lives, naturally, in an Iowa farmhouse). The supervisor informs her uniformed superior, who informs his uniformed superior (and we know he’s not a bureaucrat because he’s lost an arm), and they both bring the news to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall himself, with the respectful recommendation that the surviving Ryan boy be found and taken out of combat. The general attends to their tale. An aide begins to remonstrate—We can’t stop the war for one private, and so on—but the great man raises a hand. He walks to his desk, picks up a letter he just happens to have tucked into a book there, and begins to read it. It is a grave and moving letter written to a woman whose five sons have all died in battle. Halfway through, Marshall puts the letter down and recites the final sentences from memory, and then pronounces the name of the signatory. It is Abraham Lincoln. We have just swallowed a very, very large hook.

The Second World War was a fight against an evil there is no reason to color in shades of gray, however one might wish to portray individual enemy soldiers who fought in it, and the Americans who died in it deserve our piety. We are not judging the Second World War, though; we are judging a movie. Since Spielberg made the turn toward seriousness with Schindler’s List, he has been working in a kind of no man’s land between entertainment and art. Big Hollywood entertainments on large historical subjects have almost always been manipulative, and show little evidence of embarassment about that fact. The filmmakers want to stir audiences because audiences want to be stirred. They come to cheer, to weep, and to go out for popcorn. Hokiness is a given of the experience, and although the cut corners and contrived climaxes can seem irritatingly dishonest, they are actually the manifest of a deeper honesty. They remind you that you are being fooled because you have chosen to be entertained; therefore, you are not fooled. And often, in spite of the sham and the schmaltz, some sort of truth does come through in these pictures, even if it is the sort of truth that is glimpsed by seeing reality unsuccessfully fudged. But this truth is never the overt moral sentiment. The overt moral sentiment is always merely flattering: it is what audiences want to be told to think, because it is what they already do think. They didn’t come for an argument.

One ambition of art is to get people to think what they did not already think, or what they thought without really understanding, and the profound trouble with Spielberg as a filmmaker is that he does not allow his audiences to think at all. He allows them only to feel. He seems to want to insist that, alone among Hollywood directors, he is doing justice to his subjects, but he cannot simply place those subjects gratuitously before us. He constantly exacts our emotional compliance in exchange for his fidelity. It is as though he believed that if he let the hook slip out of our mouths even for a minute, we might get the wrong idea about Nazis or slavery. He leaves nothing to chance. He puts music behind everything. If he developed either a little less respect for his subjects or a little more respect for his audience, he would make better movies.

  1. *

    Vincent Canby is one notable exception. His response to the movie appeared in The New York Times on August 10.

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