Saving Private Ryan
dir. Steven Spielberg
st. Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore
showing at most multiplexes
Ah, that flag, that beautiful flag subtly fluttering in the sky like an armour made of a million butterfly's wings crying 'freedom! freedom!' Clasp your hand over your heart at the beginning and the end of the movie, singing, shouting, screaming in tones loud and American, like the tourists who traipse the Botanic Gardens arguing loudly about which country is the best, rhetorically, confidently. Scream, shout, sing, "oh say can you see, by the dawn's early light!", and then hum the rest because goddamit! we just aren't good enough to be those heroes of democracy, those bastions of the old world order, the new world order, the hors d'oeuvres from last night.
If only we had been there, being blown to glorious pieces in the surf, surf, surfing USA all the way up to the machine guns. O to be those sons of the US! Witness for instance this letter, written to my hypothetical mother, not that I don't have one, but I never died in WW2 and my mother was consequently never sent this:
c/o- Saint Bludgeon's Military Academy
2 Testosterone Road
Dear Mrs. INSERT NAME HERE We regret to inform you of the untimely passing of your son/daughter Lieutenant/ Captain/ Sergeant/ Corporal/ Private INSERT NAME HERE. He/ She blew away a few huns/ commies/ gooks and for this we are eternally grateful because this obviously prevented our nation, our glorious nation into falling into the wrong German/ Yellow/ Callused/ Oil of Ulan treated hands. I understand that nothing I can say at this moment could possibly console you and so I simply extend my yadda yadda yadda. With you in mourning
PS- CEOs are people too.
Below: Doggie chunks = 'war is bad'
How much worse then, if this is merely absurdist humour taken to exaggerated extremes, is it for those who truly suffer? There is no consolation, no words or images which can explain the horror, the carnage, the grief. The battle scenes in this film are a superb technical achievement in cinematography and sound production, but in the end they are just that - 2 hours of blood and guts with an underlying moral of nobility and sacrifice in war and how good men died messily in the name of honour and orders. There is also an unconscious celebration of military technology, in the accuracy of the sniper's rifle, the Tiger tank, the 20mm cannon, the machine-guns, bombs and aircraft that channel the plot towards its climax in an orgy of dessicated male bodies, thunderous sound effects and white hot metal...
It is of course all Spielberg's fault. Saving Private Ryan. The mission is a man. The cliché is still a cliché. Listen to his mission, social conscience blaring out of the Dolby surround extra-tweaked extra-effective bassy speakers, boom boom here, boom boom there, Spielberg speech everywhere. Listen closely and you might hear his self-aggrandised words across the sandbank of his Omaha, "I am a serious filmmaker, I am. Look at my Oscars, Lest we forget." And why not? After all, he saved Matt Damon! Matt! Matty! Genius boy! Hunk du jour! Saved him from a certain death of messiness, being reduced to a pile of doggie chunks.
Even the cowardly clerk comes good in a vignette, which like the reprise of the American flag flying, brings closure to a film about events which cannot be so neatly contained within narrative. This naivete is both Spielberg's strength and weakness. His belief in closure and narrative logic is unashamedly Hollywood. So the coward must find it within himself to confront and defeat the remaining nazis in the closing battle scene. Spielberg conscientiously pays homage to myths of masculinity, heroism, and "God was on our side", through these references to courage, honour, redemption. Whilst there are obvious attempts to play down the brotherhood angle, to highlight the uncertainty and fear, the film fails to move beyond good and evil, to a realisation of war as inexplicable, where heroism and death are absurd and arbitrary events.
Below: The real face of war...
For these reasons, I thought the knife-fight in the attic, whilst the coward stood frozen in the stairwell, was the best scene of the movie. More effective than the carnage of Omaha or the 20mm cannon butchering men, this grim game that ends with an almost regrettable "shhhh... shhhhh..." comes closest to the violent expressionless theatre of warfare. The intensity and insanity of war is glimpsed in this clumsy struggle between two men, the only time one feels Spielberg comes even close to the powerful humanity and futility of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick taught us that what is not stated, and sometimes even not understood, is just as powerful as what is. Spielberg can't resist the obvious. To condemn war, he needs Tom Hanks to die, and Matt Damon to live, so he can cry in a cemetery surrounded by family, while the flag of freedom flies above. It is, too Spielberg, too much.
But, hats off to Spielberg's dream. He upholds a Capra-esque optimism and naive faith in the essential goodness of human beings, albeit Americans, which for all our cynicism, we still appreciate and applaud. And he brings some new characters to the warfilm genre, such as the babyfaced medic who lambasts his friends for counting dog tags in front of the survivors, but who's corny barnyard speech about his mother, spotlit with candlelight, so clearly sets him up for slow painful death in the next scene. The obvious effort to humanise the American cannon-fodder is in contrast to Spielberg's treatment of the Germans, who conveniently turn out to be well-equipped crack SS troops, large, meaty and nazi to the bone, easy to hate, demonise and destroy without the slightest tinge of audience identification or remorse. And this, I think, is why Saving Private Ryan leaves you feeling uneasy, long after the thrilling battle sequences have been absorbed. For all its technical realism, Saving Private Ryan says more about warfilms than war.
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