Great film is an illuminating thing: it shines its light into the dark recesses of humanity, revealing the greed, hatred, and hypocrisy that fester there. Bad film is often just as revealing: its existence and reception serve as a mirror reflecting the hearts of its intended audience. Saving Private Ryan is a classic example of the latter, in the flickering light of its propagandistic glow, the American people stand revealed for what they really are: stupid, self-absorbed, morally unsophisticated rubes ready to be fleeced by the first charlatan who comes along and tells them what they want to hear.
“Saving Private Ryan” is typical Steven Spielberg fare: a big budget spectacle, bereft of style, filled to the brim with childishly heavy-handed moralizing and peopled with facile “characters” who exist only as cardboard cutouts for the ensuing morality play. Even the film’s underlying subtext is an old Spielberg standby – America GOOOOOD, Nazis BAAAAD.
The plot of Saving Private Ryan revolves around a simple moral question: is saving one life worth potentially sacrificing the lives of many? This fourth grade ethical dilemma is played out for nearly three hours over the background of the brocage of Normandy in the hours and days immediately after the D-Day landings, and is handled with Spielberg’s usual wandering attention, ham-fisted lack of subtlety and babbling pop psychology. Spielberg being Spielberg, there’s never any doubt how the question will ultimately be answered (hint: with saccharine sentimentality in front of a tombstone – because, obviously, the same scene wasn’t manipulative enough when it was used to close Schindler’s List).
The film opens with thirty minutes of unremitting carnage as US soldiers assault Omaha Beach. This opening scene has been hailed for its savage realism, but it is in truth one of the more cynically manipulative sequences in recent memory, full of irritating, disorienting jump cuts, pornographically Gibsonesque attention to gory detail, camera tricks and special effects artifices, all accompanied by a deafening soundtrack designed to overwhelm our capacity to think about what is being portrayed on the screen and to push us to simply immerse ourselves in its reductive US vs. Them POV. When I saw this film in the theaters, the audience cheered when the first German soldier was killed, then cheered again when American troops murdered surrendering Germans in cold blood: this, I’m sure, was Spielberg’s intent.
Having bulldozed and buried any hint of the moral ambiguity of war, Spielberg gets around to the heart of the movie. It has been discovered by the War Department that one Private Ryan (Matt Damon) is now the sole surviving son of a family who has sent five sons to war. Unfortunately, Ryan was a part of the paratrooper drop that preceded the Normandy landings and is missing behind enemy lines. In a moment of supreme hokum (complete with a quotation of a letter by Abraham Lincoln that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Ken Burns documentary), Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall (Harve Presnell) decides that an effort will just have to be made to save Private Ryan.
At this point, Saving Private Ryan becomes just another motley-crew-of-experts flick. A team of caricatures is assembled: the tough-as-nails seargent; the feisty Italian; the pious Southern sniper with Talent on Loan from God (if the historical setting had been Vietnam, I’m sure this character would have been replaced by Cuba Gooding Jr. as The Magic Negro); the REMF pussy – all led by Tom Hanks in the role of Tom Hanks, Captain Everyman. Call them the Sanitized Seven. Battles ensue. Some of the caricatures die (does anyone really remember which ones?). The Germans never miss an opportunity to remind us how EVIL they are. One wehrmacht man – having been saved from certain death at the hands our intrepid heroes by the earnest pleas of the REMF – returns only to slowly and sadistically stab an American to death. Oh those tricksy Krauts! In the end, Ryan is saved and Tom Hanks is dying. But it was all worth it. Cue the graveside maundering. USA! USA! USA!
The problem with Saving Private Ryan is the problem with everything Spielberg touches. More broadly, it is the problem of the American commercial cinema. Lacking the courage of any real conviction, it cannot offer any challenge to its audience. Instead, it panders to that audience with easy answers, impressive effects, a soundtrack that booms and tinkles in all the right places and a nice mom’s apple pie pat on the back for every red blooded American. What’s missing is even the faintest glimmer of awareness that the world doesn’t break down neatly into heroes and villains, cowards and the courageous, us and them. In the place of subtlety, it gives us spectacle, in the place of art, it delivers technically proficient propaganda.