Saving Private Ryan (1998)

D: Steven Spielberg
S: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon

Gripping and intense war movie from Steven Spielberg following the efforts of a platoon of American soldiers led by Captain Tom Hanks to find a single Private in the bloody melee following the D-Day invasion and send him home safely to his mother after his three brothers have already died. A metaphor for war itself, this plot serves as a slim premise upon which Spielberg heaps his technical expertise to create one of the most effective portraits of military conflict in many years. But despite the praise heaped upon it by enthusiastic reviewers the world over, it is not quite the masterpiece it seems intended to be. Realistic and subtle as its portrayal of the situation is, and technically astounding and horrifying the depiction, the film cannot ultimately avoid several war genre clichés and suffers from a lack of convincing characters.

The much maligned preface and coda to Schindler's List served a very specific purpose. The bracketing of the ultra-realistic reconstruction of the past with a sense of the present served to remind viewers that catharsis is sometimes an easy substitute for moral responsibility. By making explicit the continuity between Judaism as practised then and now and featuring the real-life 'Schindler's Jews`, Spielberg sought, perhaps clumsily, to remind audiences that the story of the past is not self-contained. Like the documentary Night & Fog, its purpose was not to lay the ghosts to rest, but remind us that life goes on and that we each bear a moral burden to learn from what our species has done in the past (good and bad).

Saving Private Ryan is a fiction (though it bears obvious links with real stories including that of the Sullivan brothers (briefly mentioned here) depicted in the jingoistic 1944 film based on their deaths), but it nonetheless begins and ends with 'present day' scenes which ultimately carry the moral and social meaning of the film. The crucial moment comes at the climax when Hanks informs Damon (playing Ryan) that he must 'earn' the life he has won. The graveyard coda concludes with the older Ryan asking his wife if he has led a good life surrounded by the remains of real people who died in order so that he might be able to do so. As with Schindler's List, this is not merely a cooling down scene for the audience to begin putting their coats on before leaving the theatre. Rather it serves to make the point that the sacrifice represented by the deaths of American troops during the war (seen by us through those of the characters we have been following throughout, of course) was not necessarily served by the winning of the war, but by the purpose of doing so: saving the lives of countless others who then go on to live in a free world and make moral choices about how to do so (a premise which a strictly anti-war movie would not endorse). The moral burden is then placed upon the audience who now benefit from what happened then. Have we 'earned' it?

The film is of course concerned with several other themes and issues. There is a modulated and interesting debate on the ethics of warfare surrounding questions of honour and duty which is carried out along familiar trajectories. There is also one on ethics within war, embodied in its concern with the 'one decent act' of saving Ryan and its exploration of the motivations and attitudes of its various characters. But the one original notion is this concept of what happens after the war, designed, as with Schindler's List, to reawaken a sense of the past within the present. Though this lofty aim is well enough served by the tale as told in the course of the running time, it is still less powerful and affecting that in its illustrious predecessor perhaps because, logistics and details notwithstanding, we have seen this before, and no amount of graphic carnage can quite elude the trap of generic cliché.

It is consistently hard hitting and realistic. It moves surprisingly quickly despite its three hour running time and it should be applauded not only for recreating the hellish (un)reality of up close and personal violence, but in drawing attention to the consequences of violence in the form both of its physical depiction and its personalisation of soldiers who are then suddenly cut down and lost to us. It is also noteworthy for depicting acts of cruelty and wanton violence committed by American soldiers (summary executions of surrendering German troops, torture, etc), understandable as they are made to seem given the circumstances, which adds some moral depth lacking in many of its generic forebears. It also works hard to demythologise combat through its gory battle scenes. Yet there is never a real question of the moral imperative behind the invasion and though German soldiers are treated with more or less equal violence by puppet master Spielberg as their American counterparts, it is defiantly concerned only with the Allied perspective. The one German soldier singled out for humanisation is later seen to contribute to the deaths of our heroes, and its then executed. This is perhaps inevitable and necessary from a narrative point of view, but it certainly brings us back to older, more familiar war movie territory and makes it that much easier for audiences to identify the generic markers and go with the flow.

On the level of character, Hanks works hard to play a multi-layered but muted personality and despite the many allusions to Gary Cooper and James Stewart by Spielberg and others in writing about the film, he lacks the presence to completely command our admiration. The soldiers in the platoon are also a familiar bunch, replete with a rookie whose experiences allow us to find our way into the closed world of military ritual. Though the performances are good and the script works hard to employ these pawns in the most effective manner, there is something a little too schematic about this set up and the character dynamics are frequently too contrived to earn the emotional response which seems to have been presumed. Also, despite the oft-voiced criticism of the last major Hollywood D-Day film, The Longest Day, as an exercise in star-spotting, the appearance of Ted Danson is a notable "Gee whiz!" moment which they attempt to compensate for with the more involved portrayal of Ryan himself when he finally arrives. It doesn't entirely work, and many of the jingoistic exchanges between Damon and Hanks stray much too close to old fashioned silliness than the situation demands.

War has been hell before on the big screen, even WWII, with films like Attack! , Patton and Cross of Iron leaping immediately to mind. Distant as his perspective has always been, Stanley Kubrick has delivered two definitive anti-war films in Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, albeit both focused on other engagements. Spielberg has not contributed to this body of work quite as significantly as seems to have been hoped, despite transferring many of the visual signifiers of recent Vietnam films to the Second World War. Admittedly, a younger generation in danger of losing themselves in fantasies seen on Saturday afternoon reruns of old movies are gaining access to the full-bore horrors of war (in the abstract, of course) via the careful hand of one of Hollywood's current masters. This alone is perhaps reason enough to applaud it. It also achieves a degree of vicious realism which invariably drops the jaw, and tends therefore to lull viewers into a sense of premature awe. The first half hour or so is so mightily impressive from a technical standpoint and seems to scream moral outrage so obviously that it is perhaps easy to forgive many of its obvious flaws in favour of an endorsement of its sentiments.

Saving Private Ryan is a good film. It deals with its subject well and eventually offers a strong moral argument for audiences to contemplate. It successfully raises questions about the nature and purpose of war and serves to remind us of what it involves. But it is not so notably excellent on all of these points that it stands above similar films made in the past. Neither is it quite as pointed and effective as Spielberg's own Schindler's List in raising many of the same moral questions. It is a distinct improvement over Amistad (and a damn sight more interesting than The Lost World), but people should bear in mind that the most important lesson to be learned from viewing the film is not how well it has been made, but what purpose it serves. We were not there. We do not know what it was like. Even Spielberg is not so foolhardy as to believe that a film can really give us a sense of what it was like to experience those years. But if film can play a useful role in evoking the past, it is to serve the present and to question the way we live now based upon the way our parents and grandparents did then. This is the point upon which the film ends, and if this has been forgotten in the rush to praise Spielberg for representing war in the most technically stunning manner so far or for some general notion of being 'anti-war', then the film fails. There is some rich material here, but it is in constant danger of being lost amid the sound and fury.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.