Sunday, December 4, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.13: Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan


In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next up, his 1998 war classic Saving Private Ryan.

Grade: 88 (A-)

Saving Private Ryan marks the end of a second phase in Steven Spielberg’s career. The director’s run of prestige pictures from the mid-80s to the late-90s all covered “respectable” topics destined to gain awards consideration (the film won Spielberg his second Oscar for Best Director, and it was a great shock when it lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love). But Spielberg’s prestige pictures were never merely “respectable”. His artistic stamp and undeniable filmmaking chops separate Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List from the average middlebrow crowd-pleasers, and like any late-career Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan doesn’t spare the audience from the harsh realities that come with doing the right thing.

World War II, 1944: Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) has been given a mission: he is to lead a rescue mission to find and bring home Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). Ryan’s three brothers were killed in action, and the U.S. Army doesn’t want to send Mrs. Ryan another letter telling her the only son she had left is gone. Miller knows the danger ahead, not to mention the questionable decision to risk several men to save one, but he accepts. He leads seven men: right-hand man Sgt. Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore); sarcastic Brooklyn Private Richard Reiben (Edward Burns); Southern rifleman Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper); Jewish Private Stanley “Fish” Mellish (Adam Goldberg); Medic Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi); Italian-American Private Adrian Caparzo (Vin Diesel); and nervy, inexperienced translator Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies). Some will live. Most won’t.

Every discussion of Saving Private Ryan begins with the justly famous 25-minute long opening sequence, in which Miller and other soldiers storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Spielberg had dealt with death and violence in a realistic matter before (Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad), but nothing can prepare anyone for the absolute brutality in store for the American soldiers. “Massacre” isn’t a strong enough word for it. Men pray and cry, knowing what’s about to happen to them. As they land, soldiers in front are mowed down by machine-gun fire. Some men drown in the water. Some lose their limbs. A young soldier lies on the sand, holding his guts in, crying for his mother. No World War II film before Saving Private Ryan went quite this far in dealing with the carnage of war. Right away, we know where we are and what the stakes are. Spielberg’s late-career frequently deals with the dark side of technology, and there’s no darker side to technology than the ability to massacre men.

Some have argued that after this sequence, the film goes downhill and becomes conventional. What a reductive assertion. Saving Private Ryan is not the gung-ho, plainly respectful, corny piece of patriotism it was labeled as. The soldiers are colorful individuals, and their interactions are far more realistic than in most war movies (all players are terrific, particularly a never-better Hanks). whose smallest actions get their friends killed, and none of them believe in the mission they’ve been given. It’s easy to agree with them. However good the military’s intentions are, Ryan’s rescue is little more than a glorified PR mission. No one wants to send a letter to his mother saying she has nothing left, so several other men are thrown into the line of fire for his sake. That’s the plan, then. Only in Spielberg world, plans are a fool’s gambit. Like any system, they fall apart. The system isn’t the honorable part. The men are.

One of the men gets killed trying to save a little girl from the line of fire, noting that it’s the decent thing to do. Miller yells that “We’re not here to do the decent thing, we’re here to follow fuckin’ orders”. He later notes that Ryan had better do something spectacular when he gets home if his men are going to die for him. When another comrade is killed by a machine-gun nest, all but one soldier, Upham, wants to ignore POW rules and kill the last German soldier. Miller stops them, but only just. He explains that the more men he kills, the further he feels away from home (his hand constantly shakes from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder); he only wants to do what’s necessary to get back to his wife, and if rescuing Ryan is what it takes, he’ll do it. By the end, the men have been to hell and back for their country, and almost every plan they’ve made has gotten someone good killed. By this point, they’re no longer following orders. As Horvath says, “…saving Private Ryan might be the one decent thing we can pull outta this mess.”

Another late-career Spielberg theme involves the end of innocence (Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, A.I.). Private Ryan, among other soldiers, is a boy in men’s clothing, enlisted at a young age because his country needed him. He wanders a fallen world, full of chaos and violence. He and other soldiers speak of their childhoods, knowing that they may never see their parents again. Dying soldiers cry for their mothers; one leaves a letter for his father. Parent-child relationships are a Spielberg favorite, and what’s more heartbreaking than knowing your parents are going to bury you? These are classic Spielberg “lost boys”, seeing the harsh realities of the world for the first time.

Their boyhood is clear; it isn’t just the bickering and moaning about the mission. One key scene involves three of the soldiers searching through a bag of dog-tags for Ryan’s name; if he’s dead, they can go. They look through it without regard for the other soldiers, who watch as their friends’ names are thoughtlessly thrown out. Wade reprimands the others for this. It’s time to look at violence seriously, and to see the consequences of death. Too many soldiers aren’t ready for the war. The final battle features a frightened Upham, the least experienced of the soldiers, too petrified with fear to save a friend from being murdered; never mind that this man had finally accepted him as “one of us”. He just couldn’t do it. Some might find themselves filled with anger at Upham. Many don’t realize that they would likely do the same thing.

Spielberg brings many of the same influences as he brought to previous films. The Howard Hawks “men on a mission” theme is back, albeit for a more serious mission than before. Spielberg has also acknowledged John Ford’s The Searchers as an influence; both films feature men on missions of dubious nature to find one individual. Both also make great use of the landscape. Hitchcock is back as well; Spielberg’s expert craftsmanship carries over from his blockbuster films to eke out maximum tension in the war battles. As the German tanks approach for the film’s climax, Spielberg drags the preparation and the waiting for their arrival to great lengths.

There’s another memorable example, although SPOILERS are in order: Jewish soldier Mellish gets in a fight with a German soldier. Neither can reach their guns. Both drip sweat as they wrestle and punch each other. Mellish pulls a knife, but the German is too big and takes it away. Upham stands behind the wall, cowering in fear as the German slooooowly pushes the knife towards Mellish’s heart. Mellish fights him, begs for his life. It’s no use. The dialogue isn’t translated, but a quick search reveals that the soldier is saying “It’s no use…shhh…it’ll be over quickly”. It’s a terrifying scene that doubles as a perfect metaphor for the Holocaust.

The film has very little in common with classic World War II films; it’s far closer to more modern films, most notably Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. This is partly due to war veteran/Hollywood go-to man for battle-sequence advisory Dale Dye. It is also because the film takes the same unflinching look at the terrible violence of war. Kubrick was a major influence on Spielberg, and whatever their differences, neither shied away from portraying the violence of war. Neither film is particularly anti-war or pro-war. Both focus on the men behind the mayhem. If Saving Private Ryan is more optimistic, it is largely based on Spielberg’s respect and admiration for the men (not to mention the difference between the two wars in the films).

That respect and admiration goes a tad too far with some pesky bookends involving an older Ryan visiting a graveyard/memorial for World War II veterans. Ryan goes to pay tribute to the men who didn’t make it. Spielberg pays tribute to those men, as well as to his own father, a World War II veteran. The scenes aren’t horrible, by any standards (they’re certainly less bothersome than the bookends in Brian De Palma’s otherwise terrific Casualties of War); they’re just unnecessary. The film is already a fitting enough tribute to the men. One could make the same argument for the “I could have done more” scene in Schindler’s List, or the film’s final tribute to Oskar Schindler. But those were more connected to the narrative than this discursion.

It is a minor flaw on an otherwise staggering piece of cinema, however. Saving Private Ryan provides a fitting end to Spielberg’s prestige picture era (though this year’s War Horse looks to be a wonderful return to it). It is made with the same artistry and craftsmanship as his earlier works, and has the same hard-won optimism as Schindler’s List and Empire of the Sun. It also serves as a warm-up for the force Spielberg would unleash in the 2000s. The film further demonstrates his ability to deal with violence and adult-themes in a serious matter. This would lead to a more explorative Spielberg in the new millennium, with films as diverse as Minority Report, Munich, and his next film: A.I.

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