Saving Private Ryan

Reviewed By John Linton Roberson
Posted 12/05/01 12:32:38

"Stop Holding My Hand, Mr. Spielberg."
3 stars (Average)

I went into this with high hopes. As a member of the first generation to have Spielberg inflicted upon him, I know that his problem is not a lack of skill. It's a certain cowardice. Spielberg is unable to truly explore ambiguity or anything harsh--even when made necessary by his plots. At the last second, you know he's going to worry that one grandma in the audience might be troubled and pulls back.

This was one of those cases, unfortunately. I keep wanting Spielberg to make a movie the equal of his undisputedly amazing technical powers in content. I won't go into how much I wanted him to choke on his camera at the end of AI--that's another review for another day. But this film made me, well, sort of pissed.

The first 24 minutes are gold, or at least are the first time through. First, the look--all color drained out of everything. The world, even the ground itself, looks wet and overcast. Very cold, almost Kubricky, not at all the visually juicy sort of photography we associate with Spielberg. So far, so good.

We then see the US troops approaching the beach of Normandy, hunkered down in their transport too low for they or us to see what awaits them. They land, and almost everyone you just saw in close-up(mostly vomiting--not Tom Hanks, though, of course; we'll come back to that) is cut down by withering Nazi fire; indeed, watching the severity of the counterattack it's a wonder any of them make it even to shore.

Most drown before their wounds can kill them. And don't stand next to Tom Hanks; you'll have to die before his eyes so he can be sad about it. That's so you don't notice Hanks never gets hit, for no plausible reason, given that he's mostly standing still at the start in the water, a very easy target watching everything happening. Then we start to see the Spielbergisms. His attempt, it seems, at black comedy with one soldier picking up his arm and rushing away with it suddenly takes what is a horrifying scene into Yellowbeard.

The second time seeing this beginning, by the way, the magic goes. Despite the "shake & sprinkle" handheld-looking camera work(made a cliche since by Ridley Scott in HANNIBAL and GLADIATOR), it's easy to see its orchestration and artifice. But the first time through, despite its flaws, works.

Then the golden lights and John Williams music starts to make your teeth ache. And we meet Gen. George Marshall reading us a famous letter from Lincoln, followed by a sequence at the farm of the mother of five sons, four now dead, in the Midwest, complete with a front-porch-set steal directly from Christina's World by Wyeth, and backgrounds straight from Thomas Hart Benton, all rolling and glowing farmland. And here we see we're back in sadly familiar territory.

The very premise of the film is not made any less ridiculous by having Ed Burns voice it several times. They are to turn around right in the middle of D-Day and find Pvt. Ryan so he can go home to help his mom on the farm. Never mind that he could be dead already and drowned, and unrecoverable, which would mean they're likely to wander forever without finding him. Never mind that this happened, but not during D-Day. They couldn't have spared the troops. Spielberg presents the landing at Normandy almost as though all resistance was destroyed just like that. Nope. Never mind that the Army is ludicrously wasting several troops' lives for the sale of one. We must save MATT DAMON.

Tom Hanks once again proves why he has no business trying to be serious. At best he's a pompous bore not unlike Robin Williams. At worst he's a star in every scene, and as the only innovation the film seemed to be trying is an ensemble atmosphere of decentered combat, that anyone can die at any time, this ruins it. Hanks, indeed, seems redundant here; I found Tom Sizemore's character would have been much better as a center. But Sizemore is not as big a star as Hanks, of course, no matter how much better his acting is.

Indeed, pretty much all the performances(Ed Burns actually being a standout, along with Jeremy Davies) are great. The problem is the film is schmaltz, and schmaltz with gore and cursing is still schmaltz. The combat scenes are all technically interesting, but the plot is no different than any number of John Wayne movies, only--as with much of Spielberg's work--with implausible plot devices and completely unbelievable characters.

Upham, played by Jeremy Davies, is a good example. He's the one intellectual among the reg'lar guys, so of course he turns out--against all logic as set up to that point--a coward at a crucial moment. In fact, at several crucial moments coming one after another. I did not believe it, not for a second, and was even more annoyed that they did have him shoot prisoners. The only reason this is here, though, is that Robert Rodat is re-using his "coward" plot we've seen before slandering Robert Bruce. Why does the smart one turn out to be this? It feels like something a jock might think of.

But more offensive than that is Sizemore's remark that if the save Pvt. Ryan that "it might be the only good thing we can get out of this war."

EXCUSE me? This isn't Vietnam. This was a war against HITLER. Wouldn't removing Hitler be a good thing? And the camps? Rendering the search for Pvt. Ryan absurd. And...oh, Christ. What brain-dead twaddle.

Point is that Spielberg has no understanding of WW2 except war movies and he belonged nowhere near this. Don't bother with this after the opening. It's not the Nobel Prize movie it likes to fancy itself. And Spielberg forgets that the best literature to come out of the war was cynical--James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer. To be schmaltzy on this subject is to do it a disservice, and also then veterans it purports to honor. I won't even go into the framing sequence except to say it tells you everything that's wrong with the film as a whole.

For a far better film on the subject with real ideas and a real ensemble cast, stay away from this and see Terence Malick's brilliant [i]The Thin Red Line[/i]. You'll thank me.

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