In essence, Saving Private Ryan is the Holy Bible of war movies, in the sense that it contains so many contradictory, half-baked themes and morals that it can be used to justify practically any outlook. As such, I cannot say that it is a bad movie, per se; in fact, some moments display an almost overwhelming sense of form. But it is a schizophrenic movie, filled with competing influences of other war films. That indeed is the problem: for a supposedly realistic document, this is a film founded on other films instead of history.
And it starts off so well, too. The D-Day sequence is among the most justly famous in modern film, a strategically planned setpiece that ports over the most important lesson from the similarly masterful Battle of Shrewsbury in Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight: war is chaos, no matter how well-trained soldiers are. Spielberg's tracking shots and steady, deliberate progression are offset by a careening, bewildering sandstorm of whump-ing bullets and enough blood to turn an ocean red. As clear as the movement through the sequence is, and despite the sequence's gargantuan length, Spielberg did not storyboard it, getting spontaneous moments The horror takes on a surreal flavor: from a soldier shuffling around with dead-eyed determination until we see he's been looking for his own severed arm to the shot of a flamethrower erupting out of a bunker like some belching dragon. Of those who make it to the top of the beach, few feel any real sense of victory, only shuddering relief at being alive.
Yet the sequence also brings out some of the major issues of the film: Spielberg, for all his earnestness, has always had a fair grasp of irony, but many of the dark twists scattered across the D-Day scene and the film at large seem cheap and mean-spirited. Men clamor to safety or survive a glancing bullet, only to be cut down a second later. The issue of perspective arises: as we later learn, the entire fabrication of the framing device is already suspect if not outright abysmal, and the further jumps into the POV of Germans mowing down American GIs essentially shatter the notion of this being a passed-along remembrance.
Furthermore, by opening with an epic battle, Spielberg elides over the need to build character from the outset (there is a time and place for character motivation, and it ain't Omaha Beach). But that absence of fleshed-out character carries through the entire film. Instead, we get stereotypes: you've got your brash Brooklyn Jew (Adam Goldberg) looking to get back at every Nazi for crimes against his people, another Brooklynite (Edward Burns, a roaring vacuum of charisma who doesn't even have Noo Yawk charm to get him by), an Italian (Vin Diesel)—enough with Brooklyn, already—a Bible-quoting, redneck sharpshooter (Barry Pepper), and other clichés. Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) leads them, and his withholding of personal information is almost laughable. The reveal that he was a schoolteacher back home is so unsurprising even Miller notes that people back home say, "Well, that figures" when he tells them his occupation.
Sent to retrieve James Ryan, a paratrooper whose brothers all died in the D-Day invasion, Miller and his men find themselves at the heart of a treatise on the nature of war, though what that treatise seeks to argue is a mystery. The men are human enough to resent the absurdity of their mission, being sent deep behind enemy lines, but eventually they fall into line, and some of them even come to embrace the task in a facile way. Spielberg does not even attempt to defend the premise that sacrificing many for one is noble, and at times he even seems to attack it before ultimately relying on sentiment over any lucid argument to sell his point. Thus, the men become not soldiers but icons, symbols of the valiant struggle of our last great conflict. But also, war is hell. But it can also be good. But not really.
The constant oscillation between lament for the horror of war and Greatest Generation paean makes every quiet scene a toss-up: will it give the characters dialogue about the pointless waste of war, or will it exalt the valiant struggle of the American soldier (and only American, as the film omits the perspective of the Germans and the presence altogether of other Allies)? If Saving Private Ryan has any true merit as an overview of war, it is in giving visualization to the liberal inner turmoil of supporting the troops but hating the war. Spielberg, whose father served in the war, who made war movies with his Super 8 camera, does not want to fully condemn the act of war, especially not this one. Truthfully, some wars are necessary, and they don't get much more so than World War II. But Spielberg cannot find a way to note the waste and destruction of war, not without sentimentalizing it as glorious. That leaves the film trapped between elegy and irony, creating a muddled tone that dirties his romanticized view and pretties up his disgust.
What Spielberg is trying to figure out is not easy, and I might be inclined to sympathize with his attempts to grapple with conflicting feelings if he treated a deep, multifaceted moral conflict with anything approaching a complex thought process. Instead, he uses a narrative transparently plotted around action sequences and speechifying, all featuring characters without dimension, motivation or, frankly, anything to distinguish a number of them besides geographical background and corresponding regional behavior.
The most troublesome of these characters, and a repository for the film's annihilating collision of opposed ideas, is Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies). A translator without combat experience forced to join Miller's excursion because of the deaths of his unit's own translators, Upham is first portrayed not simply as farcically incompetent in a battlefield but, frankly, as a human being. He awkwardly slaps men on the shoulders and asks fatuous questions like an alien sent to monitor this curious phenomenon known as warfare. It's amusing that the film gets thrown into competition with The Thin Red Line, as Upham feels like a paper-thin version of the drifting souls of Malick's film. Upham quotes Emerson, looks innocent and would generally prefer to sit this one out, fellas, thanks.
The general line on Upham, from supporters and detractors of the film alike, is that he is a coward, a charge supported by his collapse in the climax. But I will give Spielberg some credit and say he really is trying with this character—the character, it is worth noting, he openly said he identifies with most in the film. When the medic, Wade, dies in an attack on a machine gun placement, the men corner the one surviving German, dubbed "Steamboat Willie," and mean to execute him. Upham intervenes and ultimately sways Miller into letting the German go, the jeers he receives from the other soldiers and, most likely, a number of audience members, do not disguise the fact that he is right to object to an execution. But Spielberg brings Willie back at the end and even makes him the German to shoot Miller, prompting Upham to execute him, an act that occurs shortly after he is reduced to a simpering pile incapable of saving Mellish.
Adam Zanzie, who has posted the only support of the film that has ever tempted me to change my opinion of this movie, defends this:
"I think the reason why Steamboat Willie ends up becoming the man who shoots Miller is so that Upham’s senses of right and wrong, in regards to killing, can be put to a test: the previous times in which Upham has failed to kill were times in which he should have. Now that he has to live with the shame of those previous failures, can he still manage to avoid killing at a time when it would be wrong for him to do so?"This is an interesting take, and the best one for trying to figure out what Spielberg at least wanted to accomplish with this character. Upham is a coward throughout, ducking any engagement in battle and falling into such a state outside the room where Mellish is slowly stabbed to death that the emerging German does not even waste time killing him. But the belated execution is the ultimate show of cowardice, ironically inverting the cliché of the weakling achieving wartime manhood in killing. Looking at it on paper, the execution is one of the strongest points of the film.
But there's the matter of the tone hanging over Upham's actions: by making Willie Miller's killer, Spielberg openly puts out the suggestion that Upham bears responsibility for the captain's death for not letting the execution occur when it was first attempted. It is difficult capturing a film's tone, especially in a film with such an inconsistent one, but Upham's killing of Willie feels vindicating rather than expressing the dark complexity of Upham's moral failing. Even the look of self-loathing on Davies' haunted face seems as applicable to his anguish at not acting sooner as his realization of a mistake. I don't think the film condemns Upham for not killing, mind you; I think the film is too confused to say anything about him.
This back-and-forth is why I hate even thinking about this film, much less talking about it. This is not a film demanding serious unpacking of complex themes; it is a simplistic movie that is nevertheless trying so hard to be smart that it elicits apologia even from those of us who do not care for it. This is one of the most visible entries in the type of film I call a "Yeah, but" movie. Regardless of what position you take on it, arriving at it necessitates wading through a sea of contradiction until you're as likely to believe the opposition, whatever side that might be, when you reach the other side.
One aspect of the film that can and should be definitively addressed is the ridiculous notion of the film's realism, something that wouldn't be an issue so much if the film itself broadcasts itself as a depiction of war as it really is. Not even the D-Day sequence, with its skewed feeling of the passage of time, is realistic, and the film only spirals further out of control from there. The entire sequence at Neuville is a wash, featuring the ridiculous sight of Caparzo grabbing a French girl given by her parents to find safety, something he does despite the presence of Germans still within the village. And after several exchanges of gunfire, a nearby wall collapses to reveal Germans standing around idly, leading to a standoff without tension (either the Germans would surrender or they'd just open fire; they're too outnumbered to just stand there making threats). It's all a means to empty, calculated tension, lacking the spontaneity of the D-Day setpiece and feeling like manipulation at every turn.
The entire climax at the bridge assumes gross incompetence on behalf of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, an elite, battle-hardened unit seen here behaving like fools—besides, they wouldn't even have made it to Normandy at that time, delayed as they were by French Resistance efforts, but then this film doesn't give a damn about anyone but us so perhaps we can assume the resistance flatly does not exist in the film. They arrive at a strategic point that is wholly silent and proceed without caution. They drive open-top vehicles through streets lined with tall buildings with endless vantage points. As for the Americans, the gunners task Upham with toting around belts of ammo when surely they'd each drape some over them before the ambush, knowing full well of how much displacing they'd be doing. Upham carries the ammo solely to set up Mellish's death, which could have been prevented if he'd fixed his bayonet like anyone anticipating close-quarters combat would do. Not a damn thing in the climax, up to and especially the deus ex machina of intervening air support, feels real.
These problems stem from basing the film on other depictions of war instead of war itself. Spielberg incorporates a flood of references, none clearer than Sam Fuller. As far as looking to filmmakers for insights into reality goes, at least Spielberg went with the one who actually served. But he misses the point of Fuller's films: Fuller hated subtlety but pursued a clearly defined point with such confrontational verve that his bluntness was ultimately subversive. Nothing here save the gore, which loses its shock rapidly, is truly confrontational. The Fuller influence does at least give us Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), a gruff, stocky sarge who looks and sounds like he really did fall out of one of Fuller's films. He's the sort of man who can collect some dirt from each place he's fought in tins, one of which is unhelpfully labeled "Africa." But Spielberg ultimately tears even him down by foisting a schmaltzy monologue upon the sergeant in which he goes against character to muse "saving Private Ryan might be the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful mess."
Horvath's sudden turn to prosaic sub-poetry is but one of several clanging moments of lofty dialogue in a film that's supposed to be a realistic trek through the Western Front. Gen. George Marshall, by all accounts a remarkable, singular man with a genuine care for his troops, is nevertheless pushing it here by A) needlessly being informed of the deaths of the Ryan brothers and B) quoting a letter written by Lincoln as some kind of justification for ordering the extraction and ticket home for the surviving Ryan. And when Miller and co. finally find fresh-faced poster boy Ryan (Matt Damon), he spits in the face of their own sacrifice with the chest-thumping message, "You can tell [my mother] that when you found me, I was with the only brothers I had left," a moment so thick and nauseating it goes down like Castor oil.
And that framing device. Dear God. For one thing, it's a manipulative cheat, clearly leading the audience to believe that the old man is Miller, something communicated by the matching zoom-ins on the elder man's face before the gravestone and Miller's at the conclusion of the taking of Omaha Beach.
And when Spielberg fades Damon's face into Harrison Young's at the end, the sheer awkward hilarity of it is the only thing that can offset the rage of the ruse. Adam says the book-ending shots of a washed-out American flag are ironic, and maybe that's true, but nothing about the framing device suggests any sober rumination on what was given up for James Ryan to have a family of prop blondes. Ryan's simpering question, "Am I a good man?" is a shallow means of sidestepping the total lack of thematic resolution—I mean, honestly, what the hell is his wife going to say? "Actually, James, you were a drinker and emotionally distant and I never got to live my dreams." But I shouldn't take it out on poor James; who wouldn't be psychologically scarred by a dying Miller yanking him close and whispering, "Earn this" into his ear. That might be the single most offensive moment in the film, a disgusting moral imperative extended to the audience watching, sternly reminding us that we owe something to the Greatest Generation. Spielberg seems to think he's fulfilling his own obligation here, which is wishful thinking at best and insulting at worst.
There are aspects of this film I quite like, to be fair. Apart from the D-Day sequence, I enjoy the scene in the church in the aftermath of the disastrous Neuville section. It's the one place in the film anyone acts like a person, Miller quietly voicing his disdain for the mission to Horvath as the rest of the men deal with Caparzo's death and rest up for the next move. And compared to the cheap comedy of the aforementioned sneering deaths in the opening battle, the gallows humor of the men going through paratroopers' dog tags as if playing a game as surviving troopers walk by too tired and scarred to even register disgust, is an unsettling but darkly amusing moment.
But these are flashes of inspiration in a film that doesn't know what it wants to say and goes about looking for answers in the clumsiest manner possible. The film tries to set up its moral core with Upham, but the true spirit of the film might lie with Steamboat Willie, the German with a by-the-nails grasp on English who spits out fractured, stereotypically American references with desperation to win over a cynical, bloodthirsty crowd. Spielberg tackled the subject of World War II with great subtlety and grace with Empire of the Sun, a film that allowed him to use and subvert his sentimentality in brilliant fashion. In seeking to find the deromanticized truth of a necessary, horrid conflict, Spielberg only serves to weaken every interpretation of World War II.
As I said, this is not a bad film, per se—I still watch it from time to time without needing to be coerced into it—but it is a directionless one, and certainly his biggest dramatic misfire. Were it not so self-assured about itself, though, I might be inclined to forgive its excesses. But where Schindler's List and Amistad were prestige pictures, this is the first time you can actually catch Spielberg putting one eye on the viewfinder and another on Oscar gold. The best thing I can say about it is that Spielberg and Hanks went on to produce Band of Brothers, a miniseries large enough to contain the multitudes that are overstuffed and underdeveloped here. So, the single best aspect of Saving Private Ryan is that someone eventually made a smart version of it. Bully.