With Steven Spielberg at war again with Bridge of Spies, let us return to arguably his most famous war film.
To begin as Saving Private Ryan does, and to remove the obvious with brevity: the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan is superior pure cinema. The D-Day invasion, clipped and rampagingly beautiful and barbarically full-throated, has absolutely nothing to say about war that wasn’t already said as early as eight decades before with the forgotten French masterpiece Wooden Crosses, but Ryan repeats the obvious with an ungodly amount of hyperbolic hysteria. So much that your faculties falter and you run with it against your better judgment. As a mini-movie, the prelude of Saving Private Ryan is unimpeachable, iron-clad cinematic entertainment – and it is, mind you, entertainment, fixated on drawing us into the violence and enticing us with it. Francois Truffaut was absolutely correct in his famous anti-anti-war film declaration, noting that cinema could not truly be anti-war because the fundamental act of tying together imagery of violence is fundamentally arousing. Saving Private Ryan could not hope to be anti-war if it spent the rest of its three hour run time declaiming at the top of a hill about it, but morality aside, it is unarguably superb cinema.
The trouble with Saving Private Ryan is that its defenders, and often the film itself, do plainly wish to defame war, much to the eternal confusion of a film that both enjoys and detests its combat. If you truly want to see a film about the harsh impenetrability of war, look to Ryan’s most famous sparring-partner: Terrence Malick’s diorama-like The Thin Red Line, a cryptic, cosmic masterpiece with a theoretical treatise on the culpability of cinema in war – and a critique of the very idea that cinema can actually depict the act of war with realism to begin with. That film is everything Ryan’s defenders proclaim Ryan to be, running away with their argument right under their nose and leaving them stranded with a film that is, in essence, war pornography.
And Americana pornography, which is where the skeletal structure of this film kicks in, and its defenders quietly dust their vacant expressions of half-hearted defense under the rug. No one ever discusses the large majority of Saving Private Ryan because such a discussion would force even the most dismally incompetent viewer of cinema to understand a basic and futile truth: Saving Private Ryan is not a grisly, hard-charging motion picture, but a sudsy, classical melodrama. And a dishonest melodrama, at that, one that can’t even admit to itself that it derives most of its effect through the bluntest and showiest manipulative tendencies of any melodrama this side of, say, Titanic. Both are adolescent productions, but while Titanic at least understood its adolescent weepie origins in the dark territories of soap opera cinema, Saving Private Ryan dedicates most of its run time toward firing bullets at its feet, pretending to be a realistic, dour, grimy war picture when it can never escape the shadow of its Spielbergian origins in galvanized populism. Rather than embracing itself, Ryan is left running for cover, using cruel and unforgiving violence to loudly and bombastically paint over its saccharine, sudsy, safe core.
Which is to say: soap opera populism, ala Titanic, isn’t fashionable, but at least it lets us know what we’re getting. Titanic bellows at the top of its lungs that it is no more than a classical Hollywood blockbuster, while Saving Private Ryan seems to hate itself, or at least cower in shame at its superficial tendencies. Superficiality is fine, but we know it when we see it. Stand up to it, and at least there’s a measure of buoyancy to the production. Hide from it, and you’re a sheep in wolf’s clothing, a toddler dressing up in their parent’s dresses and suits. The violence in Saving Private Ryan – and does this film ever love it some ol’ fashioned American violence – is a ruse, a lie, and a facade to cover up the fundamentally respectable, stale core of Saving Private Ryan the narrative film. Saving Private Ryan is no less antiseptic a motion picture than Titanic, but at least Titanic owns up to itself.
Thus is the Spielberg paradox. He is a monumentally well-honed craftsperson, and his technical know-how is as blissfully invigorating in Saving Private Ryan as it ever has been. The D-Day invasion is a cacophony of structural ingenuity, ruthlessly carnivorous editing machinations, vertiginous camerawork (Janusz Kaminski, as he always is, proves best in show as DP), and enticingly fractured sound editing (where noise approximates the tactile space of the invasion and moves according to the natural chaos and entropy of a battle that seems more like an absurdist collage of hot flashes than a cohesive battle, which absolutely serves the function of the sequence perfectly).
Even taking that opening out, there are some marvelous stretches of pure filmmaking in Saving Private Ryan, sequences both bombastic and silent, orgasmic and plaintive, sequences of gilded on-screen activity and pointedly absent inactivity, where off-screen and on-screen space dance and rip out each other’s throats. It is a gorgeous, sumptuous film of clinical brutality matched to impressionist poetry all whirling around in a collage of toxic aimlessness and stone cold adversity, the exact visual tension essential to describe the hellish limbo-like nature of the characters as they skulk like zombies from point to point futilely hoping to find another soldier named Ryan, or some semblance of their souls.
Yet, on that last point of “soul”; Spielberg, plainly, does not know what to do with it. The ethics of war prop themselves up here and there in this production, enough so that the subject matter is clearly on the table so to speak, and yet the film is palpably terrified to confront any of its suggestions in any meaningfully confrontational way. For all its ragged tenacity, Ryan has more than a few spoonfuls of that sugary “last moral war” gee-whiz Americana in its bones, and this spirit is absolutely deadly to any sense of moral complexity the film institutes in its own name. A moral complexity that isn’t technically essential to the finished product – war films can function as pure, amoral cinema after all (and Titanic has no moral complexity to speak of) – but Ryan plainly wishes to speak up in the name of moral complication time and time again. Thus, we end up throwing our hands in the air at the blithering dishonesty of a film that will jump from pro-America proclamations of propagandizing (any of the film’s dozen or so fits of feverish speechifying) to half-hearted implications that, just maybe, all the violence secretly wasn’t worth it after all. Saving is perpetually inflicted with a desire to question America’s interest at war in the world. And without fail, it backs off from its own question every time.
All of this coalesces – or does not coalesce – into a dastardly concoction of sentimental anti-sentimentality and cold and callous warmth, and these contradictions, try as they might, do not come off as “war sure was a walking contradiction of tortured emotions and commands, wasn’t it?”. The effect is much more “we wanted to make a film that was violent and realistic enough to be taken seriously, but wasn’t violent or realistic enough to actually meaningfully stomp all over its awards season glory and rampant popular appeal”. Robert Rodat’s screenplay manages to turn the simple and beautifully ascetic premise of “Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) leads a band of eight soldiers through war-torn Europe in hopes of finding a Private Ryan (Matt Damon) and sending him home” into an unimaginable implosion of lead-footed sermonizing and tonal contradiction. It is anti-populist populism left eating at itself, carving chunks in its own identity, rather than comprising a more volatile, transformative, and altogether dangerous concoction. For all its majesty, there is nothing more shameful than a banal, sheltered, unharmed film adopting the mask of a deranged, unhinged, challenging cinematic production. Saving Private Ryan is a work of lively and pregnant moments in search of a binding agent, and 169 minutes is more than its constitutionally-granted allotment of time to hold us hostage while it fails to find one.