My good friend and colleague, Scott Murray, editor of Cinema Papers*, has written a
searching and detailed review of Saving Private Ryan in the December 1998 edition. At one point
he has this to say: "…any filmmaker who can make an audience treasure a soul,
and powerfully regret its deprivation, is a filmmaker to be noted. "It is a
pity then, that Spielberg, one of cinema’s most naturally gifted filmmakers, should
resort to trickery. "Throughout the film, one thinks back to the start and the old
man remembering back to Omaha. This fake ‘flash-back’ is a stupid and
transparent gimmick to make one think Miller (Hanks) survived the war; it cheapens the
Murray takes issue with a number of other elements, arguing his case forcefully in each
case. For example, he is critical of the final act, when the script fails "to engage
one … in the ethical/decency dramas at stake [and] leave one in the absurd position,
created by so many war movies, of wondering which men will die and which will not. In this
case, whether it is Miller or Ryan is never at issue, the audience having resolved that
"there will be many … issues and debates
One of the other problematic issues for Murray is that the film "posits no telling
relevance to the world in which one lives, offers no lessons for handling a Kosovo or
Iraq, arguing only for decency and deserving one’s existence." Well, that’s
a big ask, but Scott Murray is right; we should ask. See later.
Murray also selects some of the film’s outstanding achievements, including the
real and complex emotional essence Spielberg captures in the opening scene (the ‘fake
flash back’) in the war cemetery in Normandy; the "terrifying, visceral
sequence" at Omaha beach, of which he says: "It is hard to think of a more
claustrophobic sequence, where the arbitrariness of death is so strongly felt." As
Murray says - and this is the whole point of this article - "there will be many
… issues and debates raised by Saving Private Ryan, and it may well be one of those
films where analysis is long revisited and discussed."
Our own CRITICS are unanimous in their praise, with only occasional and low-key
reservations (eg: "With the exception of a closing, modern sequence [the film's most
jarring flaw], Saving Private Ryan remains compelling, hypnotic cinema, and for Spielberg,
a work of maturity and immeasurable power," says Paul Fischer)
"a surprisingly conventional war film conclusion"
A thoughtful - Wade Major has this to say in Boxoffice Magazine: "Had Robert
Rodat's fact-based script climaxed with even a fraction of its overall "gung
ho"-ism, in fact, it might have managed to make the unambiguous point for which the
filmmakers were clearly striving. What is presented instead is a surprisingly conventional
war film conclusion that actually appears to justify the preceding carnage as an act of
honor, courage and justice. Particularly troubling are two brief moments whose sole
function in the film seems to be the evocation of cheers from the audience.
Though it is unlikely that either Spielberg or Rodat would have consciously meant to
imply that the barbarism of war as depicted in "Saving Private Ryan" is either
noble or heroic, that is, indeed, the message that viewers discerning enough to see past
the technical mastery will take home with them, a message which is further re-enforced in
the film's rather silly and unnecessary present-day frame story.
Given the proclivities of the average moviegoer, however, odds are that most will fail
to consider such matters, instead appreciating the film almost exclusively on the basis of
its formidable technical merits and universally fine cast."
"a philosophical film about war almost entirely in
terms of action"
BUT, says the celebrated Roger Ebert: "Spielberg and his screenwriter, Robert
Rodat, have done a subtle and rather beautiful thing: They have made a philosophical film
about war almost entirely in terms of action. Saving Private Ryan' says things about war
that are as complex and difficult as any essayist could possibly express, and does it with
broad, strong images, with violence, with profanity, with action, with camaraderie. It is
possible to express even the most thoughtful ideas in the simplest words and actions, and
that's what Spielberg does. The film is doubly effective, because he communicates his
ideas in feelings, not words."
AND yet another point of view, from Salon Magazine’s Gary Kamiya: "The
problem is, the pornographic allure of combat overshadows our interest in or concern for
the characters or the story's outcome. And since the movie has by now lost the
hallucinatory, free-floating quality that made the D-Day sequence so compelling, and
become a conventional narrative, there's something unsatisfying about the lack of
emotional identification and catharsis.
Spielberg could have avoided this by giving his characters, and Ryan in particular,
more depth, creating backstories for them, perhaps weaving other plot elements into his
story. This, of course, would have made the film much more conventional and potentially
sentimental, and it would have taken away from its quasi-documentary quality, but it would
have had the virtue of heightening our identification with the human beings fighting and
dying in front of us. In a peculiar way, though, you have to give Spielberg credit for not
making his film more conventionally gripping. If he had made Ryan a more compelling
character, we would have cared about the mission to rescue him -- which is what you'd
expect from the master manipulator of emotions. No doubt out of a salutary realist
impulse, he chose not to -- but as a result, the whole dramatic thrust of the story is
"In what, if any, circumstances should we risk the
lives of many for a few?"
No, I don’t agree that it’s vitiated – that is precisely why it
ISN’T spoiled; Ryan’s personality is not the reason for us caring. If anything,
it’s his mother’s heart we care about!
Any film that triggers so much (and there is much, much more) debate is already
significant. Whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘great’ or a
‘masterpiece’ is a subjective assessment, of course. The film is an allegory,
perhaps, for the moral ambiguities and imperatives that we must continually address. In
what, if any, circumstances should we risk the lives of many for a few? I think this is a
remarkably sharp question to ask, in the context of trying to figure out heartbreaking
issues like those that surround Kosovo, Iraq – and others…don’t you reckon,