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SEEING PRIVATE RYAN

Is Saving Private Ryan all it’s cracked up to be? Relevant or morally under-developed? Should you shell out a few dollars to see it? ANDREW L. URBAN draws up the debating lectern and finds that despite some (well argued) criticism, the film is regarded as a must see by all.

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 whole enterprise."

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 hours ago."

"there will be many … issues and debates raised"

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 vitiated."

"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, Scott?

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* CINEMA PAPERS, published monthly, (RRP $6.95) is Australia’s film journal of record, serving Australian film culture. Founding editor Scott Murray is also the author of several books on Australian cinema. Cinema Papers regularly publishes extensive reviews and features on Australian film and filmmaking, as well being a forum for analysis and comment.  It also has an office cat called Oddspot, credited on its masthead.

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