The Hollywood hype machine is dangerous. Expectations can be raised so high that even a good movie can seem to fall short if it fails to deliver on much promoted promises. With popcorn blockbusters like Godzilla, Deep Impact, and Armageddon, it doesn't matter. They were always more marketing concepts than well-developed stories. But with the work of a major film-maker like Steven Spielberg, there are difficulties and disappointments.
Seven of the 20 top-grossing movies of all times carry his name as either a producer or director. Since his much acclaimed masterpiece, Schindler's List, his more serious projects have been eagerly awaited, and, unfortunately, with his latest, Saving Private Ryan, he has chosen to become part of the hype.
In a series of print interviews and on the prestigious TV news show, Nightline, the filmmaker has been given a forum to make all kinds of exaggerated claims for his work. Saving Private Ryan is falsely described as being unique in its extensive use of semi-documentary combat footage and as innovative in its emphasis on the horrors of war as opposed to films awash in John Wayne-type, recruiting poster heroics. And because it's Spielberg — and not some slick studio flack — talking, many respectable critics have recycled these assertions in their reviews, forgetting what they know of film history. For, the truth is, war movies have always been one of Hollywood's greatest artistic strengths, beginning with King Vidor's realistic 1925 silent classic, The Big Parade, up to Oliver Stone's gory 1986 Vietnam-War epic, Platoon.
There are at least a dozen other movies (They Were Expendable, Battleground, The Big Red One, etc.) that treat World War II combat with the same skill and intelligence as Saving Private Ryan. But anger at the hype shouldn't blind us to the Spielberg film's considerable merits.
Saving Private Ryan is, in fact, two movies. The first is a 24-minute semi-documentary section on the Omaha Beach landing on D- Day, June 6, 1944. The second is a well-crafted, conventional foot- soldier's yarn about a squad of rangers sent to retrieve an enlisted man whose three other brothers have been killed in combat.
After a brief prologue with a veteran visiting the graves of his fallen comrades, we're plunged straight into the middle of the invasion. Using hand-held cameras, Spielberg successfully replicates the look of period newsreels. The slaughter is instant, terrible, and unceasing. The soldiers begin to die before they hit the beaches, drowning underwater because of the weight of their packs. One man loses an arm and, stumbling around in shock, picks it up with his other. There are no heroics. Survival depends on luck as much as on courage. The camera lingers particularly on the bloodiness of the wounds.
A ranger company led by Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) slowly becomes the focus of our attention as he drives his men forward, and against all odds they knock out a Nazi machine gun nest.
If any other director had produced a long, ultra-violent sequence like this, his movie would have gotten an NC-17 rating, not an R. But because Spielberg is considered the industry's premiere film-maker, the MPAA board must have decided to cut him some slack. However, the violence is never exploitative in the manner of much of the industry's current product. Instead the audience has its nose rubbed in the intense agony and destructiveness of war. But it must be said that other World War II films have achieved similar results with less blood and guts.
One of the final shots of the landing sequence highlights the name “Ryan” on the backpack of one of the dead. Back at headquarters, Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall (Harve Presnell), learns that two other Ryan brothers have died, but one, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), is a para-trooper who may still be alive in Normandy. A rescue mission is ordered.
Miller is given the assignment which he considers “a public relations gambit.” He has already had 94 of his men killed in combat. “Ryan better be worth it,” he says. “He better go home and cure some disease or invent a new, longer lasting light bulb.”
Miller's squad resembles the kind of multi-ethnic unit we've seen in dozens of Hollywood films. There's the battle-hardened sergeant (Tom Sizemore); the rebel who talks too much (Edward Burns); the Italian (Vic Diesel); the Jew (Adam Goldberg); the misfit intellectual (Jeremy Davies); and the Southern-born sniper who prays “God grant me strength” before squeezing off each shot.
Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat milk this recognizable cast of characters for some familiar big moments. The laconic, James Stewart-like Miller defuses a mutiny when emotions are running high, and the non-violent intellectual must learn to become part of the warrior culture.
But the movie also dramatizes some challenging ideas. Vengeance is depicted as a motive that can overwhelm compassion in the treatment of the enemy; and the soldiers are shown to be fighting mainly for their own and their buddies' survival rather than any grandiose sense of mission.
Unlike so many recent war films, Saving Private Ryan makes us proud to be Americans. When it's over, we're grateful for the sacrifices made at DDay. But it is not the major cultural event Spielberg and his studio would like it to be. The movie is a well-made, emotionally harrowing World War II combat film and that should be good enough — if you can stomach the violence.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
Saving Private Ryan is rated R by the Motion Picture Association America.