I said to myself, "Self, let's not focus on the opening 21 minute battle sequence, because everyone else has already done that." So, go ahead and just guess what the first thousand words are about.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Robert Rodat
With Tom Hanks (Capt. Miller), Tom Sizemore (Sgt. Horvath), Edward Burns (Pvt. Reiben), Barry Pepper (Pvt. Jackson), Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Mellish), Vin Diesel (Pvt. Caparzo), Giovanni Ribisi (T/4 Medic Wade), Jeremy Davies (Cpl. Upham), Dennis Farina (Lt. Col. Anderson), Paul Giamatti (Sgt. Hill), Ted Danson (Capt. Hamill), Jeorg Stadler ("Steamboat Willie"), Nathan Fillion (Pvt. James F. Ryan of Minnesota), and Matt Damon (Pvt. James F. Ryan of Iowa)
There aren't many films, not even many Steven Spielberg films, that can claim to be as influential as his 1998 elegy to the vanishing ranks of the Greatest Generation, Saving Private Ryan. It rewrote the book on cinematic combat so thoroughly that just about every war movie to follow afterward was obliged to copy its tone and its techniques—and not just war movies, in fact. It wasn't two years before several aspects of its cinematography were incorporated into the combat of antiquity, in Gladiator. It wasn't seven years before those surface elements had become bowdlerized enough to fit quite effortlessly into radical action-horror, in The Descent. (And, please, let's not even get started on Ryan's sound design, which might be impeccable, but has been so deeply ripped-off by every movie with an explosion that you might actually forget that Ryan started the trend.)
Upon the moment of its release, Ryan's style announced itself as the only serious form for modern warfare to take in the movies. Everyone loved it, and everyone called it "realism," despite there being very little in the hyperstylization of Janusz Kaminski's camerawork, or the deep subjectivity of Gary Rydstrom et al's soundscape, or in Michael Kahn's jagged editing that you ought to call "realistic." (Ah, but did Spielberg not abstain from shoehorning John Williams' wonderfully maudlin score into any those combat sequences? He did! And I suppose this is very realistic indeed, especially since—to my knowledge—the legendary film composer was not invited to accompany the 2nd Ranger Battalion to Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, even though he'd been alive for twelve whole years by then.)
As for the rest of it, now that we've started off on exactly the wrong foot, we might as well wade in with both boots, and immediately deploy that awful standard cliche, apparently without which no discussion of the film could be complete. Yes, as famously suggested by Spielberg's hero and friend, Francois Truffaut, you just can't make a war film that's truly against war. And Spielberg, apparently taking this statement as a challenge, gathered his forces, and brought to our screens the closest thing to a Nazi-occupied hell planet that movie magic has ever provided—at least in terms of its detail and its scope.
So, please, call it antiwar if you like. Yet the horrors of war, as Truffaut predicted, remain no more than merely suggested in the actual content. (Of which I generally approve: the man calmly picking up his blown-off arm; the burning men; the approximately one thousand times that Tom Hanks' Captain John Miller turns to some subordinate only to find them missing the parts of their body that had kept them alive; and all the other thousand phantasmogoric moments to which Miller's eyes attend. Why, it's almost as if the man portrayed by a movie star were in fact here to witness all this carnage for our benefit, rather than focus on the battle he's been sent to fight—which we also assume, correctly, he will survive, no matter how many extras die.)
No, in Ryan the medium really is the message. Thus, to make their war film an antiwar film, Spielberg and Kaminski elect to simply make the beginning of the film itself incredibly unpleasant to watch.
I've mentioned before that Ryan's cinematography is one of Kaminski's triumphs. And, in terms of any individual frame, I stand by it. First you have Kaminski's dark and dreary bleach-bypass reproduction of the colors of Omaha Beach and beyond—a permanently darkened palette, presaged by the American flag drained of its blood and its stars turned black, might not be completely resolute in its physical accuracy, but it sure as hell gets across this movie's tone (that is, a miserablism leavened only by a deep respect for the horrors it depicts) as well as anything else possibly could. And, further, it captures the grotesque tactility of this world at war: the dirt, the rain, the mud, the shattered masonry, the grit, the tank hulls, the grime, the uniforms, and (lest we forget) the dirt.
Meanwhile, light bounces through Kaminski's unprotected lenses, leaving strange, idiosyncratic glares and flares across the frame. And the decreased shutter angle, Kaminski's greatest innovation, lends the action novel intensity, with each staccato, hyperreal movement of the doomed soldiers across the beach and into France, even as it successfully evokes the color and cadence of the newsreel footage upon which his entire visual scheme is based.
All of this is excellent. And then, at Spielberg's instigation, Kaminski starts shaking the camera till you lose the feeling in your fucking face. It was here that a whole new, borderline-unwatchable brand of cinema was born screaming in blood; and though Ryan is far better than many of its descendants, it has so much to answer for.
But then, that's Ryan's "realism" for you: a sensual barrage that bowls you over, but mostly because it exploits a weakness in the human sensory apparatus—a disconnect between vision and balance, tricking your brain into believing you've been poisoned—that only comes into play when you are watching a movie. That's Spielberg's genius move here: filmmaking as neurotoxin. Gritty, yet honestly less immersive than filming with tall cranes and a mile of track, what might you imagine was the source of Ryan's palsied framing? Why, nothing less than mechanical devices designed to make a camera quake—for the human hands of Kaminski's operators were simply too sure to actually produce the full-scale nauseous onslaught Spielberg desired. It's a rather curious method of capturing "reality"; if the men on Omaha Beach were this unsteady, it's a real wonder they ever managed to shoot each other.
There are, of course, caveats. The first is that the discombobulating effect falls upon some folks worse than others, and in different ways at different times. (I remember loving the shit out of it in the theaters back in 1998; meanwhile, I've presently watched Ryan's opening twice in two days, and the second time was far easier.) Thus it's a parochial criticism, not unlike an epileptic voicing his qualms about the ending of 2001. The second is that it's brutely effective: the style is more actively repulsive than any number of well-faked mutilations. The third is that watching it on blu-ray may not be helpful: production designer Tom Sanders' and costume designer Joanna Johnston's absolutely perfect efforts are so full of texture, and Kaminski's camerawork so fitful, that the Ryan hi-def experience inevitably winds up rotten with judder and shimmer. And the fourth—well—either one gets accustomed to Ryan's audiovisual aggression, or it just gets a lot better. Thus is the final battle unambiguously superior to the opening scene, more fluid in its camerawork, less jarringly-constructed in its geography.
Goddamn it, overall I admit it even works. It finds some measure of greatness in its sheer ugliness—even when it turns Ryan into (by far) the least rewatchable great movie that Spielberg ever made.
Yet that's how I come to find Ryan, in many respects a revolutionary motion picture, to be at its best when it's also at its most conventional. By this, I mean those much-hated bookending scenes, as problematic as they are; I mean the moments where the soldiers debate their role in life, both the quiet ones and the more heated ones; I mean the climax that finds our heroes duking it out with enormous Nazi tanks, framed like the shark from Jaws, and announced by their terrible vibrations, like the T-rex in Jurassic Park; and, above all, I mean Tom Hanks as Capt. Miller, who chafes against the absurdity of his mission by, essentially, refusing to perform it, and getting himself and most of his men killed in the process, ending in the film's most beautiful moment, not to mention its most bitterly whimsical—when Spielberg takes a page right from his own Empire of the Sun.
Now, you already know the story of Saving Private Ryan—it is, after all, right there in the title. It is the tale of eight Army Rangers tasked on D-Day +3 with the mission of finding and retrieving Pvt. James F. Ryan, of Iowa, because all his brothers have died. It is a propaganda mission, and Miller is not terribly happy to receive it, nor are the members of his picked squad. One, a translator conscripted from the typing pool, seems to initially treat it as an adventure; he is quickly disabused of this, though he continues to serve as the voice of humanity in that gratingly obnoxious way you often see in war movies, where he is good-hearted but is also an inept coward, and therefore no one listens to him.
Of course, everybody in Ryan is some manner of stereotype, and this has been one of its enduring criticisms. To my mind, though, it's always struck me as missing the forest for the trees. Aside from Spielberg's obvious desire to put yet another old-fashioned squad of American ethnics into a new breed of movie, the reason none of the lower-billed members of the ensemble in Ryan stands out as a character is because they're not supposed to be characters. Rather, they are tools, foils, sounding boards, and obstacles for the film's sole actual character—and him, we get to know rather well.
The rest each have their moments (perhaps even too many, given Ryan's extremely long runtime), and they serve their functions well enough. (Except, that is, when they don't. For when it comes to that aforementioned newbie coward, Corporal Upham, almost nothing isn't terrible—from the extremely stupid questions he introduces himself with, marking his conception in screenwriter Robert Rodat's mind as our "viewpoint character" even though he's already given us a perfectly good one, right down to his thematically-disorganized war crime denouement, which a viewer can redeem, and only if the viewer really wants to, if they are prepared to read it as the ultimate expression of his pathetic weakness.)
In any event, it's Hanks alone who builds a character out of his stereotype; indeed, Hanks might be more interested in the film's ruminations on the dehumanizing effects of war than the script is. In Capt. Miller, you have the old mysterious leader—in this case, combined with the mild-mannered man who has become, in war's crucible, an effective killer of Nazi scum. Hanks plays his contradictions: kindly and snappish, level-headed and full of sublimated anger. He gets a bit of obvious physical business with a shaking right hand, the kind that only someone on Hanks' level could make work; but Hanks is Hanks, and so it works well. Thus one of the most compelling things going on Ryan is watching Hanks pointedly attempt to not care about anybody else as a human being. Miller, after all, has learned that feeling anything only makes everything worse.
The fascinating thing is how rarely he fails. He can't quite keep from being fatherly and sage to his men, for this is inherent to his role within the war machine, yet instead of hope, or righteousness, or even his own troops, he trusts instead to his rules, to his disengaged moral calculus, and to his practiced impersonality. Witness how he treats the two James Ryanses he finds (and especially the first). It's the kind of indifference that doesn't even rise to the level of contempt. It's so naked that even his own troops (and a fellow officer) can't help but react to it. After he has at last found the "real" Ryan, the boy asks, at the end of their brief conversation about loved ones and memory, "Tell me about your wife in the rose garden." "No," Miller says, and it has a finality to it. Ryan has been praised—overpraised—for its depiction of soldiers as "regular guys" who didn't give a shit about fighting Hitler. And perhaps it is more the result of Rodat's tangle of a screenplay than anything else, but this is not at all what actually happens; instead, Miller leads his squad against easily-circumvented enemies, and, in the end, instead of simply sending Ryan back home in irons if necessary, he accepts Ryan's rationale for staying and defending a bridge as more-or-less correct, keeping his poorly-equipped men in the line against the oncoming, seemingly-unstoppable panzertruppen.
There's always a bigger picture in Miller's head. But his need to deaden himself to all the smaller details—the endless array of corpses that even his good decisions produce—is as much the subject of the film as the silliness of sending eight men to rescue one, or whatever the hell Rodat thinks he's saying about the usefulness of mercy in wartime when it comes to gunning down POWs, or even the brazenly symbolic nature of poor Ryan himself, bluntly used to stand in, all at once, for all veterans (who survived when others died and may or may not feel a measure of guilt on account of this) and also for the mostly-Boomer and Gen X audience, for whose freedom the veterans fought and/or perished, and who are encouraged to "Earn it."
Which leads us back to the beginning, and hence the end—the bookending sequences that, shamefully, I tend to really like, in their attempt to impose some kind of meaning and human emotion onto a film that has been, in every respect except Miller, not much more than a loud, visceral three-hour action film that judges you if you enjoy it.
Let's not go overboard: there's no getting around the fundamental fracture in point-of-view that these two bookenders occasion. That is, it's impossible to avoid believing that the old man at Arlington National Cemetary is Capt. Miller, and the best Spielberg and Kahn can do to cover their ass is, rather than matching the two men's eyes when the film throws itself back from 1998 to 1944, they drop in an echoing shot of the beach obstacles at Normandy instead, recalling the rows of crosses—right before they land upon Miller's face, popping out of the crowd on the LCA as his company makes its way to Normandy. That old man, as you know, was only Ryan—a paratrooper who did not participate in the beach landings, nor in any of the picaresque misadventures that constitute the bulk of the film. So: Spielberg is simply lying to us. (Then again, who complains about Silence of Lambs, where Jonathan Demme does the exact same thing, if not, admittedly, at beyond a feature's length?)
But here, as there, it is a lie in service of a solid twist—our movie star hero was never as safe as we imagined. Perhaps more importantly, it lets us share the ineffable connection Ryan must himself feel for Miller, who gave his life (and the lives of his men) on behalf of the old, enfeebled man now standing at his grave—and the children and grandchildren who came with him. Spielberg has never been above repeating himself, and in Ryan he says it again: "There will be generations because of what you did."
Thus, I vastly prefer a Ryan with the bookends to any possible version without them, for despite the tricky editing (and even despite Spielberg's absolutely terrible blocking of his modern-day extras) it nevertheless drives home the emotional resonance that Ryan ultimately finds dangling in the loose threads of its script. It cannot answer why one man lives, when many died; and it cannot quantify the debt he (and we) owe those men who never got their chance to be human again. But it acknowledges the question; it confirms the debt. Without these scenes, love them or not, does Saving Private Ryan make its well-taken point even half as well as it does?