'Private Ryan': Steven Spielberg's Unflinching Tribute To the Men Who Conquered Hell
Friday, July 24, 1998
There are movies and then there are movies.
And then there is Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." Searing, heartbreaking, so intense it turns your body into a single tube of clenched muscle, this is simply the greatest war movie ever made, and one of the great American movies. In one stroke, it makes everything that came before -- with the exception of two or three obscure European variants on the same theme -- seem dated and unwatchable. And it redefines the way we look at war.
Generically, it could be called the last example of that vanished category, the unit tribute film. But this unit is not the 2nd Ranger Battalion or the 101st Airborne. Rather, it is a generation: those men born in the late 1910s and early '20s, who, when asked, simply put aside their tools and settled the great issue of the century, determining who would administer the industrial revolution, dictatorship or democracy. They did this without complaint, bitterness, anger or remorse. Then they came home and picked up their tools again. To this day, few will talk about what they saw and did, and Spielberg shows us why.
In the first seconds you understand you are in a different place than you've ever been before, unless you survived the Normandy invasion. You're in a Higgins boat in the gray dawn of June 6, 1944, wet and cold and already exhausted, scudding through the sloppy surf, and all around you men are puking. The noise is astonishing. Your hands tremble; your breath comes in dry, hurtful spurts.
Then the landing gate falls and in the very first instant, zeroed German machine gun fire spits through the boat. At this moment you'll wish you were elsewhere, as did surely every man in the real thing. In Spielberg's terrifying version, the bullets seem somehow angry -- they pierce the air, trailing a whine or a streak of neon illumination, and when they strike sand or steel, they kick up big, vicious geysers; and there are so many of them, and they come so fastfastfast. But when they strike flesh, they strike it with a thudding finality that reduces a man to maimed meat in a sixth of a second, and takes it all away from him, so that he falls forward obedient only to gravity. He dies like a sack of potatoes falling off a shelf.
Spielberg's ability to capture the palpable madness of all this borders on the incredible. The first 25 minutes of the film -- a re-creation of Omaha Beach from the point of view of an all-too-human Ranger captain, who's been here and done this, but not at this level of violence -- is surely one of the great tours de force of world cinema. From the spillage of viscera, the shearing of limbs, the gushing of blood and the psychotic whimsy of the bullets, to a final kind of fog of panic and soul-deep fear, he makes you glad it was your daddy's job, and not yours.
But Spielberg also understands war's deepest reality, which is that being there is not enough, and being willing to die for your country is also not enough; you have to be willing to kill for your country. So much of the battle carnage pictured in "Saving Private Ryan" is based on the craft of close-quarter, small-unit combat: It's watching men maneuver across terrain for geometrical superiority, hunting for a position to vector fire in on the enemy. He who shoots from the best position and brings the most fire to bear, he's the winner. The thermodynamics of infantry combat: Shoot well, shoot fast, shoot often.
Where does this unprecedented version of war come from? It may come out of a few other movies, ironically all of them German. I think of "Das Brucke" ("The Bridge"), "The Winter War" (actually Finnish, about the short, brutal Russo-Finn war of 1940), or "Stalingrad" or even "Das Boot" -- all movies that portrayed unflinchingly the iron randomness of war. But more vividly, it has clearly been informed by a close study of as much archival footage of The Real Thing as can be had. In this sense, it's ersatz documentary, with desaturated '40s color, jittery, terrified camera movement (you feel the cameraman's fear of getting hit) and the sensation of overwhelming chaos.
It's mean, terrifying, exhausting and quipless. There's no spunk and very little humor. Morale is nonexistent. It's a grinding, debasing job carried out in physical misery in an environment -- mud, rain, cold -- that is itself an enemy. It's Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe without the punch lines, but with a lot of dead GIs and a crushing melancholy hanging over everything like smoke.
But this will become evident only in time. Initially, we are in such a fog from the intensity of the invasion sequence that fatigue is the only response: A few survivors eat K-rations and try to decompress from the pressurized brutality they've both suffered and dealt. Word comes: a mission.
Here the movie broadens somewhat, for just a moment: Two Ryan brothers have died in the invasion and a third has just perished in New Guinea. Mrs. Ryan, of Every Farm, U.S.A., will get three letters on the same day. But it seems there's a fourth Ryan, James (Matt Damon), the youngest, somewhere with the advance units of the 101st Airborne in the small French towns that cover the approach to the beaches. No less a personage than George C. Marshall himself, the chief of staff (played by Harve Presnell with a less kitschy quality than might be expected), orders that a unit be sent out to pluck this boy from battle and return him to the farm. It's typical of Spielberg that this position is not treated glibly, as another bit of idiocy by "the brass." In a spirit of decency and in accordance with what seems to be his career-long recognition of benevolent authority, he makes us see on what basis Marshall makes his decision, and how, no matter how it plays out, it represents the best of the American spirit, not the worst.
Eight men -- that heroic captain, John Miller (Tom Hanks in another of his quietly brilliant everyman roles), a sergeant (Tom Sizemore), a Browning Automatic Rifleman (Edward Burns), a sniper (Barry Pepper), a medic (Giovanni Ribisi), two riflemen (Vin Diesel and Adam Goldberg) and an interpreter (Jeremy Davies) -- are charged to cross the dangerous ground between the beachhead and the town, locate Private Ryan and bring him back alive. Or bring back his dog tags.
As pure story, the movie has a swiftness to it that goes far beyond the sheer fidelity of the battle sequences. The narrative has been expertly configured; it moves us through a variety of experiences -- squad assault, town battle, sniper duel, a final stand against armored units -- while at the same time keeping precise track of the overall story situation. Simultaneously, the personalities of the men are expressing themselves, in small ways. Even Damon's Ryan, who could be the font of sentimentality, turns out to be just another kid, low-key and quietly, furiously decent. (Damon, like all the actors, is excellent in this lesser role.) But it's no flashback-o-rama, in the fashion of "The Naked and the Dead," where each man's life is summed up in a banal recollection. Rather -- this is a point Spielberg makes over and over -- these men have essentially given up on their civilian personalities -- with the exception of the unit intellectual, the interpreter played by Davies -- for the duration. They know the drill. They know what to do. They can hold it together. They've become, in Stephen Ambrose's wonderful term, complete Citizen Soldiers.
In this way, the film approaches its true subject, which isn't heroism, but duty, which is to say, repression. It's about men who make a conscious decision that the self does not matter; the "personality" is irrelevant; feelings are dangerous. Thus they become what they must, to survive, to kill and to win: sealed-off beings locked away, hoarding their emotions, giving vent only to rage. They let nothing hang out because hanging out can get you killed. And Spielberg dramatizes this point twice, explicitly, in episodes where two soldiers yield to compassion. In this cruelest of worlds, the result is catastrophe. This movie is about a generation that put its heart on the shelf, dialed its minds down into a small, cold tunnel, and fought with its brains.
All the way through you can feel Spielberg flirting with cliche, almost daring us to recognize it and then at the last moment pulling it away from us and leaving us open-mouthed. But the biggest cliche that the movie assaults is the very conceit upon which war movies have been eternally built: It is the idea that somehow, combat is cool. There's always been an athletic grace to battle as the movies have portrayed it, a kind of photogenic sportiness. Even in the most violent of battle sequences, a little boy in you thought, "Hey, that's kinda neat." You know, dropping grenades on the German high command trapped underground in "The Dirty Dozen" or spray-painting Nazis red with your Thompson in "The Longest Day." And there was that Hollywood thing where the hero ran through blizzards of fire and somehow was never touched, because, after all, he was the hero.
That's all gone here. Not merely because of its gore but far more because of its cruelty, the war here will inspire no enlistees and no one will relive it in private later. It's flat-out terrifying, and the emotion it finally produces in you is more than any other film has gotten, but about one-thousandth of what the infantrymen of 1944 must have felt after one day on the line: utter exhaustion. You feel bled out, and at least emotionally, you have been.
So in the end, this one is for the boys of Pointe-du-Hoc, and also the boys of Utah and Omaha, Salerno, Monte Cassino, Iwo, the boys who took the long walk ashore at Tarawa through the Japanese fire, the boys whose last moments were spent in a flaming Fortress over Schweinfurt, or whatever, wherever, between the years 1941 and 1945. Take a bow, little guy, it says to them.
And to us, their inheritors, it says: Hey, look what your daddies did, what they went through, what they survived or didn't survive -- and be proud. And it also asks us the hardest of all questions: Are we worthy of them?
Saving Private Ryan (169 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for an extremely frank view of combat casualties as well as profanity.