Virtual War

Why we fight: Tom Hanks and Matt Damon in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan
area theaters, starts Friday

I wanted to achieve reality.

--Steven Spielberg, on his goals for Saving Private Ryan

You can't show war as it really is on the screen, [unless] you could fire real shots over the audience's head every night, and have actual casualties in the theater.

--Sam Fuller

"Reality" being a judgment call in most cases and arguably unattainable in cinema, here's perhaps the truest measure of nonfiction in Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's exceptionally graphic and somewhat doc-like epic of World War II combat: Could someone who's never seen a Spielberg film watch an anonymously credited double feature of the punishing Private Ryan and the screwball 1941 (1979), recognizing them as the work of the same director? Possibly, yes. For one thing, both of these war movies portray the Spielbergian character who begins as a bookish coward but ends up wearing ammo around his neck. (In fact, this trope goes all the way back to the director's Jaws.) Alternately, both feature a tough-guy commander who breaks down weeping: In 1941, Dumbo brings tears to a Disney-loving general (Spielberg's idea of a real patriot), and in Private Ryan, a heroic captain stops to cry because war is hell--and because Tom Hanks needs a moment to collect his Oscar.

You get my point: Regardless of genre, subject matter, or directorial intent, all cinema is constructed. (And Spielberg, a commercially ratified master of manipulation, works the medium more than most.) Such reasoning might appear obvious, though it seems worth reiterating given how criticism of Spielberg's nobler missions can often result in the critic being charged with a war crime.

But let me not sound glib (not yet, anyway), because while Private Ryan is no more akin to "real war" than splatball, the visceral experience of it is shattering. And although a war movie shouldn't require a veteran's approval to give it legitimacy, I can't help wondering what the decorated director Sam Fuller (The Big Red One) would have thought of this film. At the very least Fuller (who, incidentally, had a cameo in 1941) might have appreciated Dolby Digital's impressive approximation of incoming mortar fire--not to mention the inevitable "casualties" of audience walkouts. I also suspect Fuller would have been riveted, which is no faint praise.

Spanning a week in the lives of seven GIs and their intrepid captain (Hanks), Saving Private Ryan opens with a set piece that, modeled in part on director John Ford's documentary footage of the D-Day invasion, is aggressive even by Spielberg's standards. Aside from Hanks's recognizable persona as Mr. American Hero, the soldiers are scarcely distinguished before they're shown storming Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944--and, almost immediately, dying. Spielberg obviously feels that no accurate (or moral) representation of this massacre should go down smoothly, and so, using handheld camerawork and staccato editing timed to the rhythm of bullets piercing metal and tearing flesh, he sets out to make the viewer flinch for 30 minutes straight. Indeed, the firepower is so intense that any man you happen to be watching has a good chance of being cut to pieces in front of your eyes. In one shot, marked by a surreal savagery that recalls Fuller by way of Raging Bull, a wandering soldier bends down to pick his severed arm off the beach; in another, hundreds of the dead lie scattered across the frame as the white water tide turns instantly to crimson.

Indelible as it is (and from here I'll leave it to others to salute Ryan's visual artistry), one might wonder how this sequence differs from Spielberg's other temples of doom. Tearing us up has been the guy's goal all along. (Reviewing Jaws in 1975, Commentary's William S. Pechter lamented an aesthetic "whose sole aim is systematically to reduce one to a quivering mass of ectoplasm.") Well, as with Schindler's List, what's different is the director's perfectly serious choice of subject--which, in this case, is also just plain perfect. The all-male activity of war justifies Spielberg's natural wont to exclude women better than any of his plots since Jaws. So too the decision to set his consummate shocker during World War II--rather undeniably described in the film as "this great campaign to rid the world of tyranny and oppression"--means that the movie's grisly heroism will meet less resistance from draft-dodging types. Just as the lessons of this war are fairly black and white (as wars go, anyhow), it's hard to imagine Spielberg tackling, say, Vietnam; then again, this is the man who offered an agreeable conclusion to the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, Private Ryan resembles the director's other "mature" efforts by putting a positive spin on unspeakable horrors. Once again, Spielberg zooms in on the extraordinary exception to the historical rule: in this case, Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), a lone (and fictional) paratrooper who, being the last of four soldiering brothers still alive, is ordered to be rescued by Hanks's Capt. Miller and his platoon. So much for realism: This risky mission has ostensibly been initiated on account of Ryan's poor, grieving mother (cf. Jaws)--not to mention the weary audience's need for a narrative to ease the pain of D-Day. Indeed, Private Ryan repeatedly urges the value of stories for survival. It isn't just that the ragged GIs long for Hanks's private captain to reveal his civilian past, or that, by the end, these reinvigorated warriors have switched from screaming for their moms to yelling "Alamo!" (as in "Remember the..."). More, it's that the fiercely debated worthiness of saving Pvt. Ryan (if not Saving Private Ryan) hinges on whether the MIA mystery man everyone's dying to meet will prove sufficiently compelling. (As Miller inelegantly puts it, "I sure hope this guy's worth saving.") And who better to fit the bill than the babyfaced title character of Good Will Hunting?

In other words: The mission is a man and the man is a doll. Given this trajectory, it's no stretch to read Saving Private Ryan as Spielberg's justification--conscious or otherwise--for preferring heroic star vehicles over raw "realism." In the war at home, sometimes the troops need to be distracted, and so the director may well have cleared his conscience for the next frivolous adventure (Indy 4, perhaps). Or has he? Mirroring Schindler's List, Ryan ends with a man's desperate plea for reassurance of his moral virtue. ("Tell me I'm a good man," this guy implores his wife.) Just as the film grapples with the dilemma of whether risking eight men to save one is the right thing, Spielberg is crunching numbers as well. Is it good to sacrifice blockbuster box-office in favor of modest returns on a three-hour gross-out? Only time will tell. His humanitarian effort aside, Spielberg isn't likely to earn a medal of honor for Saving Private Ryan--so he'll probably have to settle for another Oscar.

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