Friday, November 4, 2016
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
(July 1998, U.S.)
For my previous post of SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949), I briefly mentioned a book I'd been reading called FIVE CAME BACK by Mark Harris, which told the story of Hollywood filmmaking during World War II. Key points that were consistent throughout the book were not only the timing of feature films and documentaries, but also content. How much was too much and how much was too realistic for American audiences to be exposed to during those war years? What would directors of American propaganda and war dramas, as well as the United States government and Hollywood producers have thought of such a film as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, quite possibly the most realistic and graphically-detailed movie about World War II combat ever made? Quite simply, such a graphic and disturbing film would never have gotten the green light back then. It would be more than fifty years before a gifted director like Steven Spielberg would bring the war, particularly the Invasion of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, to the big screen for our generation to fully understand the depth and perception of the American soldier as he faced the unspeakable evil of our German enemies.
Following the opening sequence of an elderly World War II veteran (whom we learn at the end of the film is James Ryan in the present day) and his family visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France, we are immediately taken back in time to the beaches of battle. Combat is neither glorified, nor is it exciting, as it was often depicted in many John Wayne war films of yesterday. From the moment the door opens on the assault craft, many of our young boys are barely able to make it off of the craft before they are shot to pieces by the unseen German infantry and their artillery fire on shore. The first wave of soldiers is lead by Captain John H. Miller (played by Tom Hanks in his first role with Spielberg). Though Miller survives this first assault, he is haunted and horrified by the extensive and violent casualties that take place around him (Spielberg effectively uses slow motion action to emphasize this). Eventually, Miller's team is able to penetrate the German defenses and finally establish victory for this invasion, which history records as a major successful turning point for the American foothold in the war. This opening sequence of battle is nearly thirty minutes long and although difficult to watch, it's essential, nonetheless, to tell the tale of such an important piece of American history that no textbook or previous film could ever do (not even THE LONGEST DAY, which I still regard as one of the best war films ever made).
Back home at the U.S. War Department in Washington D.C., it's discovered that three of the four brothers named Ryan were killed in action and their mother in Iowa is due to receive all three telegrams of her son's death on the same day. The fourth brother, James Francis Ryan (played by Matt Damon), is still missing in action and presumed alive somewhere in Normandy. John Miller and his team are given the mission to find Private Ryan and get him home to his mother. Immediately, the idea of risking the lives of many to save one man seems completely illogical (Spock would have said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN). However, it's impossible not feel the unique example of human spirit and sacrifice behind such a mission, as well as the genuine empathy for a mother who has lost three of her sons to the war. This is the feeling we must harbor as we journey with these men to find one man, essentially "a needle in a stack of needles", as Miller puts it. Along the way, there is, of course, more battle and moments where the humanity of the American soldier is tested. When are they justified to shoot a German soldier who surrenders? When is it simply "an eye for an eye" form of justice? These are questions only true men of war can answer. As viewers of film, we can only watch and try to understand and appreciate the moral dilemmas and paradoxes that exist for such men on the battlefield.
Predictably, when the team finally does find Ryan, he refuses to leave the men he considers to be the only brothers he has left in the world. James Ryan himself, despite his rescue being at the heart of the film, is not a character we're meant to know or understand too well, other than a brief story he tells of the last wild night he spent with his brothers before they were separated by military enlistment. He is almost no more than the means to an end in which John Miller and his men will meet their ultimate destinies, be it life or death. Some, even the ones as tough as nails, cannot withstand the power of a German's bullet. Others who are on the battlefield as a mere interpreter and prove to be cowards when it comes to time to approach a situation of danger to save a fellow soldier from a German's knife, end up surviving in the end. There is little compensation for such cowardice even when such a man justifiably shoots the same German soldier he sympathized with earlier and helped to survive. War is, no doubt, confusing and complicated, even to the watcher from the outside.
I went to see SAVING PRIVATE RYAN the very night it opened at a small neighborhood movie theater in Westhampton Beach, Long Island. As much as I loved the film (who wouldn't??), I had the severe misfortune of sitting in front of two elderly woman who were making verbal noises of shock and dismay throughout the entire film. Although I repeatedly asked them to be quiet, they had the audacity to react as if I were the problem (just one of many examples of why I barely go to the movies anymore!). But even as I was watching the film and trying to tolerate these women behind me, I couldn't but wonder what these two old bats honestly expected from an R-rated war film? Even if the internet and social media were not yet effective tools to research the content of a film, they had to have known that a war film would not be a pretty day at the beach. Modern war films of the 1990s have blood, guts and violence, ladies! If you can't handle that, then don't go to the movie! And if you do go to the movie, don't sit behind me!
Finally, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I offer a sincere, heartfelt FUCK YOU. And to SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I offer an even bigger, more sincere and more heartfelt FUCK YOU! There's no way in hell you deserved the Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 over SAVING PRIVATE RYAN! I'm glad Steven Spielberg got the Oscar for Best Director, but it wasn't enough! So again, to all who were responsible for the greatest Best Picture Oscar screwing since OUT OF AFRICA over THE COLOR PURPLE in 1986, FUCK YOU!!!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Private James Ryan: "It doesn't make any sense, sir. Why? Why do I deserve to go? Why not any of these guys? They all fought just as hard as me!"
Captain John Miller: "Is that what they're supposed to tell your mother when they send her another folded American flag?"
Ryan: "Tell her that when you found me I was here and I was with the only brothers that I have left and that there was no way I was gonna desert them! I think she'll understand that. There's no way I'm leaving this bridge!"