Total war

Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan' brings hell to a theater near you.

Published June 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

War cannot be faced. It is too dreadful. It is the great emptiness that stands before life, transforms itself into a million shapes of unutterable horror, then returns to mocking silence. It is the nightmare from which we can never awake, because the nightmare is the truth: We die. We die like animals because we are animals. We are all creatures who blindly run until something big and hard hits us and our torn insides spill out and we die. "It was easy to read the message in his entrails," Yossarian thinks in "Catch-22" as he stoops overthe whimpering, dying Snowden ("I'm so cold"), his liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs and stomach blasted apart by a three-inch piece of flak. "Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret ... Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage."

For those of us who never went to war, and learned of its horrors only through the reports of those who did or the representations of artists, it is easy to keep the nightmare hidden away. Maybe not so easy with the war closest to many of us, Vietnam. Thanks to our disillusionment with it, and the work of journalists like Michael Herr and filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola, Vietnam flickers in and out of our imaginations as a minor piece of hell, a torn-out fragment from a Bosch painting. But World War II, the Good War, the Heroic War, the war that saved the world, is different. Yes, we know it was dreadful, but we don't really want to know: We'd rather cling to the image of jutting-jawed John Wayne firing his machine gun at a collapsing line of Axis dummies.

After "Saving Private Ryan," the myth of World War II will never be the same. Using the overpowering techniques of modern film, Steven Spielberg has cut through the glory-tinged gauze that shrouds World War II to reveal its brutal reality, creating a phenomenology of violence unsurpassed in the history of cinema. "Saving Private Ryan" is a very good film, not a great one, but it will forever change the way people imagine the most important event in 20th century history. That is no small achievement.

The film's most extraordinary sequence is its depiction of the landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. It begins with a shot of troops huddled on a landing craft. The swells rock the boat up and down, the air is gray and heavy. No one says anything. A man leans forward and vomits, then another. There is no gunfire. The camera pans over the men's faces, and the fear that burns in their eyes is made more terrible by the realization that we are not going to be playing by Hollywood rules here, but by the more arbitrary laws of chance that actually govern war. That man there, clutching his rifle and trembling, is not going to be saved because he is praying, or thinking of his children, or because he has been singled out by the camera; he is going to jump into the water, take two steps, be hit by three .50-caliber gun bullets in the chest, fall into the water and drown before he can bleed to death. The man next to him is going to duck down behind an anti-tank obstacle and have his legs cut off by shrapnel. The camera keeps looking at the faces. Fish in a restaurant tank.

The landing craft pulls into the shallows, the door drops down. The men move forward and suddenly there is shattering sound: A German machine gun opens up. Everyone in the front line of the boat is killed. Men jump desperately into the water, off the sides. We see one man drop into eight feet of water, struggle desperately for a moment with his 60 pounds of gear, then drown. Now the camera (masterfully handled by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) is running, twisting on the beach, chaotic flashes of light coming from half-seen points on the cliffs, the ground rising up and coming down, explosions going off like dice rolls. Men are shouting out orders, but we can't make out what they're saying. We're surrounded by death, jiggled gently in the palm of his hand.

Out of the corner of our eye -- everything seems to happen just beyond where we can quite see it clearly -- we see a man stumbling along without his arm; he stoops down and insanely picks it up, vanishes. Now we're back underwater and everything is silent -- has it all stopped? -- and then suddenly we're back on the beach, the sky is screaming, invisible pieces of metal are hurtling in from all directions, hitting sand, metal, water, hitting human bodies that scream, cry for medics, howl, die. As if in a hallucination, we keep thinking there's some kind of logic here, some master key. Over there, it's safe over there. Then over there blows up. For an incredible, endless half hour, Spielberg hurls the viewer into the midst of this inconceivable inferno of twisted metal, shrieking shells and human agony. It is a tour de force, probably the most vivid and visceral war scene ever filmed.

In some ways, in fact, it blows up the rest of the movie. For this shattering vision is so corrosive, so subversive of all logic, all
morality, all stories, that it devours the story that follows. What
"Saving Private Ryan" is really about is war itself, and war eats
everything up. Nor is Spielberg equipped to tell a story that might somehow
flow out of or illuminate this void. Spielberg is essentially a first-rate
conventional realist, the cinematic version of a skilled 19th century
landscape artist. But by using his masterful brush strokes to capture the
heart of darkness, he has willy-nilly become a modernist -- entered a world
of absolutes, of metaphysical extremes, that requires a more audacious
formal and narrative vocabulary than he possesses.

"Saving Private Ryan" is like a Francis Bacon painting executed by Norman Rockwell. That's not
necessarily a criticism: Maybe you need both visions to capture the
experience of war. If Spielberg had made a more experimental film, the
gut-wrenching terror of the battle scenes would probably dissolve into
symbolism, subjectivity and "artistic meaning." Still, there's something
jarring about the film's movement from nightmare realism to
character-centered realism and back.

The story line is pure Hollywood, but it's presented as morally
ambiguous. After they finally secure the beach, a platoon of eight soldiers
led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) receives top-brass orders to find and
rescue one Private Ryan (Matt Damon), a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne
missing somewhere in Normandy. All of his three brothers have been killed,
and the military doesn't want another debacle like the one that inspired
Abraham Lincoln's famous letter to the mother of five Union soldiers killed
in the Civil War. So Miller and his men set off to find Ryan, knowing that
their mission will probably mean that several men will die to save one.

Hanks is brilliant as Miller. In the finest performance of his career,
he plays him with a gentleness, a weariness, that is nonetheless rooted not just in decency but in the deep, unknowable soil of courage, a courage made
awe-inspiring by our knowledge of what it confronts. He has his own
negotiations with fear and madness, but you know that he knows he won't
break. With his trembling hands -- the result of too much combat -- and
haunted eyes, he is Everyman, and his quiet presence stands as a majestic
rebuke -- at once invincible and utterly vulnerable -- to the inhuman
forces that surround him.

It's almost impossible to depict a platoon of soldiers without falling
into tough-bonding clichis, but Spielberg and his fine cast manage to
suggest the distance between the men as well as the camaraderie that holds
them together. His soldiers are clearly delineated characters, played with
concision and authority. Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) is the John Wayne
character, gruff and implacable; Jeremy Davies plays the quavering,
Emerson-quoting translator Corporal Upham, whose paralyzed terror in the
climactic battle scene is at once comic and hideous; Ed Burns is the
hotheaded guy from Brooklyn who threatens to abandon the expedition, Adam
Goldberg the bitter-eyed grunt who mocks German POWs, saying "Juden!
Juden!" as he holds out his Star of David.

When they finally locate Ryan, he stubbornly refuses to leave his
platoon, saying, "These are my brothers now." Damon's presence, however, is
jarring: His Harvard-jock look seems cinematic, as does his big set speech
in which he remembers a ridiculous sexual escapade involving his
brothers. It's one of the movie's few moments of artificiality.

The platoon decides to stay with Ryan and his comrades to defend a vital
bridge against the approaching Germans. (It's never made quite clear why
they don't just blow up the bridge, which seems to be mostly of use to the
Germans, and flee.) The climactic battle is even more horrifically violent
than the D-Day sequence -- the scene in which a German soldier slowly stabs
one of the Americans through the heart, while whispering gently in his ear,
is completely unwatchable. And its use of sound is even more ominous: The
rumble of the approaching Panzers sounds like the gates of hell yawning
open, and when a tank suddenly rears up above the Americans with a metallic
roar, you almost have to laugh: It's right out of "Jurassic Park."

It's beautifully choreographed stuff, and it again captures the mayhem
of combat with unparalleled vividness (although the
Gunfight at the OK Corral-like setting and the deus ex machina -- or
Mustang -- ending make it marginally more Hollywood-y than the first one).
The problem is, the pornographic allure of combat overshadows our interest
in or concern for the characters or the story's outcome. And since the
movie has by now lost the hallucinatory, free-floating quality that made
the D-Day sequence so compelling, and become a conventional narrative,
there's something unsatisfying about the lack of emotional identification
and catharsis.

Spielberg could have avoided this by giving his characters, and Ryan in
particular, more depth, creating backstories for them,
perhaps weaving other plot elements into his story. This, of course, would
have made the film much more conventional and potentially sentimental, and
it would have taken away from its quasi-documentary quality, but it would
have had the virtue of heightening our identification with the human beings
fighting and dying in front of us. In a peculiar way, though, you have to
give Spielberg credit for not making his film more conventionally gripping.
If he had made Ryan a more compelling character, we would have cared about the mission to rescue him -- which is
what you'd expect from the master manipulator of emotions. No doubt out of
a salutary realist impulse, he chose not to -- but as a
result, the whole dramatic thrust of the story is vitiated.

(Warning: If you don't want to know how the movie turns out, don't read the next paragraph.)

Yet Spielberg does hit a high emotional note at the end. In a powerful framing device that recalls the ending of "Schindler's List," the aged
Ryan, revisiting with his family the place where other men died to save
him, falls to his knees, shattered by grief and memory and shame, and asks
his wife to justify their sacrifice: "Tell me I've had a good life. Tell me
I'm a good man," he pleads. His refusal to forget the debt he owes, the
humility of his memory, is not only enormously moving, it serves as a kind
of redemption, a necessary if eternally fragile answer to the hell he
witnessed. War may mock humanity, snuff out life and hope, but human beings
can still remember, and they can still love. The fragments we shore against
our ruins.

With "Schindler's List" and now "Saving Private Ryan," Spielberg has
become a powerful chronicler of the central event of our century.
Despite its harrowing vision of war, and despite certain dark revisionist
elements -- like its portrayal of the summary execution of surrendering
Germans -- "Saving Private Ryan" does not diminish the blood, sweat and
tears of those who fought and died in Anzio and Bastogne and Guadalcanal.
In fact, it heightens one's sense of their heroism. No one who sees this
movie would ever want to go to war -- but no one with a conscience could
feel anything other than immense gratitude for those who did. The next time
I stand in front of a field of white crosses, I will have a little clearer
sense of just what I am trying to remember.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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