Spielberg Part 2 - Saving Private Ryan

There have been a couple of instances where emotional manipulation has worked against Steven Spielberg. In particular, the case against 'Saving Private Ryan', Spielbergs visceral World War II picture. It's a pretty good film but has a few lapses in story logic, the worst one comes after you've seen the film and realize the manipulation that has gone on. It's dishonest and blatantly manipulative.

Take these images. In terms of reading the film and film grammar, the combination of these images tell me this: Old guy goes to war cemetary and is clearly broken up, remembering the horrors of his past. Cut to flash back, Omaha Beach, we set the scene - an attack from the water. Close up on shaking hands drawing the canteen to the lips and come down to a close up of Tom Hanks. The close up matches very close to the last image of the old man, so we assume that he is this character.

Now all of this is fine in the moment and for most of the picture until Tom Hanks is killed in action and we find out our old guy is Private Ryan. All of this is working on an emotional level but suddenly my brain goes - hey! Ryan was never at Omaha... Why did he go to Omaha? Maybe to see his brothers graves? I suppose that could be it. It brings me back to the beginning of the film and I start to realize the manipulation that has gone on to dupe me. It's a nice idea to start the film but ultimately reveals the wizard behind the curtain (Mr. Spielberg) and weakens the film.

Sometimes logic does need to trump emotion.

William Goldman wrote about 'Saving Private Ryan' in his book 'Which Lie Did I Tell': "Saving Private Ryan, with its justly famous twenty-four minute early battle sequence, its fine Homer-like Odyssey hour where Ryan is sought, becomes, once he is found, a disgrace. False in every conceivable way possible, including giving the lie to its great twenty-four minutes. That sequence told us war is hell, too. The last hour tells us that war can be a neat learning experience for little Matt Damon.
In other words, Hollywood horseshit."

Goldman seems to take the side of Mordecai Richlers issues with 'Schindler's List'. Goldman also has a big problem with another key logic issue (in a seperate essay). It has to do with Ryan's not wanting to leave when they find him. What human being wouldn't take the get out of jail free card? Especially when men have risked their lives for you, your brothers are all dead and your poor mother is at home with her soul crushed. The logic problem would have been easy to address and the film could have gone on the same way. Ryan agrees to go, they head out and spot the incoming German army who is blocking their avenue for retreat. They go back and tell the boys and fight it out.

The other question Goldman is asking is, what kind of War picture would you make? He uses Ingmar Bergman's 'Shame' as his personal benchmark. Coppola made 'Apocalypse Now', Terrence Malick made 'The Thin Red Line', Wolfgang Peterson made 'Das Boot'. These are very different kinds of War pictures. 'Saving Private Ryan' seems to be somewhere between the old time war pictures that showed men of valour and quiet heroes and the new kind of films where the gloves come off and the amp is turned up to eleven. Regardless, I don't hate the last hour of 'Saving Private Ryan' like Goldman as it is an interesting film to reflect on.


Anonymous said...

Mark - you left out "Paths Of Glory" - Kubrick's seminal anti-war film (made in the year of my birth, God I feel old) which cut into the flesh not only of the "war is hell" motif (also found in Siegel's "Hell Is For Heroes" - 1962) but deeper to the bone of the "aristocracy" of command that plays chess so willfully (and gleefully) with the lives of their young men.

Mark Mayerson said...

I recommend Robert Aldrich's Attack with Jack Palance, Lee Marvin and Eddie Albert. It's an amazingly brutal war film for the 1950's.

Anonymous said...

I dont think Mr. Goldman has ever walked in a pair of combat boots or served in a Military Unit? Maybe his logic #2 issue would not longer be an issue.

Anonymous said...

He served from 52 to 54 and made corporal.