We’ve seen how Spielberg made some missteps in setting up his movie. His choices around the beginning and end of Saving Private Ryan don’t help the middle, action parts of the drama. But the choices Spielberg made in terms of portraying the majority of the film are, at the very least, bold on their own. He chose to be unflinching and he held his ground on that. So the direction is strong, but what Saving Private Ryan really can’t do is own that bold direction with a meaningful ethical stance on war like the very best war movies do. The ethical stance in Paths of Glory (1957) is about the most compelling in all war movies, the combat scenes are almost an after thought by comparison to the effects of the combat on the men and what Dax (Kirk Douglas) makes of the events. Nevertheless it may be the case that World War II is not the ideal war to use to discuss the moral quandaries of armed conflict, but perhaps then it’s not the best backdrop for this story and this direction.
To go back to the words of Janet Maslin, this time about Saving Private Ryan, she writes “this film looks at war as if war had not been looked at before.” Maslin believes that this movie is a departure in terms of cinematic ideology from past combat films. Saving Private Ryan might look at war anew, but I’m not convinced that it looks at war any better than other pictures. See, the real question to be raised in light of the possibility that Saving Private Ryan is a fresh look at war would be; is this new light meaningful and true? Unfortunately for this movie, and going against Maslin here, the answer is no.
Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket (1987), and The Hurt Locker (2008) have impressive sniping scenes and, as you’d expect, they’re different. In brief Full Metal Jacket gives Kubrick yet another theater for exploring the very nature of violence, perhaps the most important theme in all his work. The Hurt Locker’s is a scene that is both dramatic and punishing giving the viewer anxiety in the action but not letting him look away, a brutal twenty minutes of drama. But the scene in Saving Private Ryan is just a moment, like so many others in the movie, to get off a few quick lines and provide grounds to tell the audience what is at stake and give them the next reason for continuing with the film. This method pays limited dividends and is not a completed cinematic thought designed to incentivize and fascinate the viewer all the way to the important conclusions of the movie. I’m only gripped for a few moments by such scenes and the effect does not last long enough.
After moving up the beach on D-Day, the violence in Saving Private Ryan does not seem serious. Least of all in this sniping scene. It seems like a punctuation. Of life, perhaps, but more often of a scene. The violence is not glorified here, but it lacks the affect that I would argue must be maintained in the best war films. Affect which I know Spielberg is a master of, he seems to want to dispel some of his sentimentality at the worst possible time in Saving Private Ryan.
In such scenes, Spielberg seems less a master of his craft, letting the dialogue and writing do so much heavy lifting. In the scene, Caparzo (Vin Diesel) is shot by a sniper, Jackson (Barry Pepper) has to snipe the sniper. Every time Jackson shows up he is praying that god let him land his shot. All the characters take up their most enduring notes as the tension mounts. In the scene everyone becomes reduced to a few key lines and the drama itself isn’t permitted to grow organically; “this sniper’s got talent” Jackson tells us. So now it’s dangerous. Caparzo’s death weighs heavily on the characters, I know this only because they keep bringing it up when it would seem to matter most. Yet it seems more like a pity-card played in the dialogue again and again. Perhaps only once, when Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) copies Caparzo’s letter to his dad only to be killed himself later is there a meaningful dramatic thread based around this event and even that is couched in heavy handed writing and an abundance of dialogue. So it is throughout the film.
Consider Full Metal Jacket. Every tool a movie can use is on display here, which is very different from Saving Private Ryan. The camera moves fluidly through a huge set as the men search for the sniper. The men are drawn in little by little, unable to actually help. They are so moved by the cries of their fallen comrades that each man is totally different by the time they actually find the sniper. The camera movement suggests the actual experience of life; running and ducking, no cuts. The lighting suggests a dream; foggy around the edges. The whole scene describes the points, made time and again in the movie, about the duality of man (“the Jungian thing, sir”); a desire for peace achieved through a capacity for violence, perhaps. Of course Full Metal Jacket is a better movie than Saving Private Ryan.
The Hurt Locker is also powerful. Seeing the long, drawn out sniping scene between combatants separated by more than half a mile of desert, so much anxiety and drama comes to the surface. The role of a real sniper becomes clear, unflinching in the moments of greatest stress. There is quite literally a stress to watching this scene. It moves deftly from fast paced action to literally watching waves of heat rise off the baking desert. Perhaps The Hurt Locker doesn’t push its message with each successive scene, it is not the work of a Kubrick. But the heightened sense one feels in this scene is worth the entire movie. And the rest of the movie features greatness as well.
The D-Day scene that makes up the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan gets a lot of attention because it is the most striking example of actuality violence in the movie. It is, I guess, quite a shocking scene. There is a certain willingness to bring certain images front and center here; there’s a broad sense that each life is an equal candidate for survival. Kind of. Judging the boldness of this vision, though, is something I’m not interested in doing right now, mostly because there are other obstacles for the film to overcome on the road to an affecting meaning--it's thematic work--like making the later sniping scenes more significant. So even though this is such a compelling depiction of wartime action, even when I am presented with the inglorious killing on the parts of the Americans, I am unmoved. And that’s a problem.
The best war films are anti-war films. The previously mentioned Paths of Glory is a perfect example. Such films can take an ethical stance on war and I think achieving such a stance requires that we look at war not as though we’ve never looked at it before, but rather that we should never have to look again. Consider All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the story of a German soldier in the First World War searching for hope in the face of destruction and for empathy without the pretense of nationalism, filmmakers should see that such subject matter is not incomprehensible and can be achieved through the most basic film techniques. It's the story of humanity in the trenches.
Looking over the list of movies thematically superior to Saving Private Ryan in the key element of being a war film, they prove to be movies about wars we know we didn't like. Strangely, Americans really like World War II even though as many terrible things happened as did in any other conflict. The best war movies ultimately don’t fail in the ethical regard, but the movies about World War II are most likely to because the lines are so well drawn; we can only see American good/Nazi bad. Thus scenes and characters fall flat just to sustain that dynamic. Such is the case with even the most shocking moments in Saving Private Ryan, its all about the next line the character must deliver.