Grievances with Saving Private Ryan: "Earn This"

“Earn this” are the last words Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) says to Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). I’d actually like to start with the end of the film because it has this theme of deserving, and earning your life every day, and that theme is relevant to the role of director. The director must always earn the respect and attention of his audience, just as much as the writer and the actor, as much as anyone involved. 

Miller's last moments.

Miller's last moments.

Spielberg is heavily influenced by David Lean and both achieved grand-scale epics with careful attention paid to characters. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) were all movies that earned awards, nominations, and dollars for Spielberg and really established his talent. These movies managed to be epic and innovative and were successful because they still gave audiences a lot to care about emotionally, dramatically, and heroically. But even these movies have a simplicity about them; Indiana Jones is in fact really introduced to us with the whip and the hat. There’s a lot of care, but particularly in his early work, Spielberg got a lot of milage out of iconic imagery and simple, classical techniques.

Steven Spielberg has done just about everything to earn his audience’s attention in terms of his career. He makes these pitch perfect movies with pulp appeal and an auteur’s care. Usually. Nevertheless, with the melodramatic bookends to Saving Private Ryan, he really undercut the power the movie has. It strikes me as hubristic. Regardless of Spielberg’s achievements in his career, it’s too brazen that this movie does not come cap in hand asking for the audience’s attention. Spielberg is a performer, as a director, and the long standing, western condition of performers and artists is one of the mere player as it were. Even the great Steven Spielberg should come to his audience saying this “is now the two hours’ traffic of [my] stage;/ The which, if you with patient ears attend,/ What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.” A plea to the audience. The director, writer, actors, performers have to earn their audience's time, and that's no small feat.

See by 1993, with Schindler’s List in particular, Spielberg was proving that he was a director to be taken seriously. But there is a humility and an earnestness to that entire movie which overwhelms me every time I watch it. There was a daunting prospect to do everything it takes to make great art and Spielberg came through and did it without pretense from the very first shot. Janet Maslin wrote of the opening scene in Schindler’s List; “[it] begins with the sight of Jewish prayer candles burning down to leave only wisps of smoke and there can be no purer evocation of the Holocaust than that.” Reading Maslin’s words I am reminded of ancient, epic poets who would invoke a Muse before telling their story; “Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.” Invoking a Muse is part of the performance of an epic poet. A Muse needn’t necessarily be invoked, a prayer needn’t necessarily be read, every time a story is to be told. But the beginnings and the directions that I have already quoted in some form here--Romeo and Juliet, Schindler’s List, The Odyssey--there is no denying the strength in direction from the start in these works. The opening shot, line, and so forth is a pledge to the audience that, if they will listen, the following work might as well be the work of the gods. I find that possibility alone extraordinary; I find it both grandiose and humbling.

The opening shots of Saving Private Ryan are the American flag, this old man, his family, the cemetery, and I am just struck with the images of patriotism. This old man is inconsequential to the point of total obscurity; who is he--he’s no one. Here all that matters is the flag. And that’s really kind of disappointing because I think, ideally, a really affecting movie would have something to say that man is something more than the flag he holds up. The flag is nothing without the man. And yet, everything in this film is reducible to that flag; it is all that counts. The character of the film is what is really established here. The characters don’t matter, they are expendable, dime-a-dozen parts.

The ending is the same way. The closing shots are of this old man, his family, the cemetery, the flag. And it is only now, after nearly three hours of movie, that I realize that this old man is Private Ryan and not the captain who was sent to save him, despite visual cues that misdirect for no reason. At any rate, this old man needs to know that he was worth the action of the movie in the eyes of some higher power. He wishes that Tom Hanks would benedict him, but I guess he settles for the benediction of his family and of his flag fluttering in the wind. This old man, revealed to be the old Private Ryan salutes the grave proving the continued effect the war and the men involved has had on him, it is a demonstration of patriotism and proves his love of country et cetera.

Apart from having the relative look and tone of the closing moments of some 1950s nightly news cast, the opening and closing moments of Saving Private Ryan really only set me up for more problems in the movie. A sort of over importance, over determination, over developed nationalism, but also a blatant lack of clarity when it comes to who’s who and what’s really important; these are the things to set up in the opening. Think back to the pleas of great beginnings:

"Two households, both alike in dignity,/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene"
"...he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home."
"...Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam..."

Perhaps Saving Private Ryan is consistent. But none of these hubristic qualities are good, they are underwhelming and confusing. How is the audience to care about these people and distinguish them when all that matters is the flag? I visited Arlington National Cemetery once, and it made a great, personal impression on me and one I’m not sure that I could really describe, even in the language of film, to another person. Absolutely the cemetery is indelible, but the only personal touch I feel from the bookend scenes of Saving Private Ryan is that one of the gravestones happens to have my birthday on it. This is total happenstance, its effect is white-noise.

The bookend moments of Saving Private Ryan coddle the audience with a cheap sense of familiarity and low stakes; you know its another, masterful, sentimental Spielberg epic for your viewing pleasure. And yet it is totally without the humility of so many great works. Something a little more impressionistic like the opening of any Coppola film, indulging a bit of fallibility like Laurence of Arabia (1962) did, simply showing a human moment like Schindler’s List does and Spielberg would have doffed his cap to the audience and said that he, like Virgil before him, can merely “sing of arms and the man” as it were.