Grievances with Saving Private Ryan: Building Caricature

There are some things that I simply cannot abide in this movie. So far I’ve tried to actually explain different pieces of a problem in the context of cinema. But there are moments that are just too hard to adequately explain. There is the movie as a whole to be considered. This section will look at the moments that are dressed up in Saving Private Ryan such that they are not realized as the absurd moments they are.

If there is one thing that Saving Private Ryan is guilty of, indeed many problematic movies are guilty of this, it is constructing a framework in which it becomes difficult to direct one’s criticism. I’ve spent time directing my criticism quite literally at the framework itself; the narrative bookends, the cinematic techniques, and so on. I’ve looked at a few specific scenes and said that the hyperbole and lack of clarity detracts from the deeper meaning I want from a great picture, from masters of cinema. But I’m not sure the meaning is really even worth it. In the end, Saving Private Ryan is such a jingoistic picture piling praise upon America and American values, purely honorable GIs against faceless Nazis again, that there is nothing really new to be gained by watching it.

The expressionistic montage where we see letters being written to the families of our honored, American dead is a real doozie. It’s just great to have the feeling that no matter how horrible the fight, the commanding officers all the way up to the chief of staff, feel with the home front and can distinguish every man on the field of battle. We see rural Iowa and are reminded that this fight is for our amber waves of grain or our purple mountain’s majesty. Although I wonder why Spielberg chooses to shoot Iowa in July with the same light as Normandy. To bring the War home? Surely not, another great feature of Munich is it's seeming global reach, realistically capturing the light in a half dozen countries. Saving Private Ryan has two. But I digress.

Then it's names like Abraham Lincoln and phrases like “the alter of freedom” are thrown around so casually throughout. Are we really to believe that the objective could be one man? Patton (1970) balanced the notion that the US Army was the number one fighting force in history with the truth that such a force’s ultimate goal would be as simple as taking Berlin. Saving Private Ryan may have realism but it is not realist.

Allowing the rest of the picture follow from such a bombastic, nationalistic center only makes for more problems. We have a cast of characters, a cross section of America, who are ultimately each indistinguishable by their degree of stereotypical-ness. There is the Italian G.I.; the guy from Brooklyn; the Jew killing Nazis; a cigar chomping sergeant; a bookish corporal learning about the bonds of brotherhood in war; and so on. I’m not sure I can really accept this homogenous morass of stereotypes in the arena of real-world violence. I can barely stomach the mugging and the slapstick used to establish these clowns and I don’t recognize the country they’re fighting for. These characters scream equally loud that they are distant facsimiles, no way resembling reality.

Who are these people? And what parts of the real world to they come from?

Who are these people? And what parts of the real world to they come from?

What I see is a jingoistic animus preceding our next move up the hill towards Ryan. It’s carried out by characters who are not distinguished by name but by type. These characters deny the idea that the enemy is also human. In Schindler’s List I am always amazed that Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) can be so evil and so human; no doubt a psychopath, yet no doubt a man who actually lived. Goeth is not the faceless Nazi of so much cinema. Saving Private Ryan doesn’t seem like a very considered picture of the people in a war. This movie is flat and I think based entirely around caricature. All and all the craft of Saving Private Ryan is laudable albeit flawed, but the product itself is unworthy of the effort.