Sunday, June 1, 2014

Saving Private Ryan: Movie Review

I watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time yesterday, which easily exceeded my expectations. Steven Spielberg is unquestionably at his finest with this film. However, I believe my impression of the movie is significantly different than that held by much of the original audience due to the year of my viewing, over a decade and a half since its ground-breaking release. The reason for this, I believe, is that I have grown up in, and experienced the work of, the 'post-SPR era,' in which many war films are strongly influenced by the path SPR dictated in the cinematic depiction of combat.

At the time of SPR's release, critics immediately noted its graphic, realistic depiction of violence. David Edelstein wrote for Slate: “What Steven Spielberg has accomplished in Saving Private Ryan is to make violence terrible again. Nothing in the movie's melodramatic narrative can diminish the shocking immediacy of its combat scenes.” He points out that SPR stood in stark contrast to the unrealistic “rock-n-roll” combat depictions of the (my coinage, here) 'pre-SPR era.' Joe Morgenstern, writing for the Wall Street Journal at the time, made the same observation: “Saving Private Ryan. . . puts a new, indelibly terrible face on war.”

Much of this style comes from the stunning technical accomplishments of the movie, which scored a bevy of Oscars for its sound and visual design. The combat shots are gritty POV work, forcing the audience to watch the humiliating death throes and animal seizes of American and German soldiers.
While not reducing this accomplishment, the past decade or so of war films and shows have cemented this style as standard practice. So, for me, what was visually shocking in 1998 is now still obscenely difficult to watch, but not surprising, given such post-SPR films and shows as: Black Hawk Down, Flags of our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, The Hurt Locker, etc. While there are always exceptions, the noticeable shift from the pre-to-post SPR is from heroic, unrealistic violence to gritty, disturbing, and most importantly, realistic violence. I think this is a very important and good breakthrough for American audiences, and Saving Private Ryan is hugely responsible.

Again, however, when watching the film as a viewer in the post-SPR era, I accepted the visual style and was instead drawn to the moral questions that Spielberg poses via the travails of Captain John Miller and his unlucky squad, chosen for a “public relations” mission to rescue the last surviving Ryan brother in combat. The mission is ordered at the behest of General George Marshall, who justifies the perilous efforts required to locate and retrieve the wayward Ryan with Abraham Lincoln's “Bixby letter,” notifying a Civil War mother of the death of her five sons in combat, itself a letter of very deservedly glorified language. Marshall's implication is that Mrs. Ryan should not have to face the death of all of her sons as Bixby did, and barks the orders.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered squad under Miller (Hanks) is left to unravel the issues the mission involves. The mission itself is to find and bring home Pvt. Ryan of the 101st Airborne, who has missed his intended drop location in the Normandy invasion and is God-knows-where, certainly putting a lot of German soldiers between himself and Miller's squad. The mission is FUBAR. As the squad grimly tracks and fights their way to Ryan, they confront the deaths of two of their men in firefights. “We all have mamas,” notes a disgruntled private on the verge of desertion. Should two mothers now be childless so that Mrs. Ryan may, possibly, not be? How many men have to die for this “asshole”? The ever-staid Miller sticks to his orders as well as he might, but even he cannot resolve the question by the end of the movie, and dies having acquiesced to Ryan's own refusal to obey the order.

This question, of following orders until the ultimate sacrifice despite dubious terms of completion, gripped my mind and didn't let go. Personally, a satisfactory answer doesn't quite exist—I jump between the two sides of the argument; there is a tension within myself about the right answer. On one hand, following orders is what keeps our breathtakingly efficient armed forces on top of their game, and without respect for the chain of command, our troops are nothing. However, an unjust law is no law at all, and following a FUBAR order means making a FUBAR decision. Responsibility cannot be escaped, and more importantly, neither can the guilt of watching your men die around you for a cause you doubt yourself. It seems of the sacrifices demanded by the military is the occasional, sometimes fatal, inability to exercise one's own good judgement.

Whether Spielberg attempts to answer this question at the film's resolution or not is itself a tricky question. Ultimately, most—or all—of Miller's squad, including Miller, are killed while aiding Ryan's unit in defense of a crucial bridge. Though Miller's intention was to bring Ryan back following the defense attempt in case of success, he did disobey orders by allowing Ryan to engage in a massive firefight, even jeopardizing his entire rescue squad to aid the bridge defense. So, did this horrific ending (which Ryan interestingly survives) come about as a result of the FUBAR mission assignment, or as a result of Miller's bending the assignment to its breaking point in favor of his good judgement—that is, to stay and defend the bridge with Ryan?

It's tempting to criticize Spielberg for whitewashing all of this nuance with the closing scene of an aged, veteran Ryan and his family at the site of Miller's Arlington grave. However, Ryan's final words at the grave (for me, at least) dredge up that unsettling question of some lives weighed against others. “I brought my family,” says Ryan, hoping aloud that he has lived his life in a way that deserves the sacrifice of Miller and his men. It is easy to instead picture Miller and his entire squad, with their families, visiting a single Arlington grave site. Rather, the lone Ryan and his family move from headstone to headstone.

 To pretend answers is tempting but foolish in such a story. Instead, I leave the movie frustrated by these dilemmas and horrors of war. They are unthinkable, impossible, terrible questions, and posed unflinchingly by the genius of Steven Spielberg. 9/10.