Saving Private Ryan
There's no doubt about it - Spielberg is a master filmmaker. He can do
just about anything he wants with a film, and you are just putty in his
hands. But he needs a good editor - and I mean that in the literary
sense. He needs someone who will say to him "Now Stephen, that's
enough. We get the point. Let's move on. And let's cut the scene with
the flag, OK?"
He reminds me of Paul McCartney, in a way. Spielberg needs a John
Lennon to balance him out, to stop him from turning his own brilliant
material into mush. Time and again, he makes an interesting point and
then spoils it by lingering there too long, or using the sledgehammer.
There's the interminable first Omaha beach scene, the Edith Piaf scene
(if only he'd let the record blare on through the battle!), Tom Hanks'
shaking hand (used one too many times, I fear), the cowardice incident
(we get the point, Steven), or the final, flag-waving (literally) bit.
The other problem I have with Spielberg is that it is hard to see his
recent films in perspective. The Spielberg publicity machine rolls into
action, and you begin to hear from all quarters (often from people who
ought to know better) how this is the most brilliant war film ever
made, how it is the only one which has ever shown war as less than a
glorious, patriotic affair, and how it is thre most realistic war film
of them all. Have these people ever been to the movies? How long are
their memories? Don't they remember Platoon (Stone), Full Metal Jacket
(Kubrick), Apocalypse Now (Coppola), Paths of Glory (Kubrick, again),
All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone), The Big Red One (Fuller),
Das Boot (Petersen)...need I go on?
It is true that the first 25 minutes of the film are extremeley
powerful - in fact, all of the battle scenes are outstanding. This is
due, in part, to some very close camera work (reminiscent of the
extreme closeups used in the Australian TV series Wildside ). And the
digital and other special effects which Spielberg and his (Schindler's
List) cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski employ to achieve the look of
the battle scenes, are truly effective. The power of these opening
scenes is also due to some excellent sound design, which lets us hear
vividly the individual sounds of war - the riccocheting bullets, the
sound of metal on flesh, the grinding of rubble underfoot. Spielberg
seems rightly to delight in the novelty of these sounds. Occasionally
he overuses them, or allows them to become too loud, but generally they
make an excellent contribution to the film.
One of the most shocking moments in the film occurs when two soldiers
are shot in the water, just after disembarking. It is a shock - you see
the bullets catch them underwater, and you're not prepared. It's as if
it's not fair - you can't shoot someone who's submerged and confused.
But of course you can - this is war. It's an eloquent statement of a
There's another brilliant scene in the film involving dog-tags and the
airborn infantry. It's another good point succinctly made, one of a
handful such points that are not over-sold.
The cast works well individually, but for me they never became an
ensemble. Tom Hanks gives a subtle and sensitive performance as the
Captain, but I was disturbed greatly by his shaking hand. I kept
thinking of poor Michael J Fox, but of course Spielberg couldn't have
known about that. The other standout is Tom Sizemeore as the gruff,
working class sergeant (was there ever any other kind?). He does a
great job of building an interesting character, even though he is
saddled with dialogue as ludicrous as:
HANKS: "That was surreal"
SIZEMORE: "Clearly, but the question still stands..."
I was thinking of Ernst and Dali, with the paint barely dry on their
works, pleased to see the lingo had been so swiftly assimilated into US
Edward Burns is effective as Private Reiben, as is Jeremy Davies as
Corporal Upham. Unfortunately Matt Damon, as Private Ryan, resembles a
department store dummy. It's a shame, because his role is pivotal, and
critical to the meaning of the film.
I'd also like to single out John Williams' score as one of the most
clichéd and disappointing ones of recent memory. I really think
(a) have his horn section confiscated immediately; and then
(b) take a very long rest.
At one point he even spoiled the suspense of a battle by signalling the
victory with a heroic and wistful horn.
How I long to know what Bernard Herrmann would have done with this
film. Or, as a friend has tantalisingly suggested, Phillip Glass. No
The less said about the framing sequences set in modern times, the
better. Where is John Lennon when we need him? At least Spielberg
showed us a French flag for a few seconds. Apparently there were a few
other chaps involved in the war as well. But do we all have to suffer
for the few idiots who won't realise the film actually takes place in
the past? This framing device jarred in Titanic, and it jars here.
But for me, the coup de gras was the justification of all the killing
by reference to a large family of kids. Please! Is that all there is to
living a meaningful life? Does that mean that my life is without
meaning? There's no way I'm taking Spielberg's word for it, no matter
how good he is with the camera.