Published July 1, 1998
It’s time that the team of computer programmers from IBM who developed “Deep Blue,” the machine that beat the world chess champion, Gary Kasparov, to take on a real challenge. Let them try to develop a movie-making program that is more formidable — or more machine-like — than Steven Spielberg. His latest directorial effort, Saving Private Ryan, is as usual a brilliant demonstration of movie-making. At the level of the individual shot it is just about perfect. Also as usual, the film considered as a dramatic whole is utter nonsense. Fortunately, not much thought is involved in it. For it is when the unbeatable movie-making machine has to think that it starts to whirr and pop and smoke until finally it shuts down altogether.
The mystery about Mr. Spielberg, and the reason why he seems so machine-like, lies in the answer to the question of why he goes on making movies — since, apart from the fact that he is programmed to do so, there seems no point to any of them. The nearest he comes to identifying the rationale of Saving Private Ryan, which deals with a rescue mission aimed at finding and retrieving an American paratrooper in Normandy who is now the sole survivor of four brothers, comes when the gruff, no-nonsense Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) says that, in later years when they look back on their part in the war, Ryan’s rescuers will think that “Maybe saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we managed to pull out of this whole godawful mess.” So much for having defeated Hitler’s dream of world conquest!
Such a line in context is even more ridiculous, because the film itself does such a good job of presenting to us the human cost of the war. We must suppose that it was all for something even before the brass decided that Ryan (Matt Damon) should be sent home to his mommy. There are some serious moral and philosophical problems raised by the mission, to be sure. Can it be justified to take away some of the vital troops necessary to the larger purpose of winning the war for the sake of a bereaved mother in Iowa? But Spielberg pretty much ignores such questions after the scene in which General Marshall (Harve Presnell) rules in favor of the rescue. Instead he has his hero and the leader of the rescue mission, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), talking about having to square his conscience by reckoning that for each man under him who is killed ten, or twenty or thirty others will be saved.
This too is obvious nonsense. No one goes to war to save lives (rather, because some things are more precious than life), and it is a catastrophic misstep for Spielberg to put such words in Miller’s mouth — a failure of imagination as total as the successes he has enjoyed in so many of the movie’s details. How could he make such a mistake? Because, I think, accounting for his characters’ actions is for him just another trick of the trade. He himself has no views one way or the other on why men go to war. It has probably never even occurred to him that it is an interesting question, philosophically. He just retrieves a bit of superficially plausible dialogue to cover the hole from his capacious, fully-searchable data base of movie-making methods and techniques.
Which is not to say that most of these techniques do not work impressively well. Perhaps the most impressive comes with his portrayal in the film’s opening passage of the landing at Omaha beach as seen by Miller and his men. Of course there is lots of blood and body parts being blown off before our eyes, the quick-cutting confusion of battle and the fear on the faces of the men. Those are given. But what makes it special are the little Spielbergian touches which extend beyond the visible to the audible — the variation between defeaning noise outside and its muted quality in underwater shots, for example. For a moment we are presented with the possibility of sanctuary from the murderous machine-gun fire on the beach — only to see it snatched away again in a moment as men are being shot and blood spurting from them even under water.
More variation in sound comes with scenes purporting to represent the numbness inside the head of Miller, where the immediacy of battle and the imminence of sudden and violent death suddenly both seem a long way away. We have the sense of a momentary and irrelevant refusal by the body to respond to such overwhelming stimuli, and we switch back and forth between Miller’s point of view and that of the omniscient and indifferent god of battle who accepts all the sacrifices without a single moment of human sympathy. One is aware, as one would hardly be if one were actually there, of the constant jingle of the brass bullet casings as they are ejected by machine guns, and, paradoxically, the sound makes us feel as if we are there. As the fierce struggle for the beachhead dies down, the camera pulls back to show us one of the three dead Ryans lying face down in the sand — in the midst of half a dozen dead fish. The fish are another nice, Spielbergian moment.
One could go on. There is scarcely a scene in the entire two hours and forty minutes that does not yield its riches — to the point where one becomes vaguely aware of and annoyed by such effortless mastery of cinematic illusionism. Oh yes, we think during a shot in which rain falling on leaves is mixed up with and finally gives way to the patter of rifle fire, here is yet another excellent bit of movie-making. But the fact that we are thinking of it as movie-making makes the trick somewhat counterproductive. Thus we are more than usually alert when Miller announces to one James Ryan that his brothers are dead. This, we realize, cannot be what it seems to be. Ryan weeps. Miller’s squad of battle-hardened veterans, including those most skeptical about the mission, look on and seem if only for a moment to feel sympathy. Of course it is the wrong James Ryan. This Ryan’s brothers are boys still in grammar school. The men turn away to resume their search, and Ryan calls to Miller: “Does this mean my brothers are OK?”
It is yet another touch of the Spielbergian magic. But when the magic becomes too profuse and too predictable — and when it comes without any persuasive dramatic context — we must withhold from it the accolades that would be accorded to half as much skill shown by those who are better dramatists, if much lesser masters of filmic technique.