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Private Ryan

by Diane Alden

aving Private Ryan is a graphic depiction of one of the 20th Century’s most crucial events, D-Day, June 6, 1944.

A few years ago there was a major dispute at the Smithsonian Institution over an exhibit of World War II memorabilia and the reasons why the war was fought. Historical revisionists in charge of the exhibit decided to make the United States the bad guy by suggesting that we were responsible for World War II. Rewriting history seems to be a habit of leftists.

Saving Private Ryan is not revisionist history. As a war movie based on an historical event it holds up well. But as a great movie, especially a great war movie, it does not have the depth and character such a film requires. There are great war movies—Twelve O’Clock High, A Walk in the Sun, Patton, Glory, Three Came Home and a few others.

Unfortunately, director Steven Spielberg spends so much time recounting the blood and carnage of war and beating the movie patron over the head with the battle scenes, that the film never develops something most great movies have—characterization. Characters are the heart and soul of a story. Without a complete understanding of Scarlet and Rhett and who they are, Gone With the Wind would merely have been an adequate Civil War epic. In Saving Private Ryan, characters and characterization get lost in the knee-deep ocean of blood.

Saving Private Ryan is an anti-war movie. Though it is technically brilliant, historically sound, and tells us one more time that war is hell, something is missing.

For the most part veterans seem to be very impressed. One former infantryman who had been on Dog Green Beach, the section of Omaha Beach covered in the movie, said it was as close to reality as being there. The movie mirrored many of his experiences on D-Day, when the Allies stormed onto the beaches of Normandy. He recounted that the only world a soldier knew that day was the 10 feet of sand in front of him. Saving Private Ryan does a good job on the visceral level and one comes away knowing the overwhelming importance of staying alive on that 10 feet of sand.

Since the release of the movie, there have been debates on radio and TV regarding its historical aspects. Questions have arisen, such as whether the uniforms were correct, whether the Rangers actually were on Dog Green Beach during the first assault wave, and whether soldiers used clear plastic covers for their weapons. There is even a discussion about whether or not the film should have included black Americans, even though during the initial assault no blacks were involved.

A hot line has been established for veterans who may have to deal with a recurrance of trauma after seeing the movie. The civilian movie patron may also feel the need to use the hotline, and in addition, apply for a combat ribbon.

Then why is Private Ryan a disappointment? One reason may be the method Spielberg uses to define his characters. Tom Hanks’ character, Captain Miller, is given a perpetually shaking hand. A rear echelon interpreter is defined as a coward in battle until the very end of the movie at which point he undergoes a miraculous personality transformation. Filling in the spaces is the requisite angry Jew waving his Star of David in front of German prisoners, a fiesty Italian, the country boy and of course the stock-in-trade tough sergeant. The characters are strictly from central casting.

The sensitive and thoughtful Captain Miller leads this particular "band of brothers" into their own Agincourt. Hanks portrays Miller with a war-weary "let’s just get the job done and go home" attitude, which actually says nothing about his character. His true feelings are implied by a nervous twitch. The character is a likeable guy, an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events, a good leader who is caring about his men and intent on accomplishing the mission—to save Private Ryan.

The sense of fear and anticipation of battle is palpable. But scene after scene of young men trying to stuff their guts back into their stomach cavities, arterial blood spurting everywhere, or watching as a soldier drags half a friend’s body across the beach, does not say anything about war that we don’t already know.

Who are these men who make the ultimate sacrifice to save one man? Perhaps it was Spielberg’s intent not to allow us to understand any of them, except in a superficial way. Character development is the real difference between a good movie like Private Ryan and a great one like Twelve O’Clock High, the classic 1949 film staring Gregory Peck. The central characters in Saving Private Ryan are the gore and devastation in the lengthy battle scenes. That is a valid creative technique and gives the movie its intensity. However, the rest of the film depends on tricks in place of character development. The last scene in the movie is one more trick, giving the film an emotional tone but no heart, soul or transcendence.

In terms of historical accuracy this is a fine effort. But the fact is, Spielberg has no clear understanding of the sacrifices exhibited by the men in Saving Private Ryan, nor does he honestly answer the question why the WW II generation behaved so gallantly. This lack of understanding prohibits a genuine grasp of the reasons people make sacrifices at all. Because there is no insight about their sacrifice, what could have been a great film is only an adequate movie. u

Diane Alden is a contributing editor of Nevada Journal.


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