Why did Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan so effortlessly beat down all competition for the prize of most over-hyped and overrated film of its year?
Beyond the vast promotional machine behind the production and the almost inviolable name of Spielberg, there are at least three factors enabling this film's instant ascension to cinematic nirvana.
The first factor is its genre. Because there are relatively few serious war films around these days – particular at the blockbuster end of the market – audiences tend to regard such movies as free of convention, cliché and formula.
Spielberg depends on this value-added prestige: he would like us to regard Saving Private Ryan as a searing, truthful, once-in-a-decade testament, in the tradition of canonised war epics from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Apocalypse Now (1979).
The second factor is realism. The movie's chief novelty – and the reason for its brief moment of controversy at Australia's Film Classification Office – is the gut-churning detail of its battle scenes. Limbs are blown off, entrails are spilt; the sound of bullets passing through flesh is palpably rendered. Spielberg offers this not as spectacular gore but an attempt at supreme verisimilitude – an actualisation of documentary footage that was never filmed.
The third factor is pathos. Like virtually every Spielberg film, this one is a tear-jerking ode to family and nation. Private Ryan (Matt Damon) is the only surviving son of a typical, average American family. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his team are sent into the war fields of France to find and return him. Miller's soldiers are struck by the absurdity of the mission – to save one man when so many are giving up their lives. Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat sift through the confusion, cynicism and horror of the situation in search of redeeming moments of honour, grace and compassion.
Saving Private Ryan is, undeniably, a compelling and cannily crafted film. But – like Spielberg's other oh-so serious works, Schindler's List (1993) and Amistad (1997) – it has a ghastly air of contrivance, manipulativeness and bad faith. Spielberg displays the worst side of the movie-brat phenomenon – those American cinephiles who came to prominence as filmmakers in the 1970s. He offers realism and truth, but every image, scene and situation is a recycling of great moments from war films he saw and loved as a kid – buffed-up with calculatedly nervy camerawork and blurry colours borrowed from contemporary medical and cop dramas on television.
Some of these supposed Great Moments are well-presented: the fleeting poetry of a Piaf record playing in the ruins of French town; the odd, tearing beauty of a night sky illuminated by saturation bombing. Much more of the film is simply corny and facile. Miller is leadenly portrayed as the father figure to a gang of young bucks; he defuses their anger and teaches them humanitarian wisdom. But nothing truly unsettling ever divides these men – no cultural, sexual, racial or ideological tensions. Spielberg keeps his American microcosm clean, bland and homogenous.
When Saving Private Ryan recreates for us the classic Hollywood war film, it transports into our time – without the slightest hint of critical self-consciousness – the most conservative political line imaginable. What Spielberg cannot let go of for a second is the old code of military heroism: his characters are not fools, dupes or victims of a system, they are noble, patriotic citizens who take a stand and make a difference.
Unfortunately, for such propaganda to work effectively, the enemy must be rendered as it is has always been – faceless, barbaric and inhuman. The film's emotional manipulation on this point is utterly shameless. Spielberg would have done well to study another tradition in the war genre – truly disconcerting movies including Attack! (1956), Hell is For Heroes (1962) and The Big Red One (1980) which confront the deceit and mystifications of wartime endeavour.
The film's sole gesture towards a tough, complex view is its emphasis upon the bewildering and painful "madness" of war. Yet this, too, is a mystification. It removes politics from the equation; it also absolves the characters, and their homeland, from any blame. War is not a moral dilemma for Spielberg, a question of evil acts and consequences. Indeed, the big line to which the film builds – "tell me I'm a good man" – betrays its desperate, insane wish to see war as a positive, character-building, nation-uniting campaign.
It is rarely wise to attempt a thumbnail psychoanalysis of a director through his work. But in the case of Spielberg – whose films have become increasingly shrill, bombastic and self-important throughout the '90s – such diagnosis becomes almost unavoidable. Spielberg is suffering from a sanctification complex: with his bleeding-heart compassion and vast willingness to treat the Big Subjects (slavery, war, the Holocaust), he clearly wants to be declared America's Saint Steve.
The only thing more horrifying is the thought that this prospect may yet come to pass.
© Adrian Martin November 1998