• “Saving Private Ryan” What the critics didn’t say

    • Posted on Sep 16, 1998

    8-16-98

    What can anyone say about Spielberg’s latest cinematic tour de force, “Saving Private Ryan,” that hasn’t been said multiple times?

    I’ve seen it twice now and read probably dozen reviews, but so far no one has mentioned:

    It’s hugely entertaining in spite of its graphic violence.  Though the first 24 minutes seem more like a documentary, Spielberg knows that he’s a Hollywood moviemaker, not a historian or documentarian.  So it’s full-closure satisfying ending.

    The innocent idealist, the cynical sergeant, the hot-headed Brooklyn kid are here, the climactic David-Goliath battle, the ending with the wise words – all right out of Hollywood war-movie story-telling, all quite predictable.

    As a wise old editor once told me, any successful mass-making project has to be 90 percent familiar and 10 percent new.  That’s perfect description of “Saving Private Ryan.”

    It’s also why Spielberg is no less than a moviemaking genius.  He knows his audience as well as he knows filmmaking.  That’s his secret and his gift.

    It reveals that English composition teachers can become leaders and heroes.  The film’s major hero, captain John Miller, reluctantly reveals that back home he was a mid-mannered high school English teacher and baseball coach.

    He keeps this a secret, though, since English teachers aren’t widely known for their heroic leadership qualities.  Maybe now, thanks to Spielberg, they will be.

    At last, a movie that tells the truth about English composition teachers.

    Though “Saving Private Ryan” shows war violence graphically, it’s still highly selective, and can’t convey anything like the reality of modern combat.  The chaos, the noise, the smells, the terror have to be much worse in reality than anything a two-dimensional movie can show in the safety of a comfortable theater.

    That’s why combat veterans carry the burden of those memories all their lives, and why a movie can’t begin to reveal what they suffered through.

    When someone says that they’d rather not see those battle images, I want to say, “But think what those men really experienced.”  If we ever want to begin to understand modem warfare and how it affects soldiers, seeing “Saving Private Ryan” is the least we can do.

    The only film I’ve seen that’s more graphic is the 1955 documentary on the Holocaust, “Night and Fog,” by Alain Resnais.  Resnais made his short film somewhat more palatable by alternating color images set in 1955 with harsh black and white realistic images of the concentration camps, most of which came from Nazi documentarians themselves.

    It’s an unforgettable film, more powerful than Spielberg’s story, precisely because it’s even more real.

    Spielberg’s film still treats the enemy as pawns to be killed wantonly and easily, much like old cowboys and Indians movies.  In older, less realistic movies, both westerns and war films, whenever a cowboy or soldier points his rifle at the enemy, they drop like flies.

    So too in “Saving Private Ryan,” where the German soldiers die by the dozens whenever our guys shoot at them.  Several of our heroes, however, manage to survive German firepower right through to the end.  Nothing’s changed there from the old war movies and westerns.

    Why?  Because American audiences couldn’t stand to see a whole company wiped out with nothing to show for their losses.  Somebody has to survive to make the movie end on a happy note.

    For all its realism, “Saving Private Ryan” still seems much like a good old John Wayne war movie in how it treats the enemy.

    The ending raises as many questions as it answers.  A word of warning here: I’m about to reveal the ending, so if you appreciate suspense, and haven’t seen the film, stop reading until you see it.

    Spielberg’s ending rivals any “Lone Ranger” episode, with its last-second rescue, perfectly timed to save the good guys.

    This almost never happens except in the movies, and when the old Private Ryan thanks Captain Miller (at the gravesite) for helping his survive, I hate to wonder whether the Air Force deserves the real credit.

    If those P-51 Tankbusters hadn’t shown up to save the day, nobody would have survived, after all.  In spite of all the heroics and bravery of Captain Miller and his Ranger platoon, they were overwhelmed by the enemy and wouldn’t have survived without massive well-timed firepower.

    Heroics and leadership, in other words, just aren’t enough.

     

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  • Three More Candidates for Best Films List

    • Posted on Jun 28, 1998

    6/28/98

    The American Film Institute released its list of 100 best American films “of all time” last week, and here are the Top Ten:

    “Citizen Kane,” “The Godfather,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Graduate,” “On the Waterfront,” “Schindler’s list,” “Singin’ in the Rain.”

    Of all the reasons to wish for immortality, or at least for another 100 years, near the top would be to see what becomes of that list in 2098. (Right behind hearing Ken Starr’s report on Bill Clinton’s dalliances.)

    Clearly, it’s a list that grows out of a belief in oversized, heroic characters, recognizable stars, and predictable plots.  That’s Hollywood.  It’s also why we’re only beginning to take film seriously as more than mass entertainment.

    To be fair, three of those 10 don’t fit the mold but made the list anyway: “Citizen Kane” had no big stars at the time and begins with the hero’s death.  “Schindler’s List” focuses relentlessly on history’s darkest years, and “On the Waterfront” deals with the seamy world of New York dock workers.

    They’re all challenging, unpredictable, and complex films, and that’s what makes them memorable.  It’s also what will put them any “best film” list a hundred years from now, though I hope not at the top.  Surely we will do better in the next hundred years.

    Star-driven, predictable films reach large audiences, and the best are remembered for a time, but they will fade.  “Gone with the Wind” may be an exception, but it feels overdone to me now, and “Casablanca,” though full of memorable scenes and dialog, seems more like a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman than a seriously challenging film.

    So too is “The Godfather” a vehicle for Marlon Brando, though it takes potboiler fiction well beyond where most pulpers go.  “Lawrence of Arabia” goes on and on, stretching even the limits of the epic, and it made Peter O’Toole a star.

    “The Graduate” has a stunning soundtrack, but its formulaic boy-meets-loses-gets-girl story makes it mainstream and ultimately false.  “The Wizard of Oz” seems more like a children’s fable with a moral than a serious film for grownups.

    When I see a great film, I think about it for days, even weeks afterward, and try to see it several more times if possible.  It challenges me to rethink old ideas and ultimately changes how I see the world.

    I marvel at how many levels it evokes, from characters and their struggles to social commentary to myth-making to the profound sadness and joy of life as we live it.

    That’s a tall order for any film or filmmaker, but we’re talking “best” here.

    So, what are some great recent challenging, unpredictable, and complex films?  Here are three, and I would recommend them all for any “best” list, though maybe not the top ten.

         “Short Cuts.” (1993) by Robert Altman.  This is the director who made “Mash,” “Nashville,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “California Split,” and other remarkable films.  “Short Cuts” offers an extended mediation on spiritual emptiness, and seems shockingly relevant to understanding practically everybody, with lots of satirical jabs at contemporary life, including phone sex and family values.

    It even ends with a California earthquake that temporarily solves several characters’ problems.  Brilliant.

    “Mother Night,” (1997) by Keith Gordon.  Here’s a powerful film that’s faithful to Kurt Vonnegut’s dark novel about an American who worked undercover for the Americans in Hitler’s Germany, but as part of his job does Nazi radio propaganda better than the Nazis. 

    So he becomes one of the most hated “traitors” of the war, and even gets indicted as a war criminal by the Israelis.  Not a happy subject or a happy ending, but it raises hard questions about how actions define identity more than thoughts.

    “Mother Night” also makes better use of Nick Nolte’s bast acting gifts than most films in which he has starred.  Stunning and entirely original.

    “The Truman Show” (1998) by Peter Weir.  In spite of Jim Carrey’s adolescent goofiness, this film confronts fascinating issues: The power of corporations, how television creates and determines current realities, the power of “product placement” as an insidious marketing tool.  Even the guy’s wife and best friend fool him; Truman is little more than a corporate dupe.

    It also made me seriously wonder whether paranoia may be a reasonable approach to life, given the high-tech forces arrayed against us.  That digital clock on the dashboard might be a television camera, becoming your image to reality-hungry viewers.  As Greg Brown sings, “There’ll be one corporation/selling one little box/it’ll do what you want and tell you what you want/and cost whatever you got.”

    Though “The Truman Show” contains a slight nod to the predictable love plot, it’s highly muted and uncertain, and the ending raises as many questions as it answers.  It’s a film I want to see again, and given Jim Carrey’s sub-Kerry-Lewis facial mugging in his other films, that’s remarkable.

    In 2098, these three could well appear on any “100 Best” list, especially if viewers value more than escapist fluff.  Of course, if “The Truman Show” is reveals any truth, we’ll all be watching corporation-controlled reality shows, 24 hours a day.

    And loving every minute of it.

         

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