I saw "Saving Private Ryan" in the theater, and I was blown away. The movie is well-acted, emotionally wrenching and visually stunning. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to dislike the film, and eventually came to share many of the sentiments of this writer. The film is emotionally manipulative in a way that Steven Spielberg's other World War II opus, "Schindler's List", was not.
The final scene in "Schindler's List", in which the real surviving Jews who Schindler saved place stones, in the Jewish tradition, at the real Schindler's grave, derives its raw power from the fact that it has actually happened. (Though one could certainly argue that this coda is evidence of Spielberg's inability to let the story speak for itself.) The scene in which Schindler is given money to flee the Russians is stirring because we have witnessed the complete transformation of a man from a cynical profiteer to genuine hero.
But the end of "Saving Private Ryan", in which an elderly Ryan tearfully asks his family whether he's lived up to the sacrifices of the men who saved him, is purely mawkish. Spielberg seems determined here to wring a few final tears from the audience, and remind us all yet again just how much we owe to the Greatest Generation. I don't mean to diminish the sacrifice of those who fought in World War II. Indeed, their achievements can stand on their own without filmmakers like Spielberg to trumpet them.
Spielberg, however, doesn't seem to be glorifying patriotism or duty so much as brutality. The movie is relentlessly anti-intellectual; the translator portrayed by Jeremey Davies is weak and cowardly and ultimately commits a feckless, revenge-fueled killing. American soldiers are shown, without remorse, shooting surrendering troops. (That such things no doubt happened during the war is irrelevant; it would be possible to portray them without tacitly endorsing them.) In fact, the entire premise of the film seems to be that if your cause is just than all of your actions are by definition justified. It's not that Spielberg doesn't portray war as ugly--he does. But he also portrays it as redemptive, and that may be the most dangerous fiction of all.
(Thanks to The House Next Door.)