Saturday, May 26, 2007

War stories

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.)

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Blogger Sean Gilman said...

Not only is Davies character a stand-in for intellectuals in general, but he's the audience surrogate, the character we are meant to identify with and view the action that follows though. So not only is Spielberg asserting that intellectuals are weak and cowardly and ultimately murderous (and therefore wrong with their high-minded ideas about following the Geneva Conventions), he is saying that the audience in general, the generations that followed The Greatest, including Spielberg's own and Spielberg himself (he's said that the Davies character is meant to be a stand-in for his own POV) are like that.

It's hard for me to think of a more non-sensical case of directorial self-immolation.

5:24 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I also recall Spielberg referring to this movie as "anti-war", which is ludicrious.

I really enjoyed your post.

8:41 PM

Blogger EdHeath said...

I’m not sure what you are trying to say here about “Ryan” being both emotionally manipulative and glorifying brutality. I came away with a sense of dislike and distaste after watching the film because of the brutality; maybe that overwhelmed my experience of the emotional manipulation. I think I might say the film succeeds in being anti-war in the sense that I would have no desire to join up after watching it, compared to my desire to join the rebels in their battle against the galactic empire after watching Star Wars (might have said a bit too much there … it was 1977).

I found “Schindler’s List” to be fairly manipulative, though. The little girl’s red coat being the only element of color in a scene in this black and white movie (as she is in the crowd going to a camp or worse, as I recall) was an “Aw, c’mon” kind of moment to me. I have heard the real Schindler was less altruistic and more practical in reality, but so what, trying to save more people might have undone his entire effort. Still, I have always thought of “Schindler’s List” as a piece of art first and an attempt to educate us on history a distant second. So I assume Spielberg was going to try to drive and control our emotions, and, as I recall, he succeeds.

2:49 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

To be honest, I wonder if my opinion about "Schindler's List" would be more negative if it had come after "Saving Private Ryan." I may be more willing to excuse such excess in a film about the Holocaust than one about D-Day. There may be a pattern to Spielberg's work that only became apparent to me after seeing both films.

3:14 PM


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