Spielberg Portrays World War II With Brilliance and Dignity
by Gerald Linderman
Professor of History at the University of Michigan
Author of The World Within War: America's Combat Experience in World War II (The Free Press, 1997)
In the lengthy record of artists' attempts to depict combat, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan merits a place of special respect.
With the 3-1/4-hour film composed of two frailly-connected parts, it is the first - a 25-minute segment capturing an American Ranger company's anguished attempt to gain Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 - that reaches to the pinnacle of Spielberg's achievement. It attains realism, and delivers it with a force, of an unparalleled order. The director is determined to deny viewers the shelter of any aesthetic distance between screen and seats; we receive almost no introduction to story or characters and are denied any context that might mitigate the immediacy of the violence. One feels stripped naked by its force. Bodies sink beneath the surface and in dreadful silence the camera follows their descent to the bottom. A soldier staggers crazily, clutching his completely severed arm. Machine-gun fire lacerates American soldiers the instant their landing craft drops its ramp; the camera places the viewer so that he seems almost to sit with the German gunners pumping out that murderous stream against terror-struck targets just yards away - one of many collisions with the realities of killing power in a whirlwind of destruction. The Normandy sequence is filmmaking of singular quality. It is likely to impose new limits on manufactured heroics and to win for itself recognition as the new standard for war-film realism.
The film's second part is given over to the story of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and a provisional squad of seven other Omaha survivors who are ordered to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), a trooper fighting with the 101st Airborne somewhere behind Utah Beach. The mission draws urgency from the deaths in battle of Ryan's three brothers and from the Army Chief of Staffs determination to return him to his Iowa farm family as an only surviving son. As the unit moves across open, hostile terrain (in a lapse, not spread out, but bunched, without point or flankers), conversation develops its members' identities: the rumpled sergeant devoted to Miller; the mutinous Brooklyn wise-guy; the haunted medic; the sniper who invokes Bible verses while squeezing off his shots; etc. After several harrowing episodes, they find their man, but Ryan refuses to leave his unit in the midst of its preparations to defend a vital bridge, and Miller's Rangers hesitantly agree to join the paras in meeting the German attack.
In the ensuing battle scenes, Spielberg shuns the cliche scenarios that proliferate in World War II films: the fainthearted replacement who fails his test in battle remains unredeemed; the film's most prominent hand-to-hand fight ends in an American rather than German death. An appropriate ambiguousness runs through a range of issues: the validity of the mission; the claims of comradeship; soldier-civilian relationships; the exercise of command amid personal disintegration. Still, in this segment of the film, men reclaim their dominance over battle, most egregiously in a rare Hollywood touch, the miraculous last-second intervention of P-51s whose pin-point accuracy instantly reverses and terminates the battle for the bridge.
What persists is an awareness that in the search for realism the necessity for a story has imposed its own limits. War tales must generate tension, here via the questions "Will Miller and his men find Ryan?" and "Will they succeed in saving him?" The final answer arrives with the Mustangs, but no such conclusiveness attends those who must fight on, who go from one town or hedgerow or ridgeline to the next, seldom aided by a decisive defeat of enemy forces but plodding on against counter-attacks in prelude to another German withdrawal. The tension intrinsic to extended campaigning resides in the question "Will I survive today's combat" - one of moment primarily and often exclusively to him who asks it. That is the whole story - and no foundation for a watchable film.
Spielberg portrays with brilliance and dignity what it was to be in a World War II battle (or perhaps two battles). For a comparably accomplished depiction of the experience of protracted combat, we must await another creative genius likely working in another medium.