"Saving Private Ryan"

The only thing surprising about "Saving Private Ryan" is how conventional it is. I fully expected a much more "noir" vision of WWII along the lines of Oliver Stone's "Platoon." What I saw was an updated version of such 1950s classics as "Walk in the Sun," written by Robert Rossen, the CP'er who named names.

"Walk in the Sun," also known as "Salerno Beachhead," just about defines this genre. A group of GI's are out on a patrol and they get killed off one by one. The enemy is faceless and evil. Our soldiers, by the same token, are good boys who are just trying to get home. The reason that CP'ers were so adept at turning out this sort of patriotic pap is that they had bought into the myth of FDR's "fight for freedom." So patriotic were the CP'ers that they also backed the decision to intern Japanese-Americans.

The buzz about Spielberg's movie is clearly related to his decision to make battle wounds much more graphic than ever before. This decision roughly parallels the breakthrough made by Bertolucci in "Last Tango in Paris" to depict sexuality openly and honestly. The question of what is more jarring--Brando in full-frontal nudity or a soldier's intestines spilling out of his midsection--I will leave to others.

A war movie ultimately relies on the same dramatic tensions as slasher or science-fiction movies. The audience is at the edge of its seat waiting for the next sniper's bullet to tear through the flesh of one of the "good guys." The suspense is similar to that which awaits us for the next moment when "Halloween's" Michael Myers will come barreling out of a closet with a kitchen knife in hand. Who will get slashed in the throat next? The most interesting variation on this theme is the film "Aliens" which blends monsters from outer space and "Walk in the Sun" war movie conventions. The acid-spitting monsters of this film are stand-ins for Nazis or Japs. All the soldiers want to do is complete "their job" successfully and return home, in this case planet Earth.

Since the aesthetic dimensions of "Saving Private Ryan" are so underwhelming, the more interesting question becomes one of Steven Spielberg's motivation in turning out such a retro movie. What would compel a director working in 1998 to recycle themes from the immediate post-WWII period?

It is not really too hard to figure out. When Spielberg is not turning out escapist fantasies like the lovely "ET" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he is functioning as a latter-day Frank Capra spinning out morality tales to mold public opinion.

Movies like "Amistad," "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" all basically put forward the same message, namely that the wealthy and the powerful are the ultimate guardians of what's decent and humane. In "Amistad," this role is assigned to John Quincy Adams who stands up for the slaves. In "Schindler's List," it is the industrialist who delivers the Jews.

General George Marshall, while a secondary character in "Saving Private Ryan," puts the dramatic narrative into motion through his decent and humane decision to remove Private James Ryan from the battlefield after his three brothers have been killed in action. Marshall tells his fellow officers that he didn't want to be in the same situation that faced Lincoln when he informed a mother that all of her sons had been killed in Civil War fighting.

Once this decision is reached, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and a group of soldiers are sent on their way to track down Private Ryan and send him back home. Their trek through hostile territory is familiar territory to anybody who has sat through the 1950s classics. Unfortunately, "Saving Private Ryan" does not even achieve the level of character development of a film like "Walk in the Sun." The stories about life back home are much more interesting in Rossen's screenplay. This should not come as any great surprise because the Hollywood Reds were some of the most accomplished writers ever to work in tinseltown.

Standing above this film like a canopy are a whole set of assumptions about American "decency." Not only is General George Marshall decent enough to rescue a single GI from the fighting, the GI's themselves are also more decent than the despicable Nazis. There is one plot device that drives this point home. Hank's men have captured a German soldier. They want to kill him but Hanks says that this would not be right and sends him off. In the climax of the film, this soldier turns up again and plunges a knife into one of the "good guys" in hand-to-hand combat. After he is captured once again, a GI shoots him in cold blood. The moral of the story is that it is forgivable to shoot Germans in this manner because they are embodiments of pure evil, just as they were in "Schindler's Tale,"

There is no doubt that Spielberg decided to make such a patriotic movie because he is concerned about the widespread erosion of confidence in elected officials in American society. Warren Beatty, another Hollywood mover-and-shaker, tackled the same job in "Bulworth." "Bulworth" attempts to restore people's belief in the system by holding up a "contrary" politician as an example. This politician decides to tell the truth no matter what. This, of course, is pure Capra territory.

The reason that WWII is so important to Spielberg is that this period was the last time when genuine national unity prevailed. People rallied around their President and were willing to lie down their lives. Good workers were like good soldiers. They went to work in the factories without demanding "excess" raises. Anybody who struck during WWII was a traitor. After WWII the "bad guys" changed identity. No longer was it the sneering blond beast of the Wehrmacht. Instead it was the fanatical Chinese soldier or Russian superspy.

In order to get people thinking in this mode once again, Spielberg can not churn out conventional narratives of the 1950s style. Instead they have to be gussied up with trendy camera work and a pulsating film score. It is also necessary to draft the most likable actor in Hollywood to play the lead. If there is one thing you can say about Tom Hanks, it is that the public finds him easy to like. Although speaking for myself I would have to say that after Hanks's recent gee-whiz promotion of Nazi party official Werner Von Braun's NASA and this lateest patriotic pap served up by Spielberg, it seems like he is angling to become the new John Wayne. (Wayne, like Hanks, never served in combat.)