Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The #54 War Movie Of The Last 50 Years

Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was hailed as a masterpiece immediately upon its premiere, and that ranking doesn't appear to have dimmed in the collective reckoning in the nine years since. Well, I thought it was overrated then, and after watching it for a third time last night, I'm more convinced than ever that my initial reaction was the correct one.

The case for SPR generally runs along these lines: the opening 25 minute Omaha Beach sequence is groundbreaking in its technique and realism, and the remainder of the film is a powerful tribute to The Greatest Generation, a reminder of what they sacrificed for the rest of us in World War II. There are variations, but generally it boils down to realism and patriotism as the reasons SPR is great. It's telling that few, if any, advocates of SPR have anything to say about the film's script (written by Robert Rodat, who also wrote Fly Away Home and The Patriot), which is, at best, maudlin and sentimental.

Omaha Beach - It's one of the great stories of American history: the D-Day landing and the hard slog up the beachhead in the face of overwhelming German firepower. It's a sequence that appears in a number of different WW2 movies, most notably Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One and the multi-director epic The Longest Day. There are also variations of it in, among other films, Allan Dwan's The Sands of Iwo Jima and Don Siegel's Hell Is For Heroes, the former features a beach landing under heavy fire, the latter a suicidal uphill attack on a German bunker. Another noteworthy comparison is Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, which was released a few months after SPR, is just as viscerally intense, but with none of the moral or filmic complications of Spielberg's film, and also features an extended assault on an uphill bunker, one that is superior to SPR's in just about every way. Watching the sequence again, I was surprised at how small it seems. There's no sense of the vast 10 mile expanse of the beach, we're pretty much confined to the same 300 yard stretch of sand through the whole attack. Spielberg's never been strong on continuity, a problem which repeatedly comes up here: the same shots (especially a POV shot of the German machine gun firing at the same half dozen troops, which we see at least three times) repeat several times, and appear to have no geographic relation to the main thrust of the plot, which is how Tom Hanks destroys a bunker, thereby making the beachhead safe for the invasion (the absurdity of which should be self-evident). The sequence appears to function in real time, making the whole of the Omaha Beach landing appear to take about 20 minutes, when in fact it stretched on for several hours before the troops were finally able to break through.

Spielberg's decision to show the battle from Hanks's point of view is especially limited, in that it reduces the heroism of many to that of one: the star and protagonist. In SPR, Spielberg repeatedly reduces the general and the epic to the specific and generic. Thus the massive Omaha Beach landing is reduced to a half dozen guys in a small space fighting one gun and a handful of Germans. In the same sequence in The Longest Day, a massive array of troops must crawl under enemy fire to set up a bangalore torpedo and take out one of the many bunkers on the beach. Soldier after soldier volunteers to run out there only to get shot, as true a depiction of collective heroism in war as I've ever seen. In SPR, the nameless soldiers' deaths are instead often reduced to macabre jokes: a GI wanders the beach holding his severed arm (a shot lifted from Akira Kuroawa's Ran), a medic frantically works to save a wounded man, only to have his patient get shot in the head as soon as he says "I've stopped the bleeding!", Hanks barks commands repeatedly to his radio man, but the third time he pulls him over he's missing his face and the radio's been shot, Hanks gives a comical look and throws the radio away.

So, the Omaha Beach sequence is neither epic in scope nor particularly noble in character, nor original in plot. What about in its film technique? Speilberg shoots the sequence with a shaky handheld camera, with desaturated color, both of which were (and are) supposedly revolutionary. And indeed, the use of a handheld camera was revolutionary. . . when Roberto Rossellini and the Italian Neo-Realists started doing it in Rome, Open City 53 years before Saving Private Ryan. The shaky POV action sequence is a recurrant trope in war, action and horror movies, and had been for years before SPR. Spielberg may have been the first to splash blood and mud on the camera, but I'm not sure. Similarly, his may be the first film where we see people being shot underwater, a dubious achievement at best. As for the color, well, as with his decision to shoot Schindler's List in black and white, it's an homage to the war movies he grew up watching (and the documentaries shot during the war, which were very often shot in black and white. And it's hard to be original when you're making an homage. Yes, Saving Private Ryan is far gorier than a film like The Longest Day. But is that really what we mean by realism? More blood?

The Rest Of The Film - Given much of the talk about SPR, you'd think the film ended when Omaha Beach was taken. But no, there's over two hours left of film time to go! Two hours that basically consists of generic characters doing stupid things for no clear reason and ascribing great meaning to them, with the occasional justification for war crimes thrown in.

1. Generic Characters - Like many a war movie, SPR's characters are a collection of representative types, both in genre iconography and as a PC multicultural mix. There's the captain who's sick of killing, but serves as a father figure to his men (he's even a school teacher back home), played by Tom Hanks; his sergeant, big and gruff but also brave, honest and protective, Tom Sizemore; the medic, smart and sensitive, as horrified by war as Alan Alda and who also fills the role of the soldier who takes abut his mother, Giovanni Ribisi; the wisecrackin' kid from Brooklyn, Ed Burns; the Southern sharpshooter, lifted whole straight out of Howard Hawks's Sergeant York, right down to the pre-shot prayer, played by Barry Pepper; the New York Jew, there to remind us of why the Germans are bad, played by Adam Goldberg (who will always be Chandler's roommate Crazy Eddie to me); the big dumb Italian who carries a rosary, Vin Diesel; the cartographer/interpreter who knows nothing of war (think Lawrence Of Arabia), quotes poetry, translates Edith Piaf and who functions as our surrogate in the group: we meet the other characters through him, Jeremy Davies; and finally the holy grail himself, Matt Damon as the corn-fed blonde Iowa farmboy (a type which appears as a symbol of wasted youth and innocence and possible homoerotic desire in The Sands of Iwo Jima, but functions as the American ideal here). A brief sequence with Pvt. Ryan's mother is as generic as possible: a white picket-fenced farmhouse amidst amber waves of grain. I swear there's even an apple pie cooling on a window sill. Many films, war films in particular, use this kind of generic character setup. But it's telling that films like The Big Red One and Platoon don't follow that structure, as both Samuel Fuller and Oliver Stone actually fought in wars, unlike many a war movie writer or director.

2. Doing Stupid Things -

A. The initial stupid thing is the mission itself. Back in Washington, a secretary discovers that three of the four Ryan boys were KIA on the same day. A debate ensues with Gen. George Marshall over whether or not to find the fourth Ryan and send him home, despite the fact that he's missing somewhere far behind enemy lines and any rescue mission will likely lead to many more men being killed to save one. In an astounding display of irrationality, Marshall reads a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to a Mrs. Bixby, expressing his regrets over the loss of her sons during the Civil War. (Note that in the reaction shot to Marshall's reading, his staff member is framed next to a portrait of George Washington, in case we don't know who Lincoln is, I guess). Somehow, this letter is so moving to Marshall and his staff that they decide Mrs. Ryan cannot be allowed to sacrifice as much as she did for the cause of freedom, though there's nothing but respect, sympathy and admiration in Lincoln's sentiment. The power of the letter is supposed to trump any question of the utility of wasting several lives to save one, though there's no logical reason for it to convince us of that fact.

B. The next stupid thing occurs when the small band reaches the besieged town of Ramelle (fictional, naturally), where Ryan is supposed to be. It's a bombed-out village, with no inhabitants. Except, of course, for a French family who for some unknown reason are still in their half-destroyed house when the group arrives. Inexplicably, the father tries to pass his daughter to the soldiers, and even more inexplicably, Vin Diesel disobeys direct orders, takes the daughter, stands out in the open and gets himself shot by a German sniper. There's no reason for any of this to happen but expediency: Spielberg wants to show us some civilian French, he wants to show off Pepper's sharpshooting, and he wants to subject us to a long death sequence for Diesel (which is also apparently why the sniper never shoots him again, but instead waits five minutes for Pepper to get into position before looking for a second shot).

C. Disobeying orders is a recurring type of stupid thing in SPR, most clearly when the wisecrackin' Brooklynite refuses to assault a machine gun, and then wants to shoot a German POW and Hanks won't let him. Insubordination of this type would hardly be tolerated in a war, let alone from a veteran like Burns who's been with Hanks for several months. Hanks, of course, defuses the tense standoff by sharing a little bit about his life back home. If only someone had thought of that at My Lai.

D. The final battle is a seemingly endless series of stupid things. Why do the Americans so desperately protect the bridge when they planned to blow it up anyway? Why do they wait until the Germans show up to string the wires for their mines, both in the street and on the bridge? Why do they have Davies carrying ammunition from point to point under heavy fire instead of stocking the ammunition in their foxholes and sniping points before the battle? Why does Davies cower in fear instead of saving Crazy Eddie's life? The answer to that last one is simple enough: Spielberg is asserting that we, the audience (for whom Davies has been the surrogate throughout the film), and especially the brainier types out there, are incapable of functioning in the horrors of war, and were we placed in the same position as The Greatest Generation, would be entirely worthless. And did I mention the absurd deus ex machina at the end of the sequence?

3. War Crimes - I'd always remembered that it was Davies at the end of the film who shoots the POW, committing the film's major war crime. Watching it again, I was surprised at how often these murders occur. In fact, the film can easily be interpreted as a coming-of age story in which we learn how necessary it is to execute POWs because they shot at us first. After the Omaha Beach sequence, the Americans shoot defenseless Germans in a trench and murder surrendering Germans with their hands raised in the air. The emotional power (and graphic bloodinesss) of the preceding beach landing is apparently supposed to justify the murdering of these POWs, just as the death of the medic is later supposed to justify the murder of the German that Burns causes so much trouble over. These crimes reach their culmination when Davies, after cowering throughout the final stages of the final battle, assassinates the German soldier he let kill Crazy Eddie, as that soldier is telling his compatriots what a coward Davies is. Davies, of course, had been the one stridently protesting Burns's attempts to murder the other POW. Thus the audience member, after being shown their own cowardice, is asserted to be a murderer as well. It's one of the most insulting things I've ever seen on film, and I can't believe how many people are willing to let Spielberg get away with it. How can this film be taken as a glorification of The Greatest Generation when it shows them repeatedly engaging in the same brutal habits as the pure evil Nazis of Schindler's List? It's like the Bixby letter: the overwhelming assertion of emotion precludes any logical examination of what the film is actually saying.

Finally, I have a couple of minor quibbles with the film. The opening sequence shows an old man wandering through a cemetery with his family following. He stops at a grave and the camera slowly zooms in on his eyes. From there we cut to Tom Hanks preparing to land at Omaha, thus setting up an identification of the old man with Hanks. The slow zoom on the eyes is often a precursor to that person's flashback. Of course, it's Pvt. Ryan who is the old man, and what follows can't possibly be a flashback (Ryan wasn't at Omaha, he parachuted behind enemy lines). The only purpose of the zoom appears to mislead the viewer into believing that Hanks will live and thereby increasing the shock when he dies and we realize the old man must be Ryan. This kind of incoherent manipulation is something a director of Spielberg's caliber should be better than. Also the faded US flag we're shown twice appears to have 50 stars, which is two too many for 1944, but maybe that's intentional. The old Ryan appears to know exactly where he's going in the cemetery, though this is supposedly his first time visiting Hanks's grave. Also, Hanks's grave is conveniently placed such that there's lots of space for Ryan's family to stand well behind him, instead of bunched together like all the other grave markers.

To conclude, here are 53 War Movies I've Seen from the last 50 years that are better than Saving Private Ryan:

Paths Of Glory
Bridge On The River Kwai
Hiroshima mon amour
The Horse Soldiers
The Guns Of Navaronne
Lawrence Of Arabia
Hell Is For Heroes
The Longest Day
The Great Escape
Dr. Strangelove
The Train
In Harm's Way
The Heores Of Telemark
The Battle Of Algiers
The Dirty Dozen
Hell In The Pacific
The Sorrow And The Pity
A Bridge Too Far
The Deer Hunter
Apocalypse Now
The Big Red One
Breaker Morant
Das Boot
The Killing Fields
Top Gun
Empire Of The Sun
Full Metal Jacket
Good Morning, Vietnam
Henry V
The Hunt For Red October
Europa Europa
Last Of The Mohicans
A Midnight Clear
Schindler's List
Starship Troopers
The Thin Red Line
Three Kings
Black Hawk Down
Pearl Harbor
Master And Commander
Gods And Generals
A Very Long Engagement

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Still Of The Day

/Film has some stills up from Wong Kar-wai's latest film My Blueberry Nights, which kicks off the Cannes Film Festival this week.