Last weekend I watched a 4K streaming version of Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan. There’s no question that this 1998 WWII drama is one of the most brutally realistic and emotionally affecting war films ever made, and is certainly among Beardo’s finest. And yet I found myself flinching at the occasionally forced or unlikely moments, at the too-broad “acting” and emotional button-pushings. It kept ringing my phony gong. “Jeez, I don’t know if I even like this movie any more,” I said to myself. “Even the Omaha Beach landing sequence is starting to bother me.”
I had the same kind of reaction when I rewatched Close Encounters of the Third Kind in ’07, or 30 years after it opened. The bottom line is that Spielberg’s sentimental or overly theatrical instincts aren’t aging any better than John Ford‘s similar tendencies.
The greatest offense comes from Harrison Young‘s awful over-acting as the 75-year-old Ryan. His face is stricken with guilt as he shuffles through the Omaha Beach cemetery, and he walks like a 90-year-old afflicted with rheumatism. In ’87 I visited this same cemetery with my father, who’d fought against the Japanese during WWII. He was quietly shaken, he later said, but he held it in because that’s what former Marines do under these circumstances. They show respect by behaving in a disciplined, soldier-like way. They don’t moan and weep and flail around like some acting-class student.
I almost lost it when the teary-eyed Young collapsed upon the grave of Cpt. Miller (Tom Hanks). “Oh, for God’s sake!” I said out loud. “Show a little dignity…be a man!” Kathleen Byron‘s performance as white-haired Mrs. Ryan is almost as bad. All she does is eyeball her doddering, bent-over husband. The whole family, in fact, is staring at the old coot like he’s about to keel over from a heart attack.
Then comes one of the most dishonest cuts in motion picture history, going from a close-up of Young’s eyes to the D-Day landing craft carrying the Ryan squad — Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel — as they approach Omaha beach. Matt Damon‘s Ryan (Young’s 21-year-old counterpart) won’t meet them for another couple of days, when they’re inland a few miles.
I don’t believe that loaded-down soldiers drowned after being dropped by landing craft into 15 feet of water. That might have occured in real life, but I didn’t believe this in Saving Private Ryan — it just seemed absurd. I didn’t believe that bullet wounds would cause the water off Omaha Beach to turn red with blood — in fact Spielberg’s crew poured 40 barrels of fake blood into the water to achieve this effect. The basic effect is one of Hollywood exaggeration blended with historical, real-life horror.
Then comes Hanks’ big zone-out moment when he hits the beach. He’s an Army captain in the thick of battle with machine-gun bullets whizzing by and guys getting drilled and blown apart, and he chooses this moment to go “Ohhh, I can’t think or move…it’s too much…I’m so upset by war and its carnage that I need to go catatonic for a couple of minutes…don’t mind me…I’ll come back to life after this sequence is over.” I’m sitting there going “get it together, man! You wouldn’t do this in a Samuel Fuller or Howard Hawks film…you’re only zoning out because Spielberg likes the idea of spacing out and turning the sound down.”
When Hanks tells Jeremy Davies‘ Corporal Upham to pack his gear because he needs a bilingual interpreter, Davies goes into a whole bumbling See Here, Private Hargrove slapstick routine. He even starts to pack his typewriter. A typewriter in your rucksack as you’re dodging German bullets…sure.
I hate the Andrew Wyeth moment when the mother of the four Ryan boys collapses on her front porch as the Army messengers approach with bad news.
I hate the behavior of the small French family (papa, mama, little girl) during the rainshower battle sequence — the one in which foolish Diesel gets shot and Pepper picks off a lone German sniper. The little girl is enraged at her father when he hands her to one of the Ryan squad, but too enraged. She won’t stop wailing about how scared she is. Character actors in Spielberg films never listen or acknowledge what the others are saying — they only shout at each other.
The moment in which Hanks gets shot during the big battle finale is ridiculous — he stands up to retrieve a weapon and stumbles right into the German line of fire.
I don’t think I can do this any more. Saving Private Ryan is bringing me down. Most of my “flinch” moments, I’ll admit, happen during the first half — the second half isn’t too bad. Ryan is realistic and jolting in so many ways — I just wish Spielberg had employed less of a manipulative, Hollywood-movie-guy attitude. And I wish he’d never used Harrison Young at all.
I think I’ve at least laid the groundwork for a Saving Private Ryan pushback when the 20th anniversary articles start rolling out in mid July.
“I saw it three times during the initial run, but when I saw it again on laser disc in the early ’90s I began to realize how consistently irritating and assaultive it is from beginning to end. There are so many moments that are either stylistically affected or irritating or impossible to swallow, I’m starting to conclude that there isn’t a single scene in that film that doesn’t offend in some way. I could write 100 pages on all the things that irk me about Close Encounters. I can’t watch it now without gritting my teeth. Everything about that film that seemed delightful or stunning or even breathtaking in ’77 (excepting those first few seconds and the mothership arrival at the end) now makes me want to jump out the window.
“That stupid mechanical monkey with the cymbals. The way those little screws on the floor heating vent unscrew themselves. The way those Indian guys all point heavenward at the the exact same moment when they’re asked where the sounds came from. “Bahahahhahhree!” That idiotic invisible poison gas scare around Devil’s Tower. That awful actor playing that senior Army officer who denies it’s a charade. The way the electricity comes back on in Muncie, Indiana, at the same moment that those three small UFOs drones disappear in the heavens. The mule-like resistance of Teri Garr‘s character to believe even a little bit in Richard Dreyfuss‘s sightings. It’s one unlikely, implausible, baldly manipulative crap move after another.”