Critiquing Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan is another one of those films that I have always had mixed feelings about. As a Mennonite who was attending an Anglican church at the time, I didn’t know what to make of the relationship between church and state, or the church’s complicity in state-sanctioned violence, through stained-glass war memorials and so on — and I still don’t know what to make of these things, really. That ambivalence has spilled over into my reactions to a film that is basically pro-war and anti-war in roughly equal measure.

My first review of the film was generally appreciative, apart from some passing remark about the film’s “grudging, and caricatured, affirmation of Christianity” in which the gospel is turned into “a domesticated civil religion, where faith is fine so long as it follows the flag.” It is interesting to see that I placed this film on a continuum between the Crucifixion and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, considering some of the remarks I have made more recently about The Passion of the Christ (e.g. here). And I still stand by my Philip Yancey-ish take on the film as a parable that messes with our common-sense mathematics (sacrifice an entire platoon to save one man? abandon ninety-nine sheep to save just one?).

But not long afterwards, I wrote a more critical article for The Crossing, a zine edited by Jeff Overstreet, in which I zeroed in on the “sentimentality” that is typical of Spielberg’s films, and how, in films like this and Amistad, “he uses it to sanctify violence.”

I finally brought my pro and con feelings about the film together in yet another article, this time for Christianity Today, in which I looked at the film alongside the other two WW2-themed films (Life Is Beautiful, The Thin Red Line) that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar that year, and I threw in a paragraph or two about older WW2 films, too. Truth be told, I think I may have been trying to say too much in too tight a space, but oh well.

More recently, I addressed certain aspects of Saving Private Ryan in a paper that I presented at a meeting of historians in Seattle in January, in which I contextualized the increasing violence of Jesus films by putting it alongside the increasing violence of war movies; an excerpt from that paper is here.

I bring that all up now because Mark Steyn has just re-posted his own review of Saving Private Ryan for the Spectator from way back when, and he offers an angle on the film that I don’t think I’ve encountered before — and I do like contrarian reviews when they are well-argued. I don’t know that it will unseat Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece for the Chicago Reader as my favorite truly critical review of the film — though they do share a certain cynicism about the aimlessness of Spielberg’s motives and mixed messages — but I will be holding onto it for a while.

I will say, though, that I agree with this particular point of Steyn’s:

So much has been written about the unprecedented ‘realism’ of this film’s war scenes that the equally unprecedented unrealism of its thinking has passed virtually unnoticed. You’ve probably seen a zillion articles about the film’s prologue — a recreation of D-Day which lasts almost as long and doubtless cost a lot more — so I’ll say only this: yes, it’s impressive; yes, every shot of blood and tissue and body parts is underlined by adroit effects; yes, every moment is a testament to Spielberg’s command of cinematic technique; but that’s the problem — you react to it as technique, as showmanship. There’s one perfect shot after another: the silence underwater, with its dangerous illusion of respite; the pitterpatter of rain on leaves gradually blurring into rifle fire. The whole thing is oddly pointless: you’re not engaged by the predicament of the troops because you’re so busy admiring the great film-maker behind them. A film cannot really be ‘authentic’ if all you notice is the authenticity.

As I wrote in the paper that I presented three months ago:

At a certain point, though, one begins to wonder if the depiction of “realistic” violence has become an end in itself, and one has to wonder what is gained by dwelling on it in such riveting, up-close detail. Every viewer will have his or her own response to a film, but for me, the most horrifying moment in Saving Private Ryan was one of the least reliant on blood and gore; the scene that brought home the horror of death, the sheer wrongness of it, was the scene in which a Jewish-American soldier — a well-rounded character that we have had time to come to know and like — is about to be knifed by a Nazi soldier, and he suddenly, desperately realizes that this is the spontaneous and unanticipated moment in which his life will be snuffed out. By comparison, the opening D-Day sequence is little more than an impressive flurry of special effects.

In my more provocative moments, I have told people that I went back to see the film a second time for the “eye candy” of the D-Day sequence — it may be sour candy, but candy it is, and as Steyn puts it, I went back and saw the film again just to bask in the technique one more time. However, I have also told people that the scene of Adam Goldberg’s death was just as painful and harrowing to watch the second time as it was the first — and that was a scene in which the death mattered because we were not just watching a bunch of squib-covered extras, but we were, for all intents and purposes, watching an actual person die.

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