"SAVING PRIVATE RYAN"
Spielberg Can't Tell a Story
As a friend of mine just put forth (and I paraphrase), you go into a restaurant and order a steak, but instead they bring you a bowl of shit. You are revolted because, A. that's not what you ordered, B. shit's not edible, and C. shit stinks. However, if every time you order a steak over the next year (or 20 years) they always bring you a bowl of shit, then shit will start looking better and better as you get hungrier until, not only do you not mind eating shit, but you can tell the difference between various kinds of shit, and certain types of shit seem better than the others.
This is the state of motion pictures in the world right now. We, the movie-going public, have been given nothing but shit for nearly 20 years and it's being accepted as a softer, easier-to-chew, version of steak. I'm sorry, but it's still shit.
The king of the shit-makers is Steven Spielberg. Because he's so good at making shit that looks like steaks, we have bestowed upon him a billion dollars, two Oscars, and his own film studio. Now Spielberg has his own shit factory.
Steven Spielberg has no clue how to tell a story. In fact, the only story that Spielberg has ever told that holds together is "Jaws," the last film in which Spielberg didn't have complete control (he made the "Raiders" movies for George Lucas, but he still made the movies he wanted to make).
I just saw "Saving Private Ryan" and two weeks ago I saw "Amistad." The basic point of "Ryan," I'd say, is: War is hell. The basic point of "Amistad" is: Slavery is bad. Steven Spielberg likes to shoot fish in a barrel, or perhaps he just doesn't like to argue, because his themes are without opposition. I don't think you'll find anyone around that will dispute that war is hell or slavery is bad. If there's no dispute, however, then there's no drama, and if there's no drama, then what the hell are we left with? Spielberg manages to make big movies on important subjects that once you've left the theater there is absolutely nothing to discuss. ("You know, war is hell." "It sure is, where do you want to eat?")
Mr. Spielberg apparently sees the world in black and white, good and bad, with no gray areas. However, all of life is one big gray area. No one is entirely good or entirely bad, unless they're in a movie. In a Spielberg film a character can begin as entirely bad, but will end up as entirely good (as with Oscar Schindler). Ambiguity, seemingly, is an unknown concept to Spielberg. Sadly, without ambiguity there is no irony and Spielberg's films are completely lacking in this department. In fact, the only ironic moments I can think of from any of his films are all in "Jaws" -- a guy that hates the water becomes a cop on an island, and a guy that hates sharks is eaten by one. I'd say the obvious reason, once again, that there is some irony in "Jaws" is because it's really a Zanuck/Brown film, not a legitimate Spielberg film.
What I find most disturbing about "Ryan" is that I believe it crosses the line between dramatic license and flat out lying. General George Marshall never ordered eight men to risk their lives - during the Normandy invasion, no less - to save a single private because his three brothers died. To have General George Marshall, identified with a printed title, on camera, order such a horribly stupid thing is not only painfully insulting, I think it's libelous. To me it would be like making a World War Two movie that showed FDR personally selling military secrets to the Nazis. That's not a good "what if?" situation, it's a bald-faced lie.
The U.S military may spend hundreds of dollars on a toilet seat and billions on planes that don't fly, but they didn't order eight guys during the D-Day invasion to save one guy because his brothers died in battle. That's a fact. Therefore, "Saving Private Ryan" is a lie; it crossed the line and is no longer drama, it's now slander. That the world's most successful filmmaker can't see that is a horrible indictment of the time that we are presently living in.
"Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" are the two biggest exploitation movies I've ever seen in my life. If you accept the definition of "exploitation movie" as "the dramatically unnecessary taking of human life or dignity to achieve visceral thrills or shocks," then I think "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List" make "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" look like the work of newborn infants.
Since the actual (false) story of "Saving Private Ryan" doesn't begin until Tom Hank's Captain - with his bars showing on his helmet so snipers can easily pick him off - gets the assignment to go save Private Ryan, the entire Normandy invasion is dramatically unnecessary. Admittedly, it's the best thing in the film by a mile, but if you cut it off you wouldn't dramatically miss a thing. Therefore, it is exactly the definition of an "exploitation movie" - "the dramatically unnecessary taking of human life to achieve visceral thrills or shocks."
Worse still about "Saving Private Ryan" is it's utterly false, lying structure, which I think Spielberg thinks is clever and I say is really just plain old bad storytelling.
An old man, walking like a duck or possibly having just taken a dump in his pants, followed by his adoring wife, children and grandchildren, steps up to a grave at a military cemetery, gets all choked up and the camera pushes in to an extremely tight close-up of his teary eyes - cut to - the Normandy invasion and Captain Tom Hanks sitting in a landing craft about to storm Omaha Beach, push to an extremely tight close-up of his eyes. All right, Tom Hanks is the old man, that's what you're telling me. Blah blah blah for three long hours, Hanks is dead, close-up of Private Ryan and we morph his face into the old man's face looking down at the grave of Hanks. So it was really Ryan the whole time. But if this whole story was in fact Ryan's memory, he wasn't there to remember any of it.
That, I'm sorry to tell you, is really bad storytelling.
"Saving Private Ryan" has an exciting, very violent, opening 25 minutes, followed by 2 1/2 hours of shit. And I mean shit, not steak.
Aug. 27, 1998