Film: The Big Picture: Killing time killing Nazis


Saving Private Ryan tells the story of an eight-man mission to locate and rescue a single soldier out of the thousands scattered behind enemy lines in the Second World War, and it has the notable distinction of featuring a career-best performance from the actor Tom Hanks, though it is unlikely that the film will be defined by this in the minds of those who see it. What will be branded on the memory are a pair of visceral, devastating 25-minute battle sequences by which the movie is bookended. Or rather, almost bookended.

What actually open and close the film are modern-day scenes - an elderly war veteran trooping to a cemetery with two successive generations of family in tow, his children pious, his grandchildren respectfully furrowing their brows. It's less a case of the film introducing itself, than Spielberg announcing his ideal audience profile.

This kind of contextualising is nothing more than an inexperienced screenwriter's way of justifying the story which is about to be told. The device didn't work when Ken Loach employed it in Land and Freedom, though he had the defence that the Spanish Civil War still retained a degree of obscurity. You may feel less secure placing yourself in the hands of a film-maker who structures his movie to accommodate those members of the audience who are a bit fuzzy about that Second World War business. In its opening and closing minutes, Saving Private Ryan offers a reminder that the freedom you take for granted today was secured by conflicts resolved half a century ago. Funny that we couldn't be trusted to detect these resonances unassisted. Funny that the tale couldn't simply be told.

Saving Private Ryan is a film of interesting if contrived contrasts. One of the most pointed examples may be purely coincidental. As the Allied troops disembark on Omaha beach, the camera drifts underwater where a single bullet passes through the bodies of two soldiers. You can't shake the echo of an identical scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: that film was set in the Second World War as well, but back then the violence was fun; the stray bullet provoked laughs, not gasps. It's a telling lesson in the choreography of context - the same director, the same act of violence even, orchestrated to achieve entirely different results. Not for the first time, you may have a sense of Spielberg wrestling with his own inflexible image.

For most of the film, though, he is wrestling with an inflexible screenplay. The combat footage which Spielberg shoots is an attempt to create as close to a subjective, unstructured viewpoint as is humanly possible when you're lugging cameras around in the mud and then pruning the results down to the last millisecond in the comfort of your editing suite. What the screenwriter Robert Rodat has created is a piece of work which achieves the opposite effect. It is a model of organisation. Which would be just dandy if the film didn't begin by expressing a desire to articulate the chaos of war. Sure, bullets fly out of thin air, and you're as likely to be killed by a bomb that you are attempting to plant as by a wily German sniper. But nothing else about life during wartime is so arbitrary.

Did you know, for example, that squads were comprised of one member from each of the various personality groups? The team which Captain John Miller (Hanks) is left with after the massacre at Omaha Beach is a good example. There is the gruff Ernest Borgnine bulldog (Tom Sizemore). The cheeky Brooklyn wide-boy (Edward Burns). The intelligent, sensitive type whom everyone respects (Giovanni Ribisi) and the intelligent, sensitive type whom everyone ridicules because he hasn't learned to kill yet (Jeremy Davies). But don't worry. He will.

Rodat doesn't really go in for characterisation. In its place, everyone gets a story to tell, most of the stories expressing unexpected sensitivity, philosophical depth and sturdy heterosexuality, often all at the same time. It may be the single brilliant stroke of the script to deny that privilege to Miller. As the soldiers kill time, waiting for Nazi tanks to roll over the bridge which they have crammed with explosives, Miller mentions something which brings him happiness: the thought of his wife, pruning the garden. "Tell me about your wife and those rose-bushes," someone asks. "No," Miller says quietly but firmly. "That one I save just for me."

Hanks may be one of the only actors who could carry off a role as predictably righteous as Captain Miller and still suggest that there are parts of him no one will ever get to see. It helps that his face is starting to age and crease - his skin looks as rumpled and tattered as his uniform. And yet he can still draw on that boyish, flashing grin when he needs to. Some of his best moments are those which suggest a short circuit in his saintliness - when he witnesses two soldiers gunning down a German prisoner, you can't be sure exactly where his evident sympathies are directed.

The effortless power of Hanks's work provides another unwelcome contrast, underlining the clumsiness of Spielberg's manipulative techniques, which grow steadily less sophisticated with each film he makes. The clash between the battle sequences in Saving Private Ryan and the material in between is jarring and unhappy, and it comes very suddenly with a single camera movement and a murmur of John Williams' mournful score. After the indiscriminate carnage on Omaha Beach, the camera stops juddering and starts sweeping gracefully across the bodies lapped by the rusty-red waves, finally settling on the kitbag of a dead soldier - Pvt Ryan. From there, the film goes on to reveal that only one of the four Ryan brothers remains alive, and Captain Miller and his squad are dispatched to find him as bugles start tooting on the soundtrack, and you realise that the opening burst of formalist daring was only there to lull you into a false sense of insecurity.

It isn't the explicit violence of the opening section which is shocking - anyone who braved the Vietnam scenes of the Hughes Brothers' Dead Presidents is unlikely to experience peristalsis at the sight of a heap of unspooled intestines. Rather, the relentless motion of the camera, and Spielberg's disregard for visual and aural coherence, are more unsettling than any of the atrocities that he stages.

There are juxtapositions here which are the work of a great craftsman - between the dispassionate typists coldly bashing out tragic telegrams, and the sensitive voiceover reading their contents; between the gruff, bulky soldiers slouching around a gramophone, and the fragility of the Edith Piaf record which is being played on it; between the tragedy of your friends losing their legs and the urgency with which you must remove their ammunition and leave them for dead. But a director who switches so cleanly between two disparate styles can easily appear disloyal to both. It may be that the film's tentative, non-commital closing image - a gossamer-thin American flag rendered grey and bloodless by the sun blazing through its fabric - says more about Spielberg than anything in the preceding three hours.

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