Saving Private Ryan: great direction, awkward script (VIDEO)



Saving Private Ryan is a great film. I do not doubt that. Steven Spielberg’s direction of the battle sequences are incredibly raw, visceral and also comprehensible in spite of a frenetic camera and editing style. It’s also definitely well cast and acted.

HOWEVER. It has an awkward script. I don’t mean the script is bad as a whole. Saving Private Ryan’s script is FUNCTIONAL. It’s well paced and character beats line up where they should…but there are…issues…and most of those issues are thematic. Overall the movie is still a visceral and emotional roller coaster that engages you in the journey of its characters. It cannot be overstated how successful the movie is as an experience and cinema. I am concerned that in trying to criticise this film from a so called ‘logical’ perspective, something that doesn’t always lend itself well to actually understanding a film on an abstract emotional level, I may end up missing the forest for the trees.


The film’s ‘points’ are FUBAR

When I was re-watching the movie for this video I was struggling to come up with a core argument at first. A single focused criticism to hang my other criticisms off of. Something that’s inherently wrong with the film’s message and themes. Then it hit me that the film doesn’t have a focused message. My initial criticisms were a little scattershot because the movie’s ideas are scattershot themselves.

So what is Saving Private Ryan actually trying to say beyond the plot? Well to talk about that we actually have to also talk about the plot first. All of Matt Damon’s brothers are dead and now the army feels sorry for his Mum and wants him removed from combat for the sake of her feelings, and that fact that families are put in separate units, as a rule anyway, to try and prevent this sort of thing happening in the first place. Thus a small team of soldiers are assembled and sent forth to rescue Private Ryan from the frontlines.

A team of men being sent to save one man positions the film as a debate about the value of one man’s life against the many men that will end up to dying to protect and save him. The film is not subtle about this. There’s this sequence when the team discuss a crashed plane and directly voice their criticisms. Then there’s lines where Tom Hanks says Ryan better invent a better type of lightbulb or something. Earlier in the movie a high up officer justifies the orders to put men’s lives on the line by citing the Bixby Letter, thus the movie is calling back to Lincoln and in turn American iconography and patriotism. The movie’s first and final shot is of the American flag after all.

It’s clear that ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is supposed to be something definitively American in its values. So is the act of saving Private Ryan worth the sacrifices? When the characters finally find Ryan the film entirely sidesteps the issue of his worth versus theirs because he’s been folded into a unit guarding a tactically important bridge. In the end all but one of the team (and Ryan) are killed in the defence of the bridge. The film replaces the question of Ryan’s worth by simply providing an alternative and tactically justifiable reason for them to all die. One could argue the film is deliberately leaving the answer to the question as ambiguous, except for that to work the film has to at least throw up or suggest or imply some answers on either side of the debate. It only ever goes as far as the characters asking the questions.

Then the film cuts to elderly James Ryan and his very nuclear family underneath the rippling American flag. All tearful Ryan asks his wife “am I a good man?” She says yes and we, the audience, look upon the family. You see, he’s a good man ‘cos he has a nice traditional American family. Or something. I’d love to unpack the use of ‘good man’ versus ‘good person’ and the image of the nuclear family next to an American flag, all surrounded by the graves of soldiers. It’s a very loaded image and series of implications. But I’m honestly not sure if this image is intentionally loaded like this. I’m in two minds about it really. Either the movie is trying to trigger the feels by using this sort of nostalgic American imagery, or it is suggesting the deaths of the main characters were worth it because the nuclear American family is some great ideal. I am not unpacking that shite here. I’ll just say this: It’s one thing to promote these ideas as great, it’s another thing entirely as to say people should lay their lives down for them and given the film’s conveyance of this message is so unfocused who knows if it is even intentional. So many of Spielberg’s films deal with divorce I doubt he has any great faith in the American Nuclear family. Or maybe that’s a reason for him to value it. In this context: who fucking knows.

Spielberg has talked in interviews and such and has hinted that the film’s morals are intentionally contradictory. That both the mission to save Ryan or refuse to save Ryan are acceptable moral stances. Now that’s actually a fascinating concept to explore, but this film does not explore it. The movie just plays lip service to it and then side steps the debate entirely by making it all about an important bridge. Even before they arrive at the town with Ryan and the Bridge the characters that are killed off, Vin Diesel and Frank Buffay Jr. the Medic, do so in the service of something either noble or practical Vin Diesel tries to save a family of innocents and is shot by a sniper and the medic is killed in the assault on a machine gun nest that Miller wants to prevent ambushing another unit. No one dies because of the decision to save or not save Ryan. That mission only has geographical responsibility for their deaths, not any direct causal relation.

Another interpretation of the movie is that when Miller tells Ryan to ‘earn this’ that Ryan is representing a non-veteran audience. We were all saved from fascism by men like Miller and his team laying down their lives, and now we have to earn that sacrifice. This interpretation is arguably weak for two reasons. The first is that surely earning it means to pursue unending peace in the future to prevent further deaths. However the film frames ‘earning it’ as individuals leading unspecified valuable lives. Inventing better lightbulbs or whatever as Miller puts it. Without describing or presenting any ideas of what earning it is this becomes an empty sentiment, or at least an apolitical one. In addition to this; Ryan is not a good audience surrogate. He fought quite directly in this battle, even providing Miller with some knowledge on how to use shells as grenades and one insert of Ryan screaming doesn’t change that. Miller made sure Ryan was evacuated, but that was a secondary objective to Miller. Ryan is not an audience surrogate and nor did the men lay their lives down for him, they did it for that fucking bridge.

They Don’t Like it Upham

Right, let’s now talk about other confusing messages. Let’s talk about Private Upham and the German Soldier Steamboat Willie.

You may recall Upham as the hilariously naive soldier with no combat experience that Captain Miller drags into the field as an interpreter. The film takes many pains to remind us how naive he is. He drops things a lot in case it was too subtle. This in itself isn’t fantastic screenwriting even as shorthand.

During their trot across France the gang take on a machine gun nest. Their medic is then killed and everyone is understandably emotional. They take a prisoner the script calls Steamboat Willie because of his referencing the famous early animation. The man is terrified and begs to be allowed to live. Everyone except Upham and Captain Miller want to execute the German soldier. Half for revenge, with some comments about him betraying their position if they let him go.

The emotion of this scene then combines with the general resentment of the mission to save Ryan. Tensions are high. Miller lets the German soldier go. Here we have a tricky situation as the arsehole of the team, played by a knockoff Ben Affleck, gets into a potentially deadly standoff with the sergeant, who is following his Captain’s orders regardless of his own feelings. However this is when Captain Miller decides to reveal he’s a teacher. You see the film has this whole plot thread that no one knows the Captain’s civilian history, so he reveals it then. The film turns it into a speech about how war changes you and he’s fighting to get back to his wife and saving Ryan will help that. This calms everyone down through distraction and inspirational blah even though this specific conflict isn’t even about Ryan. This brief intense conflict is never mentioned again or paid off. Once again the film is just paying lip service to its ideas about morality rather than any detailed exploration of them.

So later on we have the final battle. Steamboat Willie turns up again and shoots Captain Miller fatally. I honestly wonder how he got across to the German side of the river if this place has the best bridge or whatever. Given the Germans only attack from one side of the river it’s not like he met up with them there. WHATEVER.

Anyway, Upham captures Steamboat Willie when the battle is won. Then he shoots him. You know, in cold blood. Now the film doesn’t really underscore this with any implications of what you are to think or feel. There’s a very obvious point that it is about the loss of Upham’s innocence. He’s gone from prose-loving law-citing by-the-books nice guy to shooting captured soldiers. Blah. But is that the film’s point about Upham? I’ve seen different reactions to this moment. Some people seem to find it cathartic that he kills this man which would imply the film thinks this immoral and illegal act is okay on some level. Following this we barely get more than one shot of Upham before the cut back to the present day bookends. We don’t see if he’s a broken man or a fully formed soldier or whatever. Seriously, what the fuck is the film trying to say here? This is all made weirder by the many moments in the film that are framed from Upham’s perspective as though he’s an audience surrogate. Given he hasn’t been in battle before and doesn’t initially know the men in his team; he is a logical audience surrogate the screenplay may have designed that way: as he learns that world so do we. Is the audience supposed to understand the horrors of war through Upham’s act? Probably, but it’s hard to work out what we’re supposed to understand when no truths or supposed truths are offered to us. And I don’t want anyone saying “it’s up to the audience member to decide”. This is not a film with an objective perspective, it is brazenly manipulative of the audience’s feelings. Not that that is a bad thing generally speaking, but emotional manipulations should be more focused and purposeful.

Also, whilst we’re here. In researching this film I discovered that Steamboat Willie isn’t the same soldier who murders Mellish with the knife. You know that really personal slow kill with the whispering which seems like a perverse form of payback for Mellish wanting to execute him earlier? It feels like a plot beat they’ve built to. But no, it’s a different and very similar looking guy. I am sure some or even most of you knew this, but it’s an incredibly common misconception about the movie. Obviously you could blame the commonality of this mix up to casting and to the direction for not making it clearly this is an SS officer with the appropriate uniform. But y’know, the script makes this moment feel intentional to be interpreted this way. I mean, Steamboat Willie is present in the battle in spite of geographical logic. HOW DID HE GET THERE? Swim I guess…but with time to meet up with a unit before the main characters ever reached the bridge? IS HE THE FLASH? I digress. The slow kill would work as cruel irony as Mellish wanted to execute the man that Upham spared that lead to Mellish’ own demise.

So I was gonna criticise the film for portraying a German soldier as a total coward followed by a weird psychopath, but it turns out they’re two different characters. This is a movie that makes a point of Miller saying they’d employ the same cruel tactics of a German sniper picking off runners. The ‘they’re also people’ factor really doesn’t work when your only two German characters of any note are 1. A coward who kills the man who saved his life and 2. A psychopath who whispers as he stabs you.  Not that I care really, they are Nazis after all…

You know what…actually…

Let’s criticise Spielberg a bit anyway

I’d like you to imagine that you’ve never seen Saving Private Ryan. I want you to imagine a film where some generals are inspired by the Bixby letter to send a team of men with individual skills off to save a woman’s son for the heart of America. Imagine reading lines like “Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess.” The script in and of itself suggests a tone far cheesier, far hokier and generally more schmaltzy.

And I know Spielberg likes his thick dollops of Schmaltz, but nothing about this script screams ‘realism’. The script seems to hint at an adaptation more like old Hollywood romanticism, not shaky-cam washed out gory spectacles.

Why did Spielberg pick this script? We could have had a similar film with a different script. The casting could have been the same with very similar battle sequences. Nothing about this film’s specific story beats require the iconic D-Day landing sequence, the various skirmishes in French towns or the final battle for the bridge.

The overt patriotism, hokey plot and speechifying monologues are a big tonal clash with a realist tone and sensibilities. Obviously some amazing films were directed very differently to what the screenplays seemed to imply, but those films often had a strong focus on their reinterpretation of said screenplays. Anyway, back to the script.

I hope you like very obvious set up and pay off

This is a minor problem really. It might not even really be a problem. Just the movie takes a lot of short cuts in setting up emotional moments. For example the death of the medic. When beginning to doze off the medic tells a story full of regret about him needlessly snubbing his mother’s attentions when he was a child. Then later on when he’s bleeding out he’s actually very calm. His calmness makes his death not overly emotional and it all feels in character. One can find a strength in his professionalism. Then he starts screaming about his mother. It tends to break the viewer’s heart and tears follow.

Usually set up and pay off isn’t quite this obvious. Granted, there is a need to make sure your audience picks up the right plot cues, but it is usually done with more grace than the dude who has regrets about his mother just bringing this up with a long story with the barest conversational justification.

War films are somewhat unique with efficient characterisation. Because of the need to explain tactical situations and keep the plot moving whilst having characters we only see in one context, thus character short cuts are common and necessary. There’s a reason war movies as a genre have multiple tropey archetypal soldier characters. However it seems like the reason for the medics very heavy handed mother story is because there was no time to have a basic set up and pay off pattern of “set up, reminder, pay off” because the writer’s plotting didn’t allow for the reminder, so the set up had to be memorable. You could argue being on the nose isn’t inherently bad, which is true. On the other hand, part of a war movie’s tension is not knowing who will live or die when anyone could do either. When you have a dude listing his regrets like that it becomes clear he will die. And direct reminders of a film’s constructed nature will ruin suspension of disbelief which is important in a film striving this hard for a facsimile of realism.

Where there isn’t heavy-handed set up and pay off this film can just abandon character beats entirely. Remember that Sergeant Horvath speech about saving Ryan I quoted earlier? Well, he just starts delivering that. There’s no build up to his thinking those thoughts. He just decides he feels that now. There’s not even an attempt to link it to Miller’s earlier speech about why he is saving Ryan.

There is a similar lack of story beats with Mellish’s attitude to Upham. Mellish snubs Upham and his annoyingness early in the film, he strongly dislikes him for defending Steamboat Willie and then before the final battle he decides to tell Upham the meaning of FUBAR, something he’d been withholding from Upham before, then they share a mutually respectful look. There’s no character beats or interactions leading up to this. Upham doesn’t perform any deeds to change anyone’s opinion of him or get to know them personally.

Amusingly Upham’s interaction with Mellish is first shown in a scene when Upham discusses a book he’s writing about the brotherhood between soldiers. He’s mocked and teased because he has no experience with that at all. He is being completely pretentious. Does Upham ever learn the true nature of the brotherhood between soldiers? No, he doesn’t. He just gets random respect towards the end despite taking part in none of their battles up to that point. Then he murders someone.

I still love this movie though

Saving Private Ryan is still great though. It hits many emotional highs and lows. The battle sequences are still unsurpassed. Even if its ideas don’t coalesce properly, the film consistently conveys just how beyond horrible war is without ever letting up. It is a truly great movie and at least a masterpiece in film form. Just sometimes it can be a bit awkward

Arguably that unevenness might be part of why it is so good. Maybe the blunt rawness of the scattershot emotions coming from the characters, without any nuance or consistency, is actually a good foundation for a film about what war itself is like. Maybe by virtue of none of the film’s ideas, themes or messages coming together consistently, maybe the act of saving Private Ryan, as Sergeant Horvath said, is the only good thing they got out of that shitty godawful mess, any other sort of intellectual satisfaction be damned. And being honest intellectual satisfaction doesn’t matter in this movie. You feel everything that happens intensely and you forget you’re even watching a film at points. As I said in my intro, sometimes understanding a film is about abstract emotionality. Ultimately Saving Private Ryan achieves the best goal a movie can achieve: being great cinema.