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WHY ISNT IT BETTER?

 
After the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, you have to wonder where Steven Spielberg could go to try to sustain or augment that kind of visual and emotional clobbering. The old newsreels or movies like The Longest Day, in black and white, belie the graphic shattering of flesh; in calibrated color, we’re chilled watching death wash over the victims in waves of blood. Our feelings—when watching a soldier trying to find his blown-off arm—can’t be fully measured. Maybe all that can be done following a powerhouse opening like this is to try to save lives—or, in this case, a private. Stumped, I don’t really know if the rest of the movie is all that worthy. Judging from discussions in the newsgroups, I’m not the only one having trouble with the movie’s discourse, and in particular I question the use of “fucking”—more contemporary license than what would have been permitted in the 40s, when there were enforceable taboos on words G.I.s couldn’t mouth. Not suggesting it wasn’t uttered, in fact, the outrage felt at the unimaginable slaughter inflicted upon them would necessitate its use as the ultimate verbal expression. But this freely, frequently, without an occasional rebuke? The movie has a filler effect—scenes put in just to keep the show on the road. There’s a jarring bit with an American Jew taunting captured German soldiers. Had Spielberg not already made a Holocaust drama, this inclusion might be acceptable, but it’s a gratuitous notice of ethnicity, a sort of payback for that hateful little girl taunting Jews in the director’s magnum opus, and it implies this Jewish soldier perceived the horrors we hadn't yet discovered. We’re spared the insult of The Fighting Sullivans but we’re not spared misfired anger: the American pansy soldier who speaks German riles us up by his inaction; we keep shouting, “Get up those stairs, you asshole!” (Okay, I admit to screaming “You fucking asshole!”) He’ll find courage to deliver a just punishment, but Spielberg’s direction waffles so badly, his timing so way off, that most of us wouldn’t have objected to the milksop’s demise. Some effective sporadic moments—the super tense standoff caused by a GI leaning against a girder which collapses a wall exposing armed German soldiers (with Ted Danson coming to the rescue); the climatic battle (in a superbly constructed set) concluding with the movie’s major star finding peace in the knowledge that the fierce fight wasn’t in vain; Ryan’s laughing memory of one of his brothers. Saving Private Ryan is an anti-war movie as a belated thank you to the sacrifices of soldiers who fought “the good war.” (Or, as Ken Burns would wish to correct, “the necessary war.”) That makes it indisputably honorable. What’s regrettable is that its parts don’t add up to make an indisputably good movie.

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