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Saving Private Ryan--For what?

By Bob Harris

Warning: If you haven't seen Saving Private Ryan, this column has more spoilers than the Grand Prix of Monaco. Read on only if (a) you've seen it, (b) you're not gonna, or (c) you've already had so much of the damn thing ruined by the hype that you figure what the hell, there can't be that many surprises left anyway.

THERE'S A LOT of brilliant stuff in this film. The direction and cinematography are powerful and creative, the actors are generally marvelous, and the rest of the praise you read every time you open the arts section of your local daily is deserved.

There's a lot of annoying stuff, too. For example, the soldiers have remarkably perfect teeth for guys in the middle of a war. Apparently Omaha Beach was fluoridated. The soundtrack intrudes with John Williams' signature Star Wars bombast often enough that you half-expect the Germans to show up wearing white Storm Trooper outfits and firing laser beams. None of this article is about any of that stuff.

It's about the difference between what the movie (and, thanks to the suspension of disbelief, most of the audience) thinks it says about America, and what it does.

Everybody agrees: Freedom is really neat.

OK. But what's it for, anyway? Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the point of that whole shebang was so "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Works for me.

Freedom is what we use to make a better society. Freedom is how we exchange ideas and act on them. Freedom is how we find out what's wrong and change it.

Freedom is not merely an end unto itself. It's a tool. You use it or lose it. Ownership of that tool is what brave men have fought and died for. Leaving a tool unused gets the same result as not owning the tool at all.

Leaving a tool unused that men have died to protect does not honor their sacrifice.

SO, HOW does Spielberg define patriotism? How does he define a life well lived? What, in Saving Private Ryan, is freedom for? Tom Hanks' last words before dying and getting an Oscar are said ostensibly to Matt Damon, although he's really speaking directly to the audience. He tells our Aryan hero--and us--on behalf of all of the brave men who died:

"Earn this."

Close-up on Damon, as Private Ryan is transformed into an old man via the best damn morph money can buy. It's now the present day. Ryan is weeping at his captain's grave, mumbling about how desperately he has wanted to live up to the sacrifice.

So. Taking some three hours to set up this moment, Spielberg has given himself a singular opportunity to tell us what the hell democracy and liberty are really all about. This is--clearly--a frame for the moral of the whole kaboodle.

Tell us what the sacrifice was for, Steven. Tell us how Ryan earned this. Has the old man devoted his life to fighting injustice? Has he committed himself passionately to the defense of our freedom? Has he perhaps taken Captain Tom's place back home as a schoolteacher, and taught the next generations about the noble sacrifices made on their behalf? Has he even joined the freakin' 4-H?

Nope.

All the guy does is wonder if he was worth it. He has no idea. In an unintended connection between scenes, the old Ryan's hands visibly tremble as he struggles with his indecision and powerlessness.

Just like one of his mortally wounded squad mates.

Finally, Ryan asks his wife if he's a good guy. She says yeah. His family, who could live next door to Robert Redford's "Ordinary People," attends respectfully. That's it!

Whoa. You mean all those guys who gave their lives at Normandy, and Anzio, and Guadalcanal, and countless other engagements, fought and died to protect ... our right to have no idea what they died for, exactly, but to be kinda glad they did? As far as we are allowed to see, this Private Ryan has done nothing since the war to earn what those men died for.

Other than sort of feel like he should do something.

The audience, two thirds of whom will not even vote in November, applauds.

Curtain.

From the August 6-12, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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