Saving Private Ryan BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Past is Teary Spielberg and Malick Direct World War II: The Film BY DON GRAHAM The real war will never get into the books. Walt Whitman. The real war will never get into the movies. Don Graham. In the space of a year, we suddenly have two ambitious World War II movies to conjure. Who’d have thought it? Back when Bob Dole was running for president, nobody gave a flip about WWII heroics. I recall seeing a highly partisan Democratic audience laughing at a TV comedian’s jokes about Dole’s withered arm, incurred in combat in Italy in 1943. They didn’t have to do that Dole was so beatable I could have successfully run against him. But the audience yucked it up; they thought that floppy arm was really funny. Also Dole was old, as old as World War II; imagine that. Now the World War II generation is being treated to such veneration that even a chowderhead like Tom Brokaw is able to climb the best-seller list with a book about them: The Best Generation. Much of this boomer sentiment ought probably to be laid at the door of Steven Spielberg. Saving Private Ryan, after all, was instantly proclaimed the greatest war film ever lensed, and Spielberg let it be known that all those old pokey black-andwhite rah-rah films about the war embarrassments like The Sands of Iwo Jima were naive, shamelessly patriotic, even propagandistic. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose backed him up. In Entertainment Weekly, Ambrose said, “In other war movies, when an American G.I. gets hit, the commanding officer can write home that he never knew what hit him, that he didn’t suffer. Well, it almost never happens that way.” So Spiel berg is giving us the real war. Question: how does Spielberg know what the real war was like? A. By talking to historian Stephen E. Ambrose. Q: How does Ambrose know? A. By talking to veterans. \(One of the film’s historical sources is Ambrose’s own oral history, Spielberg’s model of artistry derives almost entirely from popular American genre cinema. Lately, in his tortuous High Serious Didactic Mode, he has taken up history as his particular specialty, in Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan. Very easy history it is: the Holocaust was evil, Slavery was evil, and WWII, fought on fronts from Norway to Australia, from Russia to Okinawa, was won by Americans on Omaha Beach. It was won by citizen soldiers, teachers of English composition from Pennsylvania who used chewing gum to devise a mirror for seeing around rocks American know-how and can-do backyard tinkering. Each of these films is preachy, moralistic, and slick pop-cult history that plays sensationally at the box office and doubtless in private screenings in the Hamptons. Schindler’s List does have many great moments, all of them featuring Nazis, and above all when Ralph Fiennes is on screen. \(He lost the Best Supporting Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones in Everybody talks about Ryan’s stunning opening twenty minutes: the slaughter on Omaha Beach. But the film actually begins flag stylized, silk-screen effect and, much, much worse, with a WWII vet in a wind-breaker with his echt American Midwest family trailing behind, walking among the white crosses of the American cemetery in Normandy: Private Ryan as Senior Citizen. I have walked among those crosses, and the visit to that cemetery is always moving, but the family in the film looks as though they all rode in an RV from Iowa to Normandy. Later they’ll take the kids to EuroDisney. \(There is a certain truth to this scene, however: the parking lots at the Memorial are always full of tourist buses, and the cemetery is always full of large Americans dressed in oversized leisure togs. But in Spielberg’s portrayal of Americans then or now, I didn’t sense any irony. Irony is not one of Spielberg’s modes sincerity is. I wonder if he tears up as much as Bill Clinton. The past is SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Written by Robert Rodat. Directed by Steven Spielberg. THE THIN RED LINE. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Based on the novel by James Jones. FEBRUARY 5, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25
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