Saving Private Ryan - Simmering

There's no doubt about it - Spielberg is a master filmmaker. He can do just about anything he wants with a film, and you are just putty in his hands. But he needs a good editor - and I mean that in the literary sense. He needs someone who will say to him "Now Stephen, that's enough. We get the point. Let's move on. And let's cut the scene with the flag, OK?"

He reminds me of Paul McCartney, in a way. Spielberg needs a John Lennon to balance him out, to stop him from turning his own brilliant material into mush. Time and again, he makes an interesting point and then spoils it by lingering there too long, or using the sledgehammer. There's the interminable first Omaha beach scene, the Edith Piaf scene (if only he'd let the record blare on through the battle!), Tom Hanks' shaking hand (used one too many times, I fear), the cowardice incident (we get the point, Steven), or the final, flag-waving (literally) bit.

The other problem I have with Spielberg is that it is hard to see his recent films in perspective. The Spielberg publicity machine rolls into action, and you begin to hear from all quarters (often from people who ought to know better) how this is the most brilliant war film ever made, how it is the only one which has ever shown war as less than a glorious, patriotic affair, and how it is thre most realistic war film of them all. Have these people ever been to the movies? How long are their memories? Don't they remember Platoon (Stone), Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick), Apocalypse Now (Coppola), Paths of Glory (Kubrick, again), All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone), The Big Red One (Fuller), Das Boot (Petersen)...need I go on?

It is true that the first 25 minutes of the film are extremeley powerful - in fact, all of the battle scenes are outstanding. This is due, in part, to some very close camera work (reminiscent of the extreme closeups used in the Australian TV series Wildside ). And the digital and other special effects which Spielberg and his (Schindler's List) cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski employ to achieve the look of the battle scenes, are truly effective. The power of these opening scenes is also due to some excellent sound design, which lets us hear vividly the individual sounds of war - the riccocheting bullets, the sound of metal on flesh, the grinding of rubble underfoot. Spielberg seems rightly to delight in the novelty of these sounds. Occasionally he overuses them, or allows them to become too loud, but generally they make an excellent contribution to the film.

One of the most shocking moments in the film occurs when two soldiers are shot in the water, just after disembarking. It is a shock - you see the bullets catch them underwater, and you're not prepared. It's as if it's not fair - you can't shoot someone who's submerged and confused. But of course you can - this is war. It's an eloquent statement of a fundamental principle.

There's another brilliant scene in the film involving dog-tags and the airborn infantry. It's another good point succinctly made, one of a handful such points that are not over-sold.

The cast works well individually, but for me they never became an ensemble. Tom Hanks gives a subtle and sensitive performance as the Captain, but I was disturbed greatly by his shaking hand. I kept thinking of poor Michael J Fox, but of course Spielberg couldn't have known about that. The other standout is Tom Sizemeore as the gruff, working class sergeant (was there ever any other kind?). He does a great job of building an interesting character, even though he is saddled with dialogue as ludicrous as:

HANKS: "That was surreal"
SIZEMORE: "Clearly, but the question still stands..."

I was thinking of Ernst and Dali, with the paint barely dry on their works, pleased to see the lingo had been so swiftly assimilated into US society.

Edward Burns is effective as Private Reiben, as is Jeremy Davies as Corporal Upham. Unfortunately Matt Damon, as Private Ryan, resembles a department store dummy. It's a shame, because his role is pivotal, and critical to the meaning of the film.

I'd also like to single out John Williams' score as one of the most clichéd and disappointing ones of recent memory. I really think he should:
(a) have his horn section confiscated immediately; and then
(b) take a very long rest.

At one point he even spoiled the suspense of a battle by signalling the victory with a heroic and wistful horn.
How I long to know what Bernard Herrmann would have done with this film. Or, as a friend has tantalisingly suggested, Phillip Glass. No such luck.

The less said about the framing sequences set in modern times, the better. Where is John Lennon when we need him? At least Spielberg showed us a French flag for a few seconds. Apparently there were a few other chaps involved in the war as well. But do we all have to suffer for the few idiots who won't realise the film actually takes place in the past? This framing device jarred in Titanic, and it jars here.

But for me, the coup de gras was the justification of all the killing by reference to a large family of kids. Please! Is that all there is to living a meaningful life? Does that mean that my life is without meaning? There's no way I'm taking Spielberg's word for it, no matter how good he is with the camera.