Despite the box office and the raves, not everyone is pleased with "Saving Private Ryan." Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic has aesthetic reservations. The Economist complains that it is "rooted in the Hollywood tradition of films made from the victor's viewpoint." (But of course. What was missing from this movie was balance: the Nazi point of view!)
The most concentrated fire, however, comes from the political right - critics at The Weekly Standard, The Washington Times and National Review. Their objection is largely ideological. Yes, they say, war is hell. But as the message of a nearly three-hour epic, it is not just unoriginal, it borders on the subversive. After all, World War II was not only hell, it was the quintessential "just war," necessary and noble.The heart of the conservative critique is captured in the headline of John Podhoretz's review in The Weekly Standard: "All Guts, No Glory." A movie already famous for the most harrowing combat scene ever committed to film is utterly silent on the higher purpose of the suffering it portrays.
Frank Capra made seven "Why We Fight" movies about World War II. In his take on that fight, Spielberg offers not one line about the larger cause. In fact, he has stressed to interviewers his desire to make a non-, indeed, anti-John Wayne-ish statement.
But John Wayne is not the last word in patriotism. Before him there was Nathan Hale. There was Robert Gould Shaw. There have been countless Americans who pledged their lives and sacred honor for a cause higher than themselves.
It is not that the critics are calling for some long lachrymose oration on the nature of Nazism or the price of freedom. It is that in these nearly three hours of hell one longs for a single reflection, a single phrase from these gutsy GIs about the wider panorama and purpose of their fight.
I too was troubled by this obvious omission but for reasons less of ideology than of psychological veracity. After all, Tom Hanks' squad engages in five very different, extraordinarily violent and ultimately successful types of combat - securing Omaha Beach, street fighting in a ruined French village, taking out a machine gun nest, fighting in an open field, and finally holding a bridge against tremendous odds. Is it plausible that not one of these eight men should just once express simple satisfaction, let alone pride, in their achievement?
The answer, it turns out, is yes. It is entirely plausible that when your dead buddies are lying all around you, you no longer care. You stop keeping score. You are too exhausted, terrified and numbed to acknowledge, let alone exult in victory. For that I have the testimony of combat veterans, including that of a friend's father, a World War II Ranger who was involved in several dangerous operations won against long odds. He recalls that in combat no matter what the outcome it always seems as if you're losing. The most you can feel afterward is relief.
"Saving Private Ryan" is the soldier's-eye view of war. Does the filmmaker have a responsibility to rise above that view and remind you of the glory of the cause? Spielberg could have worked it in. It need not have been crude, John Wayne-ish. It need not have done violence to the psychological verisimilitude of the film.
But he chose not to. And the choice is perfectly defensible. World War II speaks for itself. It needs no spin. Only a moral idiot can doubt its justice. And it was clearly not this director's intent to devalue the cause. Tom Hanks and his bunch are precisely the kind of guys who two reels after the end of "Ryan" would have liberated Schindler's factory.
This is not a movie about glory. It is, as The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter has elegantly elaborated, a movie about duty. And in duty there can be glory. True, duty can be simply folly - when you act on orders of a corrupt or insane authority, as in "Catch 22" and the Vietnam War movies. But "Ryan," unlike those anti-war films, portrays the GIs' command authority with respect. Their decision to risk eight soldiers to save the life of one is problematic but still deeply morally serious.
There is a difference between saying that one died absurdly in war - grotesquely, arbitrarily as on Omaha Beach - and saying that one died for an absurdity. It is the difference between realism and cynicism, between "Saving Private Ryan" and anti-war propaganda.
Which is why in the end the conservative critics are wrong. There is not an ounce of cynicism in this movie. No Oliver Stone, no Joseph Heller, not even John LeCarre. It is all guts, yes. But glory too, subtle and deeply moving.