Saving Private Ryan
How did ”Shakespeare in Love,” the first comedy Best Picture since 1977’s ”Annie Hall,” show up the shoo-in, Steven Spielberg’s war epic, ”Saving Private Ryan?” One theory blames video: ”Ryan” was made for the big screen, where its imagery and thunderous sound effects envelop you, yet many Academy voters watched ”Ryan” on tape. But entertain one more theory. Maybe ”Ryan ”lost because members saw something suspiciously similar in 1987: Spielberg’s first serious look at WWII, Empire of the Sun. No one would argue it’s the same movie in a different costume, but in their similarities, the two reveal that ”Ryan,” while powerful storytelling and among Spielberg’s best films, is painted with a familiar brush:
* The sea frames the action. ”Ryan”’s brutal opening sequence, by itself worthy of Spielberg’s Best Director win, is bracketed by shots of soldiers being ferried to their doom and, later, of their corpses licked listlessly by the waves. Spielberg gave the motif an unsuccessful trial run in ”Empire,” which opens with a shot of a corpse in a floating coffin and closes with the last of Jim’s worldly possessions bobbing in Shanghai Harbor.
* Dementia is a device. He didn’t win an Oscar either, but Tom Hanks’ unhinging Captain Miller is ”Ryan”’s shattered soul. Under duress, he tunes out the war (ambient sound cuts out) and retreats into private reverie. ”Empire”’s Jim has similar trances.
* Warfare’s bad, but it’s good. Barry Pepper’s Private Jackson, fingering his cross and picking off Germans from a church steeple in ”Ryan,” makes sharpshooting spiritual. But ”Empire” did it first: Jim’s passion for warplanes leads him to the top of a building, where he’s nearly annihilated as he worships the falling bombs. In his delirium, Jim proclaims the P-51 ”Cadillac of the sky”; Hanks’ Miller calls the fighters ”angels on our shoulders.”
Still, a director is more than his motifs. When we praise ”Ryan ”for its realism and humanity, we should be praising Spielberg for bringing them to his own movies. What makes it superior to ”Empire,” and to many of his other films, is that Spielberg’s thriller instincts — which kept the shark in ”Jaws” hidden underwater and prizes goggle-eyed shots of awe-struck characters — are being used not for horror but empathy. Whereas 12 years ago Spielberg dispassionately gave us Jim’s despair as part of a good yarn, ”Ryan”’s torment is seen through Miller’s eyes. And the director does it without sacrificing his usual control over the narration.
Spielberg may always have a soft spot for good old American melodrama. Let him have it — first and foremost, he’s an entertainer. But in late middle age, the master of the blockbuster is finally mastering the human heart. And that really ”is ”something to talk about.