By Jason Cochran
Updated May 28, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Next to the circus and Christmas spirit, nothing packs up and skips town faster than Oscar goodwill. The Academy’s stamp of approval literally writes the history book. A nominee can be everybody’s favorite, the cream of our cinematic output, but if it doesn’t win Best Picture, it may take years of critical praise and popular support to install it in the pantheon. So it goes for Tootsie, Moonstruck, and now, I hope, Saving Private Ryan.

How did Shakespeare in Love, the first comedy Best Picture since 1977’s Annie Hall, show up the shoo-in? 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:

A lost child drives the plot. Granted, you’d be hard pressed to find a Spielberg product that doesn’t trade on an orphan in a storm. In each, the plot kicks in when a mother loses her son. In Empire (adapted from J.G. Ballard’s memoirs by Tom Stoppard, cowriter of Shakespeare in Love), a snotty British schoolboy, Jim (Christian Bale), is separated from his parents in Shanghai and tossed into a Japanese detention camp. One of Empire‘s most poignant scenes comes when Jim confesses that he’s forgotten his mother’s face. Matt Damon’s Private Ryan makes a confession too, except it’s his brothers he can no longer see.

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.

Americans rule. Spielberg has the heartland in his bones, and his patriotism is ever symbolic. The films’ saviors are 100 percent Yank: Young Jim — a British lad, yet! — salutes the GI who rescues him, a stalwart who, like Ryan‘s Corporal Henderson, has a mug so noble it could be engraved on a nickel. The director even borrows from American painters, echoing Wyeth as Mother Ryan collapses on her prairie porch and, in Empire‘s early scenes, staging Norman Rockwell as Jim is tucked into bed.

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.
Private Ryan: A
Empire: B-