In the stampede to explain how it was that some fifty-eight million voters decided to return the present American administration to power, it was repeatedly noted how often polled voters mentioned safety as a crucial issue in their decision: in perilous times, they confided, they’d go with the candidate who seemed more likely to allow them to feel safe. And a startling number of Americans, even intelligent ones, seem to have decided that, whatever else separated the two candidates, George W. Bush was in some important way stronger. This was an interesting perception, given that the other guy was a certified war hero, and it was no secret that Bush had avoided serving in the very same war; given that Bush had pretty clearly let Osama Bin Laden, the embodiment of our terrors, escape when American forces had him cornered in Afghanistan; and finally, given that part of the Republicans’ campaign strategy had been to argue that we were now in more danger than ever. (It was an impressive sleight of hand, that last strategy: Things are now scarier than they’ve ever been. Thank God we were in power when that happened.)
One of the ways the Republicans, with the collusion of the national media, managed this stunt was by supporting a candidate who made clear that he was so firmly set in his ways that even more or less indisputable evidence of his having made a catastrophic mistake caused him no second thoughts. In other words, right or wrong or horribly wrong, he was no waffler—a quality a large number of us, apparently, found reassuring. (As in: even if it sure feels to those of us in the backseat like we’re doing some unplanned off-roading, Daddy says his hand is firmly on the wheel. So we can go back to sleep.)
But what other reasons caused so many of us to fly so blithely in the face of empirical evidence? Where did we get this capacity to imagine that horribly complicated messes have been ironed out just because someone has looked us in the eye and told us so? I don’t know about you, but I keep getting it from the movies.
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was one of those war movies that pleased conservatives and liberals, and it’s not hard to figure out why: there was more than enough war is hell stuff to satisfy the left, and there was an even greater helping of Well, it may be hell, but it sure brings out the best in us, doesn’t it? raw meat for the right.
The movie duplicated almost exactly for Spielberg the critical and financial success he’d had with Schindler’s List, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, since it also mostly duplicates the earlier movie’s design. Both use a set piece sequence, in each case around twenty-four minutes long, to immerse us in a hideous historical experience: in Schindler’s List, the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto; in Saving Private Ryan, the slaughter of the first waves at Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion. In each case, apparently, no effort has been spared in terms of verisimilitude. The idea is to then let the bracing resonance of those sequences seep forward throughout the rest of the movies, thereby encouraging us to overlook the fact that from there on in, we’re given pretty much exactly what we want.
Spielberg’s landing on Omaha Beach features the best efforts of not one but three full special-effects teams, and it’s frequently stunning: we’re given a visceral sense of the helplessness of someone thrown into the mechanized slaughter of this kind of modern warfare. Hundreds of men, obstacles, and explosions crowd into each image, allowing us to glimpse what claustrophobic killing zones those relatively small stretches of beach really were.
This is the horror-of-war stuff for the lefties, and it’s genuinely horrible. This is the stuff that gives the movie its authority. This is the stuff that allows us to swallow the bitter-coated sugar pills to come. A huge part of what’s so wonderfully relentless about the sequence is its obsessive interest in the physical manifestations of what’s being poured down upon these men: there are bullet and shell impacts everywhere, and we’re constantly startled at how fragile human bodies turn out to be in the face of high-caliber weaponry. Every square foot of a shot is filled with exploding squibs, and added to that are computer-generated detonations as well. How many squibs are used in the sequence? According to industry reports, seventeen thousand.
Even for filmmaking, then, that required a spectacularly complicated choreography: a lot of the explosions were generated by networks of thousands of feet of compressed air tubes, beneath the sand for greater safety, but even so, you couldn’t be standing on them when they went off. That meant that all of the principal actors, all of the extras—700 extras, from the Irish army—and all of the cameramen had to rehearse over and over again exactly where they were running and when. Where no actors would be running, real high explosives were planted. For the real high explosives, special sand, pre-sieved for safety, had to be trucked in. Since if you set off real high explosives in sand, whatever rocks and shells are present will become real shrapnel.
Some of the most noticeable and convincing horrors involved guys’ limbs being sheared off as they were blown up into the air. Those shots involved—are you ready for this?—amputee stuntmen, with prosthetic limbs. And for the actors, the sheer complexity and noise of everything involved, added to their fear of missing their marks and screwing everything up or getting their feet blown off, made for something as close to actual combat conditions as they’d ever get.
All of this obsessive work pays off. The heart of the sequence’s power comes from its ability to render both the randomness of the ferocity and the ferocity of the randomness. But what makes it endurable—or even pleasurable—are the patterns imposed upon that randomness. The audience sits there buffeted and terrorized, thinking: What a shitstorm. We sure could use someone to get us out of this. And luckily, it turns out that Tom Hanks is on the beach with us.
He’s our Captain Miller, and we’ve pretty much clung to him throughout the whole frightening ordeal. He was on the LST when, to our great shock, everyone in the front ranks started getting massacred without even being able to disembark; he was the one who took charge and saved who he could by ordering everyone left over the sides. He brought some wounded ashore; he did what he could to impose order and rally the grunts in the water and under fire to a common purpose. And though the sequence is all about the chaotic lethality of this environment, the most horrible and memorable wounds are carefully spaced out to allow us time to process them and get our breaths. Three different times a soldier the captain is trying to help is killed, and he models our response for us, looking on in stunned and helpless horror, before forging on grimly. Meanwhile, of course, he keeps surviving, to our immense relief, and he allows us the pleasure of watching him escape unscathed to orchestrate the breakout of the beachhead.
What do you do as a filmmaker when you’re faced with having to render something as awful and non-narratable as war? It’s like trying to map the winds in a hurricane. Spielberg, logically enough, opts for the same framework that worked so well for him in Schindler’s List: the binary of catastrophe and heroism, in which catastrophe creates the occasion for heroism, and heroism gives meaning to catastrophe. Boy does that generate some big advantages, in terms of pleasing an audience. Catastrophe doesn’t feel so draining anymore. Because all of that suffering has had a point; has led to a greater good. It’s not an accident that Spielberg has made three films about World War II and none about Vietnam.
Tom Hanks has built a career on his persona as an amiably likeable guy with rock-solid down-home values; we’re pleased and reassured to note that that’s what he’s selling in Saving Private Ryan, as well. He turns out to be our dream officer: half Sergeant Rock and half Mr. Chips, a father figure who can both settle a nervous stomach and take out a Tiger tank. He’s astoundingly resourceful, and a superb teacher when it comes to tactics and weapons. (Preparing for the movie’s climactic battle, he alone knows the best way to deploy the few troops he’s got to defend a bridge against an oncoming armored SS division; he alone knows about such homey and lethal improvisations as sticky bombs, which involve demolition material packed into socks and covered in axle grease.) He’s astoundingly good at the psychology of his men. When one of them is killed because our Captain insisted on policing up a machine-gun nest that could have been avoided, he defuses a potential mutiny among his ranks by Opening Up. He’s been secretive about his background, see, so secretive that the men have made a game of trying to guess where he’s from and what he does. And his background turns out to be the epitome of wholesomeness: he’s a schoolteacher from Pennsylvania, and a Little League Baseball coach. Perhaps he bakes apple pies on the side. He reads Emerson and Tennyson and still excels at the common touch with his men. He’s so morally self-aware that he says things like “Every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.” The movie simultaneously tells us he is just a regular guy and he is the greatest guy ever. We swallow the paradox whole, because it’s so deeply flattering to us. Tom Hanks is no different than you or me. Tom Hanks is great.
And with great men, acts of faith work out. Great men know. The Private Ryan of the title needs to be saved because his three brothers are all killed within a few days of each other and when General George C. Marshall gets wind of it, he decides that their mother has suffered enough. Problem is, Ryan was part of the airborne drops the night before the invasion: drops that suffered appalling losses and scattered men all over northern France. General Marshall resolves to send a company to find and save him. When his subordinates protest that for all they know, Ryan isn’t even alive, Marshall answers, “He’s alive.” The same way our Captain Miller, later looking through a bag of hundreds of dogtags of the already-dead from the airborne division, suddenly decides, “He’s not in here.”
And Captain Miller’s not the only thing in the movie that’s reassuring. During that spectacular set piece of an opening, Saving Private Ryan feels like it was made by someone who’d been in the Normandy Invasion. After that, it mostly feels like it was made by someone who’s seen a lot of war movies. Sometimes it feels like a compendium of Spielberg’s favorite moments from other war movies. Captain Miller and an unnamed GI have an exchange under fire at the base of the bluffs off the beach—“Who’s in command here?” “You are, sir”—that echoes the famous moment in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with Captain Willard at the Do Long Bridge: “Who’s in command here?” “Ain’t you?” There’s a scene of the agony experienced by an entire squad unable to help a buddy who’s still in range of an unseen sniper that’s straight out of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Underwater bullets torpedo about, colliding with unsuspecting swimmers, just as they did in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli. And majestic and melancholy music—somewhere between the elegiac and the martial—is heard whenever Captain Miller is thinking sad thoughts or pondering the costs of war, music that sounds poached from Jerry Goldsmith’s score in Franklin Schaffner’s Patton.
So if the design of the opening shitstorm was to establish authority by disorienting us, the design of the rest, for the most part, is to reorient, and gradually, reassure us. To that end, the composition of Captain Miller’s squad is itself astonishingly standard issue: one Italian, one Slovak, one Jew, one rural Southerner. There’s even a guy from Brooklyn. The rural Southerner, of course, in the tradition of Sergeant York, the legendary marksman and hero of World War I, is a backwoods wizard with a rifle, and is full of homespun good sense. He’s also, we notice, lifted from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai: he’s our Kambei, our dream of the perfect warrior, with superhuman skill; superhumanly surgical skill. (He kills the unseen sniper by putting a bullet through the sniper’s scope and eye at 450 yards in a driving rain.) Like Kambei, this master killer is so at peace with himself that he can sleep anywhere. (The rest of the squad notes his otherworldly ability to drop off at a moment’s notice.) And like Kambei, since he seems to be pure warrior, he can’t, of course, outlive the war.
As has always been the case in his career, an intimate knowledge of his genre is what enables Spielberg to be savvy enough to vary the formula when necessary. When you subtract the two set-piece battles that bookend the movie, by far the most memorable scene is the one in which the Jewish squad member is killed during interminable and agonizing hand-to-hand combat with a Nazi. The killing takes place while the squad’s New Guy and audience surrogate, Upham, played by Jeremy Davies—you know: the guy who’s the convenient reason for all the exposition, and who needs to learn about war, etc.—tries to work up enough courage to drag himself up the stairs of the shattered house where they’re struggling so he can intervene. The scene is unsettlingly powerful precisely because we’ve seen a version of it so many times before, and we know how it comes out: either Upham gets up the nerve to get up those stairs and save his friend, or his friend kills the German. But neither happens. And on top of that, the Jew—so proud of how personal his fight with the Nazis has been—is killed in a way that seems grotesquely ironic: stabbed gradually, while being whispered to, as if by a parent or a lover.
It’s a great scene. And we see Upham’s anguish about his failure immediately afterwards. (We should have seen it coming, actually, since Jeremy Davies was principally recognizable at that point as the lamentably weak-willed protagonist of David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey.) But then we never see any more of his anguish about it. Once the scene’s over, the movie wants us thinking in different directions. So Upham—who plays a big role in the movie’s final scenes—is alternately terrified, resolved, and grimly sad. But the issue of his torment, or shame—an issue we’d have thought, from what we’ve learned about him so far, would have haunted him forever—is dropped.
One of the oldest traditions in war movies is the scene in which the soldiers debate the ethics of what they’re doing. This is always done during a lull in the action, and, in American movies, it’s done very democratically to demonstrate what American men are fighting for. And to demonstrate that American men can enact what they’re fighting for while they’re fighting for it. Americans gripe, colorfully, and cynically, and then do their duty. So we’re privy to a few debates on the issue of the ethics of risking eight guys to save one Private Ryan. And during those, Captain Miller displays the exact degree of cynicism we expect from a battle-hardened and righteous officer who’s seen combat and is fed up to here with pissant bureaucrats.
“You want to explain the math of this to me?” one of his men asks, very reasonably. The captain, always on the lookout to allow his men to instruct themselves, responds amiably, “Anybody want to answer that?” And the various members of the squad characterize themselves in their attempt to do so. Then he clarifies: they all have duties as soldiers that supersede their concerns for their own safety, especially if the mission’s FUBAR—fucked up beyond all repair. What would he say to a superior officer about the mission, he’s asked. In that case, he responds, he’d answer that “this is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir”; moreover, that he feels heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private Ryan, and that he’s willing to lay down his life and the lives of his men—especially his questioner’s—to ease her suffering.
Because, of course, he’s already recognized as a hero, and this is what heroes do. “It’s a tough assignment,” his superior officer told him when giving him the mission. “That’s why you got it.”
Before the mission’s handed out, we travel to Mrs. Ryan’s Iowa farmhouse—a farmhouse filmed with such loving attention to fawn-colored fields of waving corn and plain, unvarnished wood that it seems a hallucinogenic distillate of Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth—to find her washing dishes uncomplainingly behind hand-laced curtains. We watch as she receives the unimaginable news of her three boys’ deaths. She sinks to the rough-hewn planking of her front porch. So: should somebody go after the final Private Ryan, or not? What do we think: are we in favor of a mother’s agony?
This is the right thing to do. This is the thing that redeems everything else. The movie throughout its length provides insistent ratification of that notion. Despite their skepticism and bitterness, in the lull before the final battle, the surviving squad members get a chance to talk about home, and moms, and, therefore, indirectly, why they appreciate the deeper significance of this mission. Another captain, Ted Danson, having dropped in from Cheers, takes a moment to tell Captain Miller, “I understand what you’re doing. I have brothers, too. Find him. Get him back.” The medic of the squad dies calling for his mama. As do three different GIs on the beach in the opening scene. And when Private Ryan is found, and protests, “Why me? Why can’t some of these other guys, who fought equally hard, get a ticket out?” our Captain Miller tells him, “Is that what they’re supposed to tell your mother? When they send her another folded American flag?”
The problem of what to do about this last Private Ryan, we’re shown, went all the way to the top. In the case of the U.S. military in World War II, that’s U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, the closest thing you can find in the entire history of the war to a man about whom historians will say nothing negative. And he then uses as decisive evidence of how he came to his decision an appeal to an even higher authority: perhaps the highest authority America has ever produced, in terms of a generally agreed-upon consensus combination of intellect and moral courage: Abraham Lincoln. Are you wondering about the ethics of risking eight guys (and, in the end, getting at least six killed) in order to rescue one for the purposes of public relations? Well, Abraham Lincoln isn’t.
While we watch, General Marshall reads, movingly, from a letter he’s marked from Lincoln to a bereaved mother of five sons lost in the Union cause. Then he announces that Ryan’s alive, and that they’re going to get him the hell out of there.
It’s worth noting that Harve Presnell, the actor cast as Marshall—who for Spielberg is all cavernous rumbling and stentorian authority—is the same guy the Coen brothers cast as William H. Macy’s comically tyrannical and buffoonishly inflexible father-in-law in their blackly comic Fargo. Presnell in both movies is doing essentially the same shtick. Different strokes for different folks.
The definition of the thinking man’s epic, as opposed to the epic, might be that the former raises the difficult questions inherent in the latter, and then pretends to have answered them. As one of my students once put it, the regular epic doesn’t seem to want you to think. But the thinking man’s epic wants you to think that you’re thinking.
Just how relentless are the reassurances that the mission is worth it? Well, another venerable, if not hallowed, tradition of the war movie is that the noncommissioned officer—the Sarge, the tough old bird who earned his stripes, rather than getting them through some kind of class advantage—is the ultimate authority on what’s right. (John Wayne, up until he hit his sixties, played almost exclusively noncommissioned officers.) Our Sarge is Horvath, played by Tom Sizemore as the dream sergeant: unquestionably loyal, completely competent, and tough as an old boot. (Early on in the final battle he’s shot in the side and reacts the way you or I might to barking our shin.) So, what’s our Sarge’s ultimate take on the mission?
Captain Miller, worn down by two hours’ worth of difficulties, and discouraged, asks his sergeant what he thinks. Sergeant Horvath says that part of him thinks they should just leave Ryan and get the heck out of there. (Ryan’s announced that he’s not leaving; he’s staying with his compadres in a near-certain suicide mission to defend a bridge from the oncoming Germans.) But Horvath goes on: “But another part of me thinks: what if by some miracle we stay, and actually make it out of here? Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole god-awful shitty mess.”
And just like that, the movie performs its surprising sleight-of-hand reversal: saving Private Ryan would be a better thing than saving some other guys. Even multiple other guys. The movie goes on to explicitly explain what will make these men’s sacrifice worthwhile: Private Ryan needs to turn out to be an amazing guy, who lived an amazing life. It’ll be all right, in other words, that all these other guys died, as long as the movie’s able to establish that he was in fact worth six of them.
Consider how much more uneasy we would have been in this movie if Private Ryan had turned out to be unlikeable. Or heck, let’s not even go that far: imagine how uneasy we would have been if Private Ryan had turned out to be Steve Buscemi. If Tom Hanks is our dream of the American officer, then Matt Damon’s Private Ryan is probably our dream of the American foot soldier: dazzlingly handsome, hearteningly unpretentious, and unhesitatingly ready to lay down his life for his buddies. He’s too good a soldier to want to be saved. Along with Captain Miller, he’s the very best America has to offer. So Captain Miller stays, and fights with him, and dies. The older paragon lays down his life so that the younger one can carry on. One of them has to lay down his life, since part of the point here is that heroism means that sometimes you have to die for your country.
Still, he makes clear he doesn’t want to die for nothing. He wants some assurance that Ryan’s life will amount to something, after all. He has a dying wish for him: Make it worth it. “Earn this,” he whispers, agonized, before he dies. And the movie decides to provide us with even that assurance, by flashing forward to the future: Yes, Ryan did earn it. How do we know? Well, first, he brings with him to the memorial site in Normandy his handsome family, including his distractingly beautiful Aryan grandchildren, including three blondes whose bodies remain so persistently on display that we find ourselves wondering if Private Ryan’s main contribution has been to the Playboy Mansion. And second, breaking down with emotion, he asks his wife, and his wife tells him. He has been a good man. It was all worth it. “Tell me I’ve led a good life,” he says to her. “Tell me I’m a good man.” “You are,” she tells him. He gathers resolve from her answer, and salutes Captain Miller’s grave. And the camera tracks in to the gravestone and Captain Miller’s name, and dissolves to the American flag, before fading to black.
So, no surprise: Saving Private Ryan delivers on its title. It’s about a rescue mission that has a million-to-one odds against it that succeeds. Ryan, we’re told repeatedly, is not only a needle in a haystack, but a needle in a haystack that’s presently undergoing a shitstorm. Nevertheless, our eight-man patrol locates, and saves, their man. Despite an all-out assault from an armored panzer division. In the process, they suffer some saddening losses, kill a huge number of Germans, and save the day by holding a key strategic point until reinforcements can arrive. We wouldn’t have it any other way. We wouldn’t tolerate his not being found; we wouldn’t tolerate his being found too late. And we wouldn’t tolerate the movie’s having left us with the notion with which it teases us: that saving Private Ryan is, finally, a public relations gesture that’s wasteful of human life.
Saving people has of course been the main narrative feature of most of Steven Spielberg’s work. And here again we notice that Saving Private Ryan employs the same narrative and thematic model as Schindler’s List: not only that of the successful rescue, but the successful rescue that explicitly transcends and redeems the previous extremities of suffering, so that it not only provides meaning, but works to banish the darkness. And it does so by suggesting, oddly, that all people are not created equal. The most attractive Jews are saved from the Holocaust in Schindler’s List; the most attractive blacks are saved from slavery in Amistad; the most attractive Irish boy in the entire European theater is saved from World War II in Private Ryan. In all three movies, nobility and goodness eventually seem to insure that the most beautiful and deserving find justice.
Again, though, Spielberg is always savvy enough to vary the formula with the deft inversion or variation. If we’ve done one saving many, in Schindler, how about, in Private Ryan, we try many saving one?
The movies, in fact, are often constructed as a string of successful rescues that we desire—the Indiana Jones series being the most transparent example—which means that, in terms of the expected escalation in the intensity of our pleasure, the final rescues in particular have to come just when it appears that no rescue is remotely possible. That’s the move that Spielberg has been repeating successfully for thirty years. Audiences haven’t started complaining yet. So there’s Captain Miller, stuck splay-legged on the bridge, shot through the chest and dying, with only a puny .45 with which to face an oncoming gargantua of a Tiger tank. He shoots and shoots and shoots and just as we despair, the thing magically explodes. Turns out a P-51 has arrived in the nick of time. If the moment seems, for all of the pleasure it provides, vaguely familiar, well, that’s because it’s identical to the end of Jaws, in which Roy Scheider, the last guy left, clinging to the mast of a sinking boat, shoots his pitiful rifle at the onrushing twenty-five foot great white until it, too, because of a scuba tank tucked into its mouth, magically explodes.
So it doesn’t seem controversial to suggest that Saving Private Ryan is a state-of-the-art entertainment that mostly uses a large historical subject as its medium. Such entertainments are designed to make audiences feel good, because audiences want to feel good. Such entertainments may tell the audiences what to think, but they make sure that what they’re selling is very close to what audiences already do think. Or most wish to think. As any number of moguls have pointed out before, you don’t make two hundred million dollars by arguing with your audience.
In the documentary that accompanies the DVD edition of the movie, we see glimpses of the first two movies Steven Spielberg ever made, both boys’ versions of World War II: Escape to Nowhere and Fighter Squadron. Both were made when he was fourteen. Both feature, unsurprisingly, lots of glory and a precocity for special effects. (In one, he renders explosions with small planks and carefully marshaled piles of dust.) The documentary goes on to announce itself and Saving Private Ryan as hagiography: the latter was made, Spielberg tells us, to honor those heroes who served in the war. His dad, who served in Burma, relates that movies like his son’s serve a purpose: “The more you talk about the horrors of war, the more you’re less likely to try to get involved in another one.” But that’s followed immediately by Tom Hanks announcing that these guys who served at Normandy—who were only given their chance to show what they could do by the crucible of war—deserve our applause, deserve medals, deserve parades, and deserve our thanks, and our highest respect. War is hell, sure, but war makes heroes, and that’s what should occupy our attention. The documentary ends a few moments later with a close up of Hanks’ eyes as he attempts his thousand yard stare and we hear the voice-over of Tom Sizemore’s Sergeant Horvath, ratifying the search for Private Ryan: “Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole god-awful shitty mess.” Except this time, the “shitty” is left out.
A recent article in the New York Times noted the fact that the families of servicemen lost in the current war were united in grief but divided by their opinions of the war. The Times, in its inimitably Even-Handed way, quoted doves and then hawks on the subject. Then it quoted a grieving father named Nelson Carman from Jefferson, Iowa, “a farming town of 4,500,” in order, apparently, to provide the newspaper’s cherished More Reasonable Middle Ground. Mr. Carman related how he told one of the left-leaning grieving mothers “let’s not go there with the politics.… To bring politics into our sons’ sacrifice is just something that is not conceivable to me. If you have another set of issues, especially political, that you’re dealing with, that’s just another hurdle you have to get over.”
It’s a jaw-dropping argument, in logical terms, but one that Americans make all the time, and refuse to question: you shouldn’t bring politics into the discussion of whether or not deaths in war are justified. But war is not the equivalent of a natural disaster. War is begun and then conducted because of the decisions of individual men. Men who subsequently have a vested interest in disseminating the idea that it’s obscene to try and introduce the idea of politics when discussing their war.
Let’s not talk politics; let’s just honor these brave men who have suffered, our leaders tell us. Why? Because that gives our leaders carte blanche.
The standard issue war movie laments the way war takes from us our best and brightest—in other words, those who lead us in moral instruction, usually by example. But it’s the loss itself, in those movies, that often instructs. It’s the loss itself that ratifies the values being pushed. In an unpleasant way, those movies need to both idealize their heroes and kill them. One of the movies Steven Spielberg mentions as seminal to his development is Allan Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima, made during the war and featuring John Wayne as one of those leatherneck sergeants. Some hagiography was to be expected in such a project, of course—it was, after all, a joint production of Republic Pictures and the Marine Corps—but what’s noteworthy (and paradigmatic) about Sands is how it ends. The island’s finally taken. The Sarge, finally ready to relax, sits to chat with his men and have a smoke. He’s killed by a sniper, who’s then dispatched himself. And immediately afterwards, as if generated by the sacrifice, we see the Marines’ most famous and powerful iconographic image—itself, it turns out, historically staged: the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi.
Our leaders don’t take carte blanche; they’re given carte blanche. There is, finally, something oddly honest about the staginess of that framing story that wraps around the main action in Saving Private Ryan. When sad old Private Ryan, standing over Captain Miller’s grave with his Playboy bunnies around him, just flat out asks his wife to announce that his life was worth Miller’s sacrifice, it’s as if the movie is acknowledging its self-consciousness about its own nature as an object to be pleasurably consumed; acknowledging that it knows what we want, and that it’s giving it to us, and that we know it’s doing so, and that it hopes we’ll be properly grateful. As though the movie’s going, Aw, heck: I know what you want. Why even beat around the bush? Let’s just ask. Let’s just pick someone with some authority. “Hey, Mrs. Ryan. You’ve known him a long time, right? So it was worth it, right?” And this woman whom we’ve seen for all of three minutes reassures us.
And if that’s true, we’re being fooled because we’ve chosen to be entertained, rather than be made to think. And since we’ve chosen to be entertained, rather than be made to think, we’re not really being fooled.
In other words, we don’t necessarily really believe what people like George W. Bush tell us. But we want to believe, and we operate as though we do. It’s not news that we’re trained by our popular culture to accept pleasant fictions. It is discomfiting to have to acknowledge every so often, though, just how happily complicitous we are in our own hoodwinking. We’re like the audiences filing out of Saving Private Ryan, congratulating ourselves on having been brave and unflinching for having watched a movie that delivered nearly everything we desired. We’ve been made to feel virtuous for being indulged. What could be better than that? Whether you’re selling a movie or selling a war, that’s probably the best mousetrap of all.