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'Saving Private Ryan' and Its American Pride, 20 Years Later

When Saving Private Ryan hit multiplexes nationwide in July of 1998, America reacted as if Steven Spielberg’s D-Day epic was the greatest thing to ever happen for World War II reverence. It was definitely the noisiest homage, by which we don’t only mean the movie’s ear-pulverizing (as well as eye-popping) combat scenes. The geyser of hoopla and kudos for Unka Steven’s lachrymose tribute to the “Greatest Generation” was so thunderous that it even temporarily muted our endless chatter about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, which at the time was the only popular obsession in a position to compete.

Were these two manias connected? Kind of. In his feckless way, Clinton’s misbehavior was making it vivid to everyone just then that the boomers stood a good chance of being remembered as the Crappiest Generation, at least among people predisposed to hand out that kind of meaningless prize. A big-screen summons to remember how self-sacrificingly Dad or Grandpa had pitched in to save civilization from Hitler in 1944-45 seemed like the ideal antidote and/or rebuke to Oval Office blow jobs, stained blue dresses and Clinton’s famous equivocation, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Because it was sinking in that all those silver-haired ex-GIs who’d fought in Normandy or on Iwo Jima weren’t going to be with us much longer, the orgy of reverence would probably have materialized even without Unka Steven’s—or Bill Clinton’s—help. Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation came out the same year, saddling the war’s veterans forever with a superlative that many of them, to their credit, thought was absolutely ridiculous. But Ryan’s release at such an inadvertently propitious moment kicked the whole vogue into overdrive. All of a sudden, winning World War II felt like the last thing we’d done right.
Happy to discover that self-deprecation could make them feel every bit as special as self-love, boomers rushed to get taciturn old Pop to finally open up about what he’d seen and done in Europe or the Pacific. Nabbing oral histories before he kicked the bucket became a craze. By and large, the vets were delighted at the belated attention, and why not? These were the same ungrateful kids who’d been so nasty to them in the 1960s for falling asleep over their TV dinners while they were inventing postwar suburbia.

Some of the results of the Saving Private Ryan craze are permanent. The movie did a lot to boost the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which opened its doors in 2000 and was exclusively devoted to D-Day before the ultimate version of mission creep took over. Spielberg’s movie did even more to hasten approval and construction of the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. Ryan’s star, Tom Hanks, who’d become everybody’s favorite World War II vet by proxy, campaigned for both.
Two decades later, the movie’s reputation has dwindled considerably, even among hardcore Spielberg devotees. (Most World War II buffs far prefer Hanks and Unka Steven’s offshoot HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers, which stays compelling and credible all the way through.) Saving Private Ryan’s opening Omaha Beach sequence was what stunned audiences at the time, and those 25 minutes of bloodshed and terror are still extraordinary. But it’s a lot more noticeable today that the meandering story that unfolds in that spectacular intro’s wake doesn’t live up to it. 

Once Hanks and his trusty squad of Rangers set off from the beach in search of Matt Damon’s title character, the movie turns episodic and random, manufacturing incidents that keep Spielberg’s gift for staging busy without showing us anything particularly insightful about anyone’s character or illustrating much in the way of a recognizable theme. Basically, everybody’s just killing time—and, occasionally, Germans—until the action finale, whose big payoffs are all kinetic, not psychological. (Hanks’ stoic Capt. Miller turns out to be stoic; cowardly Jeremy Davies gets exposed as a … coward; Matt Damon’s good-hearted farm boy stays good-hearted and corn-fed; and so on.) Heroics aside, it’s a surprisingly depth-free, humanly static movie, uninterested in provoking any emotion except awe.
American exceptionalism takes lots of forms, and one of them is that no other country has ever looked back on the most destructive conflict in history as if it was paradise lost.
Back in 1998, however, none of that bothered moviegoers a bit. Awe at the “Greatest Generation” was what they craved, and that’s what Unka Steven gave them. Even the handful of critics who lamented Ryan’s climactic excesses of cartoon valor and mindless nationalism knew perfectly well that it was the movie of the year, making its eventual Best Picture Oscar loss to Shakespeare in Love—once Harvey Weinstein got to work bullying Academy voters—a bad joke. Interestingly, right-wing pundits had been poised to attack the movie sight unseen, taking it for granted that a couple of mush-brained Left Coast liberals like Spielberg and Hanks would turn their beloved “Good War” into something wussy and morally ambivalent. Imagine their delight when Saving Private Ryan turned out to be roughly as ambivalent about our role in World War II as a Sherman tank.

In the end, what may be most memorable about the movie isn’t its quality but its stature as an event. Ryan really did rivet our whole culture for a while in a way that hasn’t happened since, unless The Dark Knight counts—which it probably does to fanboys, but not to anybody else. Eventually, we did go back to glumly pondering Bill and Monica, but our reawakened fixation on World War II as our national Valhalla didn’t really fade until 9/11 short-circuited it. American exceptionalism takes lots of forms, and one of them is that no other country has ever looked back on the most destructive conflict in history as if it was paradise lost.

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