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.
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.
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.
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.
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.