Saving "Private Ryan" from the Conservatives

Ken Masugi

August 1, 1998

In their passion to assail the often vulgar film director Steven Spielberg, politically conservative film critics have gone overboard and ignored both the apparent and the deeper patriotism of his finest film, the powerful World War II movie, Saving Private Ryan.

It’s not surprising that the haughtiest of film critics, John Simon of the National Review, should dismiss Private Ryan as “cheap thrills” and “for the most part … a great exercise in gratuitousness.”

But the Weekly Standard’s John Podhoretz, looking more deeply into Spielberg’s creation, still sees an abyss. He dismisses it as containing “everything an artist ought to have–everything except wisdom, vision, and soul…. It is at once the most powerful war movie ever made and the least meaningful.” Podhoretz accuses him of wanting to make a “purely pacifist tale about World War II,” but lacking the heart to do so.

The Washington Times’ Richard Grenier goes even further and denounces the latest manifestation of Spielberg’s “anti-Americanism.” “All the gore and mayhem seem quite pointless.” This distinguished reviewer practically shrieks, “In Mr. Spielberg’s view, the Stars and Stripes, worn on the shoulder, are almost the equivalent of the Swastika.”

Certainly conservatives have good reason to attack Spielberg for his views–completely orthodox liberal and a fund-raiser for President Clinton besides. But Saving Private Ryan is something quite different from this silliness: One might have to go back to John Wayne’s movies made during WW II (which have been brilliantly interpreted by Grenier) to find the moral equivalent.

No film critic, conservative or otherwise conventional, seems to have noticed the significance of Abraham Lincoln here. We hear twice his famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, comforting a mother who lost five sons in battle, leaving her with “only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be [hers], to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” The invocation of Lincoln reminds us of the greatest American war, the Civil War, the cause of freedom it stood for, and his greatest speech, the Gettysburg Address. The conservative slighting of Lincoln robs them of their greatest patriotic resource and leaves him to be exploited by the left.

Saving Private Ryan opens with the American flag; the first word we hear is “father,” uttered by a son to an elderly man who collapses before a cross in a Normandy graveyard. We assume the WW II action we then see is his flashback. But this cannot be, for we discover at the end that the old man is Private Ryan, who did not experience everything that took place.

The film’s action is in fact the collective memory we must have as a nation about the heroes of WWII–their suffering and their triumph. The Gettysburg Address asks Americans to remember the Founding Fathers and the cause of freedom. “That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” And this resolution is what we see even in the old Mr. Ryan.

He asks his wife whether he is a good man. Uncomprehending, she nonetheless reassures him. Are we worthy successors of our Founding Fathers and of those who “gave the last full measure of devotion”? Do we deserve to be linked over the generations with them? These are the questions the film poses to us at its end.

The action involved in the saving of Private Ryan symbolizes what national salvation requires: We must be good. We must be good, because among the survivors is one of the most contemptible soldiers ever portrayed in a movie–the intellectual Corporal Upham, an interpreter of French and German who does not know common American slang. Presuming intellectual and moral superiority over his fellows, this base coward is in fact their inferior. He is the prototype of the Vietnam War protester–an arrogant moralizer in speech who in deed collaborates in a brutal slaughter. Grenier, for one, makes much of Spielberg’s self-professed identification with Upham. Whatever this may mean his work, the film, clearly assails this character, mercilessly.

How can a conventional liberal such as Spielberg make such an impressive movie? One might recall that the morally challenged Woody Allen has made deeply spiritual films about morality and the family such as Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite. It’s good that bad men are hypocrites. That’s the only way they can be tolerated.

The answer to this paradox may lie in a fact this low: Spielberg is simply a creature of the marketplace, and what sells, for now, is patriotism. What does not sell is political depictions of America such as the Clinton clone movie Primary Colors or the even more repulsive Bulworth. In at least that regard we Americans are good, or at least better than our film makers and a lot of our critics.

Ken Masugi is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.