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Saving Private Spielberg: Moral Cowardice And The Modern War Film

War films are, in many ways, the bread and butter of the Hollywood memeplex, as they provide the opportunity for both profit taking and the promotion of Ideology.

There are obviously many examples of this, but few of them ever come close to eclipsing the soggy ball of kitsch and sentimentality which was Steven Spielberg's 1998 Blockbuster "Saving Private Ryan."

The film managed to be both a critical darling as well as a cash cow for the studios. Much of its dual popularity was due to the, now famous, Omaha Beach landing scene. The scene was praised for its "unflinching realism" which supposedly allowed the audience to get a taste of the authentic experience of war. In reality, of course, it was little more than jingoistic violence porn and while obviously well produced managed to be nonetheless thoroughly dull and uninteresting.

In spite of this dullness the beach landing scene remains the film's best and most redeemable. As once the main plotline finally gets underway, the film proceeds swiftly from ordinary dullness to complete unbearability.

This descent begins almost immediately after we are formally introduced to the main characters in Speilberg's melodrama. We have the leader, Captain John Miller (played by Tom Hanks) a school teacher who is fond of quoting American pseudo-philosophers and giving profound sounding lectures to his underlings, the grizzled sergeant played by character actor Tom Sizemore (the eternal grizzled sergeant), the fast-talking Brooklyn Jew Stanley Mellish, the sniper with the southern drawl who quotes the bible while lining up his kill-shots, the green and naive Corporal Upham etc.

All of these characters are about as complex as the video game archetypes which they are drawn from. Still, Spielberg tries his hardest to try and make us care about them and in a certain sense he succeeds. As we are continually bombarded with their various acts of bravery and kindness as well as their various backstories. Spielberg does not so much tempt us to admire these men as he requires us to. This is the case for almost all the American soldiers who are showcased throughout the film. Whose inevitable deaths are frequently either visceral and gory or, as is the case with Capt. Miller absurdly peaceful and conveniently allowing the soon to be deceased just enough time to whisper something seemingly profound into his comrade's ear.

Even when they are showcased committing crimes i.e. shooting surrendering German prisoners of war the implication is that even if these acts aren't completely justified, they are at least understandable. The Germans, after all, are the bad guys. And it is this depiction of the German enemy (as irredeemable villains) that helps illuminate the film for what it actually is: overproduced Liberal agitprop.

There are two primary roles the German soldier is consigned to under Speilberg's direction, either as a coward or a villain. Throughout the entire film, there is never any middle ground to be found in this regard. The Germans are always depicted as little more than cardboard cutouts for the protagonists to either punch bullets into in rage or spit upon in contempt.

Their deaths are almost always quick and relatively painless, unlike the American GIs dying on the beach in the opening scene; who scream out in pain as they attempt to hold their guts in, while medics heroically rush to try and save their lives. In contrast, the Germans seem to die effortlessly, falling like so many bowling pins, from even the slightest torso shots.

There are no cries of agony, no visceral dismemberments, or slow deaths. No German Soldiers are seen sacrificing themselves for a friend nor are any German medics ever observed desperately attempting to save the lives of their fallen comrades. In fact, if one was judging solely based on the film alone, one would have to conclude that the Germans depicted probably aren't human at all. But rather some sort of fleshy cyborgs that are powered solely by hatred and malice. And who with their dying breaths are unable to mumble the names of their mothers or children because it must be assumed, they are simply too busy contemplating the glories of the Holocaust.

This absurd caricature of the German soldier isn't limited to battle scenes alone either. Every German soldier we are ever allowed to observe up close displays all of the trademarks of intrinsic villainy. Such as the German sniper using a wounded G.I.and innocent French family as bait or the SS soldier who coldly plunges a knife into the Jewish protagonist's heart and then arrogantly walks down the stairs past the cowardly Corporal Upham.

Then, of course, we have the character of "Steamboat Willie" the only German who Spielberg allows Miller's squad to ever interact with in any sort of meaningful capacity. The audience is first introduced to him during a noble assault on a machine gun nest in which Willie is the gunner. During this assault, the beloved medic of the squad is shot by Willie (who of course later surrenders in a cowardly fashion) and then dies slowly and painfully while spurting blood into the arms of this comrades.

This scene is perhaps the high point of Spielberg's game of emotional blackmail. As has been noted by many Spielberg tends to infantilize his viewers who must be carefully guided (or rather, manipulated) into the conclusions Spielberg has preordained they should reach. The obvious one being, in this case, that the medic's death is a travesty that needs to be avenged.

Willie is then beaten by the squad in retaliation and then ordered, somewhat sadistically, to dig his own grave before he is executed. Notably, it is only the bookish and cowardly Upham who comes to Willie's defense, claiming, accurately, that executing him would be a crime.

It is here, at this pivotal moment in the film where Spielberg begins to inhabit his characteristic role as moralistic teacher to his childish viewers. As Willie is revealed to be not only a coward who immediately desecrates his cause when confronted with the threat of death but also as a liar who after being released in an act of sentimental good will from Captain Miller after he promises to surrender himself to the first American patrol he encounters. Instead, as we later find out in the film's climatic battle sequence, he rejoins his German compatriots and, in an act of villainy, kills the beloved Captain Miller.

Thus, Upham is revealed as being the naive and contemptible manchild of the film, whose sentimentality had fooled him into thinking the Germans he was fighting were human beings after all. Spielberg, the great teacher of the American Masses, firmly rebukes him but is not without mercy. As he allows Upham a chance to redeem himself by executing the unarmed Willie when he surrenders again after the glorious end battle. After Upham finally pulls the trigger, a heavenly lens flare indicates that his act has both spiritually redeemed him and also finally allowed him to become a real man.

All of this, of course, wouldn't be so significant if the film hadn't been taken so seriously by critics and viewers. With many frequently considering it one of the "best war films of all time" or even more absurdly one of the "best films of all time."

In reality, "Saving Private Ryan" is obviously neither of these things and simply does not qualify as a "good" film in any sense but rather, at best, as a watchable one (and this is only if one is feeling generous in their appraisal.) It possesses all of the flaws of a popcorn action flick (wooden archetypes in place of characters, a laughable plotline, etc.) without any of their virtues (amusing one-liners, suspension of disbelief etc.), as its own sanctimonious pretensions to seriousness prevent one from truly enjoying the action sequences.

One needn’t have a special sympathy for the National Socialist Regime of World War Two era Germany to find Spielberg's portrayal of German soldiers to be problematic. For any film that prides itself on its supposed “unflinching realism” and then proceeds to engage in the type of absurd caricature of its enemy that would tempt a DPRK official to blush is one that immediately undermines its own claims to seriousness.

The need to turn one’s preferred enemies into cartoonish villains is a technique which Spielberg continually leans on, as the stock Nazis Villain makes appearances in many of his films (The Indiana Jones Franchise, Schindler’s List, etc.)

It is here, in this tendency that Spielberg illustrates, without meaning to one of the more curious aspects of Liberal psychology (and Spielberg is nothing if not the perfect embodiment of the Liberal mind.) It is the childish insistence, which is always asserted a priori, of the deviancy and the inherent “otherness” of one's opponents. It is childish because it refuses to accept reality for what it is i.e. accept that German Soldiers were men like you, who had both hopes and fears, who loved and were loved by others, who were also capable of astounding acts of heroism and selflessness. All while holding firm to ideologies and concepts which the Liberal himself finds abhorrent.

But denying these facts, which are obvious, Spielberg forces his audience to retreat with him into his own personal revenge fantasy, in which his imagined heroes engage in the ritualized destruction of Nazi caricatures (which function merely as stand-ins for Spielberg’s own deep personal neuroses and insecurities.) Thus, in this sense, the film is an example of a piece of art that is very literally degenerative. As it requires the audience to retreat, with the artist, into a prior stage of human psychological development.

The real problem with the film, though, isn’t just that it doesn’t show enough “moral complexity.” As in our Postmodern context, this is too frequently a call to embrace a kind of soft moral relativism i.e. "both sides are essentially the same," "who can say who is the truly good or truly bad" etc. Or to falsely assume that any war film which is not explicitly “Anti-War” (and thus supposedly good ) is thus “Pro-War” (and must, therefore, be jingoistic propaganda.)

Violence is a necessary part of life and a necessary part of society, but one must have the courage to look unflinchingly at it and not, as Spielberg does, retreat into fantasy. Alexandr Dugin, in a remarkable interview with Russian television, highlighted just the same point:

At the same time I think he is accountable who understands the value of life. He is accountable to what he says, to his ideas, his opinions, his political, religious, philosophical, ideological positions, who understands that everything has to be paid for.

Everything. And this readiness, in my opinion, to pay with your life. And often it is even easier for people to bring themselves to sacrifice than to kill another person, but the life of an enemy, this is also very important because an enemy should not be considered some sort of technical element. An enemy is a person, and the readiness to kill a person is oftentimes more difficult than the readiness to sacrifice oneself.

As Dugin describes, this treatment of the enemy as a "technical element" is precisely the same as relegating him to the status of "other." Reducing him in your mind from a subject to an object, imagining that they are not the complex, thinking, feeling and hoping beings which they are in reality.

This is the coward's way of dealing with the necessity of violence. By pretending that the stakes aren't as high as they really are. That, instead of a fully embodied human soul, you are exterminating merely a fleshy robot or mindless animal.

This, again, does not indicate a need for pacifism (as would be the natural conclusion of the sentimentalist). Rather it merely indicates that one's convictions must be strong enough to confront this truth, to confront it with clarity and do what is necessary in that moment. To kill, if it necessary. But to kill the full man, not a caricature of one and to do so with full clarity of mind and purity of intention. If one's Ideology cannot furnish this strength, this clarity of vision. Then one's Ideology is most certainly itself a lie and unworthy of one's adherence.

This is undoubtedly the case with Spielberg's Liberalism, the ghost of which haunts the entire script. An Ideology which must first render its perceived enemies as non-persons in order to find the conviction within itself to pull the trigger.

And in the final analysis, it is this moral cowardice which prevents the film (like all of Spielberg's work) from ever being truly interesting.

Instead of an unflinching and honest portrayal of the realities of combat we are forced instead to observe an overproduced revenge fantasy made by a man who, like all Liberals, lacks the necessary honesty and intelligence to face the moral implications of his own principles.

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