Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Finding a Needle in a Stack of Needles

"It's like finding a needle in a stack of needles."

Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks)

There are certain scenes in certain movies that just stand out in one's memory. Quite often, it seems, those scenes occur in war movies.

For example, if "The Deer Hunter" is mentioned, the scene that probably leaps to mind is one of the Russian roulette scenes — which I still think were the most intense, most riveting scenes I have ever watched. Or if you're talking about "Apocalypse Now," the scene you may be most likely to recall is the one where Robert Duvall says, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

Such a scene — a lengthy one — occurred in "Saving Private Ryan," the Steven Spielberg flick that was showing on America's movie screens 15 years ago today.

I'm speaking of the re–creation of the invasion of Normandy, probably the most realistic depiction of modern war ever filmed. The chaos of the battlefield is evident for more than 20 agonizing minutes. You can almost smell the smoke — and the blood. There certainly is enough of it, but it became part of the landscape — as it probably does in real battles. And when the camera took us under water, there was almost a sense of relief that we had nothing to fear — until we saw bullets ripping through the water around us.

Every time I have seen it, I have felt the urge to look away — but I can't. It is gruesome, yet compelling — like a car accident or a train wreck or something similar we are powerless to prevent and incapable of not watching.

It's that kind of perverse fascination — and yet, a Spielberg movie is so much more intellectually satisfying. Watching the invasion of Normandy at the start of "Saving Private Ryan" is not merely some kind of a guilty pleasure or display of special effects prowess. It is an essential part of the story.

But the landing at Omaha Beach really was only the beginning of the story of "Saving Private Ryan."

The war never really went away, and Spielberg did not shrink from showing it in all its brutality and ugliness. As I say, it was something that had to be told in the context of the larger story. When Spielberg made "Schindler's List," it wasn't necessary to show the violence, only to hint at it most of the time. "Saving Private Ryan" was a different kind of story.

Only those who deny the Holocaust do not know — or say they don't — the extent of the cruelty inflicted on so many. I suppose no one really denies that D–Day happened. Far too many men fought in it, and far too many men died in it.

Yet in the midst of all that gloom, there were some shining moments.

After the D–Day battle was over, it was discovered that three brothers had been killed, their mother was about to be notified of all three deaths at the same time, and a fourth brother, who had parachuted far behind enemy lines, was unaccounted for. He might not have survived the jump, or he might have been killed in action. No one knew.

But the decision was made that a squadron would be sent to look for him and, if possible, return him to his grieving mother. She had sacrificed enough. Thus began an improbable quest — to locate that surviving brother, Private Ryan (Matt Damon). Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) was dispatched with a squad to retrieve the soldier, a mission he compared to "finding a needle in a stack of needles."

Enthusiasm for the mission was relatively high at first, but then when the close–knit unit started losing men, some began to question the mission's validity.
Capt. Miller: He better be worth it. He better go home and cure a disease or invent a longer–lasting light bulb.

I thought "Saving Private Ryan" was a cinematic masterpiece with truly gut–wrenching scenes of combat that gave a realistic depiction of war and a genuinely moving finale. In the buildup to that finale, a dying Capt. Miller told Private Ryan to "earn this" opportunity he had been given to live.

I remember thinking, as I watched "Saving Private Ryan" the first time, how different that portrayal of combat was from the sanitized, gung–ho version my friends and I saw in the John Wayne movies of my childhood and tried to emulate in our games. Surely, this was a more honest representation of warfare, one that young people might respect — even in an age of dazzling special effects.

The same could be said of the ending, in which the now–retired Private Ryan visited the cemetery where Miller was buried. Recalling Miller's final words to him as he stood before Miller's grave, Ryan asked his wife to "[t]ell me I've lived a good life. Tell me I'm a good man."

He sought reassurance that Miller's sacrifice had not been in vain. He needed to know he had earned it.

He may not have cured a disease or invented a longer–lasting light bulb, but if he could believe he had lived up to Miller's expectations, it would all be worth it.

It was the most eloquent example of personal commitment and dedication I have ever seen.

Spielberg received — and deserved — the Oscar for Best Director, but "Saving Private Ryan" lost Best Picture to "Shakespeare in Love." That was sort of a split decision for me.

Many years ago, I remember pulling for "All That Jazz" to win Best Picture because I thought it was the most creative of the nominees. It wound up losing to what I felt was the most realistic portrayal of a common life experience — "Kramer vs. Kramer."

A couple of decades later, I found myself pulling for "Saving Private Ryan," which I believed was the most honest depiction of combat yet committed to film, but it lost to a movie that I thought was arguably the most creative nominee.

Ironic, huh?