|Cast:||Tom Cruise, Bryan Larkin, Caroline Kava, Raymond J. Barry, Kyra Sedgwick, Frank Whaley, Tom Berenger, Oliver Stone, William Baldwin, Lili Taylor, Tom Sizemore, Willem Dafoe, Vivica A. Fox, Ed Lauter, Michael Wincott|
|Screenplay:||Oliver Stone, Ron Kovic (based on his book)|
Vanes: I recently watched "Saving Private Ryan" again, Steven Spielberg's war epic adored by many people who bill it as one of the best films of the 90s and one of the best war movies of all time. Comparing it to Oliver Stone's masterpiece, it almost makes me laugh. I remember the first time I watched the film raving about the first 30 minutes, and indeed that was deserving of praise because thanks to Janus Kaminsky's cinematography those are some of the best war scenes you'll ever see. It realistically captures the cruelty. The problem was after that the movie changed into a boring, repetitive, and cliched attempt to generate drama without good fundamentals. Basically, you could separate the film into two. The first 30 minutes make for a tremendous quasi-documentary on the tragedy of D-Day. The rest of the film, however, is just a soap opera that tries to mask its many flaws with patriotic sentimentalism and tearjerking scenes.
Mike: The great Stanley Kubrick proved with Full Metal Jacket that you can make a really strong two part war movie. When Overrated Steve delves into Kubrick territory, the only thing he proves is he's too optimistic to make a great film. I'm not as daring as Joel Goodson, but when I hear about a bunch of friendly aliens and a talking teddy bear giving fatherly advice in what's purportedly Kubrick's vision I gotta say "what the fuck." The only way Spielberg could not insult my Intelligence with all his ridiculous claims about it being the film Kubrick would have made is if I was Artificial.
I have no doubt that Kubrick could have turned Saving Ryan's Privates into a great film had he took over after the first half hour, but instead the real Steven Spielberg stands up. Thus, we are forced to endure the typical heavy handed overly manipulative force feeding that champions human triumph at the expense of credibility and believability. In spite of being clubbed over the head hundreds of times in case we wouldn't react on cue, after his implausible plot is said and done, I'm still left with a feeling of emptiness because one soldiers life isn't worth risking eight for, especially when these eight might make a difference in a real battle against the enemy. Of course, Spielberg realized that, typically never answering the question his movie is based around because the answer would eliminate the movie. Instead, he puts all nine into this ridiculous last stand. He just heaped one unbelievable event on top of another. The biggest of which is why guys are trudging through France searching for Ryan instead of simply using the radios to locate him and then having his captain send him to the nearest plane home? I understand that sending him home is for propaganda and morale purposes, but that doesn't address the real issue which is why troops had to be sent all that way. Even if you want to make up the story that the radio communication wasn't working, surely someone closer could have been contacted. One such unbelievable decision after another leads to the film crumbled under the weight of its stupidity, except in the eyes of the millions and billions who apparently will accept anything with a "based on a true story" tag. I don't know, I realize Spielberg is a master of one thing, manipulation, but I still can't explain how so many normally right thinking individuals can be hoodwinked into thinking this is one of the all-time great films. The over sentimentality and the messages of the rest of the film wind up rendering the great 30 minutes meaningless. The closing where Spielberg goes all out to make the audience weep is crap because if his message isn't clear by then he doesn't need to work on us, he needs to either reshoot or reedit. More importantly though, it's garbage because weeping let's everyone off the hook, but then I just summed up why Spielberg can't make a great battle movie; his unrelenting thirst for happiness goes against the dismal material he's dealing with.
Vanes: The great sets, action, and usual amazing special effects not only took the lead but also the place of a quality story, good acting, and worst of all, a worthwhile MESSAGE. It was a cheap way to "cash in" on the horror instead of focusing on a well-written story, even if seemingly ideology-based or gearing toward the "wrong" kind of propaganda like Oliver Stone tried with this film. I'm known for watching Spielberg movies anyway, mainly because of John Williams' usually excellent scores, but on this occasion even John Williams failed. It's probably his worst soundtrack since his early years where he was getting experience. Spielberg might have as well used Massive Attack's beautiful "Teardrop" since that's what his film wound up being about.
Mike: Spielberg simply doesn't trust the audience to be able to take the footage he's presented in the first half hour. Williams' soundtrack, like most everything else, lessens the blows. Spielberg has made more money than all the far better directors (it would take too long to list them) because his films are for the masses. That's what he's about, which is fine, but I don't have to like it and it shouldn't be considered anything more than what it is. Saving Ryan's Privates is not an imposter to the extent of Pearl Harbor, but it's a different style war film that's ultimately the same thing, a poseur.
Vanes: If you want something about the real horrors of war, a film that portrays what people go through and how they're exploited by their governments who give them a few medals and a pat on the back then forgot them, watch "Born on the Fourth of July".
"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." - John F. Kennedy
Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) is a "perfect" student. He's well mannered, proficient, and involved in the athletic program (amateur wrestling). His strongly conservative and catholic education teaches him to be patriotic, to love his country and defend it to the death, so much so that he decides to join the Marines. His father, a WWII vet, seems to silently disagree with this decision; his humor drastically changes when he realizes what his son has decided to do. Ron is so adamant about joining the Marines to serve his country though. He's blinded by his cultural, political, and social upbringing to the point he verbally attacks his brother with the age old "America, love it or leave it" line for thinking the war is wrong. He's ready to fight those "damn Communists" who are becoming a problem that the proud and "free" Americans should take care of.
One of the strongest images of the film happens in the first moments when Ron, who is still very young, is at a parade. Several WWII vets pass by, most of whom were wounded in battle. Some are mutilated and others are in a wheelchair. One of them is shocked by the noise firecrackers make and he suddenly moves, causing Ron to look an old man who lost his arm in the eyes. The man's look is not one of admiration for what he'd done for Ron and what he'd done for Ron's country; it is a look of contempt, of regret, that's too cruel to watch.
Not everybody agrees with Ron. Some of his friends would rather do "something with their lives," get college degrees. Some simply don't want to waste their lives for their country. Ron himself seems to live in between his upbringing and his quest to discover his own identity. What he's been taught suggests that the war is good because every nation needs freedom, and by god America will help everybody achieve that goal by standing in the way of everybody that disagrees. There's something that doesn't totally convince him about this new experience, about going off to fight in this war. Beyond the cocky and confident patriotic image he portrays, we see that he doesn't know if he's ready. He asks god to lead him, show him if this is the right thing for him. It seems like he must go to war to truly become a man, as the uniformed men constantly remind the people who don't want to follow them into the Marines: "don't you want to be a man?"
Obviously you'd expect, like in "every war movie," to see Ron going through boot camp where he'd have to tolerate the strict instructors who work him to collapse until he gradually becomes accustomed to the environment and becomes a man by necessity if not virtue. This doesn't happen because Stone & Kovic's real motives aren't to once again show you the cruelty of war, to grab your heart and build your anti-war sentiment by showing you one cruel scene after another. No sir, only about 15 minutes of the near 2 ½ hour movie depict the violence in Vietnam.
The film jumps ahead to the point where Ron is a mature Marine who is accustomed to the cruelty of the war. He is commander of a platoon that's trying to ambush some Viet Congs who appear to be hiding in a small village. After an intense, confusing, and frantic scene of essentially random gunfire Ron and the other marines realize the "Viet Cong" they were shooting were really harmless unarmed villagers. Ron seems to be one of the few who feels disgusted by what they've just done. The others mostly try to cover their mistake saying "they got in our way, it's their fault" so they can run away from the problem. A scene that's masterfully filmed so we'll remember it for the rest of the film shows a young baby crying between his bloody weeping parents who won't get to see him grow up because their wounds are deadly. This image, the cry of the children, will haunt Ron for the rest of his life.
To cover another argument that is conveniently "forgotten" by the government, Stone shows us Ron's mistake. The retreating marines are told to shoot at everything that moves, so in the confusion Ron doesn't even realize the man coming his way is his friend Wilson rather than a Viet Cong. Thus, he shoots him until he drops, with these three bullets killing him.
Mike: This was one of the best scenes in the movie. Shot with an orange hue into the light of the setting sun, we too can't tell what is going on. It's just noise and chaos with bullets flying everywhere. We sense that the guy running at Ron is a marine, but in the heat of battle it's you or them. Even if Ron let the guy get much closer, with these weather conditions he probably couldn't have known for sure. The only way he would have known is if the guy didn't fire, but if he did, well, he probably wouldn't have known for sure for very long. The horror is not so much that Ron killed his friend, but that the risk of not shooting justified it. These two segments back to back are just great, albeit crushing scenes, because they underline the nonsensical mess that was the Vietnam "Conflict." It's one thing to fight the enemy, but what is the point when you can't even know who you are fighting? Our allies couldn't trust us because we couldn't tell them from our enemies half the time and we couldn't trust our allies because our enemies pretended to be them. It just created an environment where everyone was constantly overly edgy and that contributed to more mistakes and senseless slaughter.
Vanes: Mesmerized by what he has just done he goes to his superior and tries to tell him, but his attempts meet with the general's utter negation that something like this could have ever happened. He says it's most definitely not his fault, to the point of screaming it.
Mike: The superior did what he had to do from the military standpoint. No matter what happened, he's left with one soldier. One soldier that still has his head on his shoulders and can be a good little killer is worth a lot more than one that's haunted and liable to crack or freeze under pressure. The fact that Ron was never the same after killing his own man probably led to his own demise where he gets shot and instead of just staying down he tries to play Rambo and winds up a dickless invalid, forever paralyzed from the chest down.
Vanes: In 15 minutes, Stone achieves what other films spent two hours trying to do. The brutality, cruelty, and so on comes together to highlight the fact that the Vietnam War was a huge mistake. He spares no details and pulls no punches. He delivers the first message he wants to give us, and despite leaving the battlefield he's able to continually further this message that the war was a mistake no matter what bullshit the government is trying to inject into the public. Ron's overly-patriotic, overbearingly catholic upbringing (especially his mother using the "word of God" as a tool to educate her kid, even busting him when she finds a copy of Playboy in his room) completely come crashing down with the horror of reality. His life was ruined because he blindly believed the dogma his parents and his country fed him. He made such an important choice to give his life up for his country without knowing the real reasons for it or whether it was the right thing to do, without knowing the hypocrisy. Now he had to live with that decision.
"You served your country. What did YOU get out of it?" - Tommy Kovic
Ron's drama really begins after he's OUT of Vietnam, and this is where Stone's brilliant message comes out. Certainly, the price paid fighting the war can't be denied, but Stone finally shows the other side of the coin, the hypocrisy of a government that tries to build a pride and a creed, both of which they totally spit on at their convenience. In the hospital, Ron gets the news that he will never walk again, and while his spirit is shattered he still wants to believe it's not true because "God" has a better life for him. He feels he'll overcome these obstacles if he keeps fighting and has faith in what he was taught.
Mike: Part of me kept expecting The Huckster to show up at some point during the first half of the movie and cut one of his infamous say your prayers and take your vitamins promos.
Vanes: The veteran's hospital is one of the most disgusting places I've seen on film, with Stone even going so far as to show live rats populating the rooms. Ron's treatment is pathetic; the hygiene is non-existent and even the machinery is lacking because obviously the government hasn't provided proper funding for their war "heroes" who are now looking to be paid for what they've done for their country. Ron is clinging to his last will, to save his legs so he can be something of a man when he goes home.
Mike: The hospital is one of the most disgusting, but in a different sense than you are saying. It's not as disgusting as Helen Mirren & Richard Bohringer having to escape in the most rotten, stinking, instant gag inducing, fly and maggot infested waste disposal van to avoid being caught by Michael Gambon in Peter Greenaway's masterpiece The Cook, The Theif, His Wife, & Her Lover. Although 5 seconds of that undoubtedly seemed like an eternity, this agony only lasted a ride and they were able to have the excrement hosed off as soon as they reached their destination. The hospital is disgusting because there's absolutely no reason for these conditions. The pact made with these men was possible sacrifice in battle and after battle if there's nothing we can do for you, not after battle because we'd rather spend the money on weapons of mass destruction or whatever else. Homeless shelters look like the Ramada Inn in comparison to this place where helpless veterans are forced to lie there in the same clothes and sometimes their own waste for days. They were denied even the most basic human dignity by the very government they gave their health to serve.
Vanes: Something starts building in Ron's mind, he's full of rage for the lack of respect he's being paid. Nobody cares about what he's done. He's treated like a raving lunatic, an annoying whiny man with handicaps. A man in the hospital finally shows him the truth. Times have changed and it's not about patriotism anymore, "nobody gives a shit about what happens in Vietnam anymore". Ron can't believe what he's hearing: the country he shed blood for, the people he defended, the creed he always followed is not respected anymore?
The scene when Ron comes home is sadly what you'd expect. There are a lot of people who say, "I am sorry" and claim "you look great," but nobody is sincere or really cares. He expected the moon; he's now a HERO, yet all he gets is a new toilette. His mind is changing, as are the people around him. There's a strong anti-war movement going on, and he starts to understand the reasons. What's the point of fighting this war? Has it even been explained to the guys who lost their lives for it? Was it just a big pretentious move to establish some sort of "supremacy?" He served his country, but all he gets is a shiny bunch of medals, a pat on the back, and a parade around the town where young kids aim at him with their toy guns and men who don't believe in the war give him the bird. Like the man he saw in the WWII parade when he was young, he cringes at the sound of firecrackers, everything constantly reminds him of the horrors of what he went through in 'Nam. He now understands the look in that old man's eyes.
Mike: This scene, as well as many others, exemplifies one of the great tragedies of the war. The soldiers are blamed for the bad war because they are there. It's easier to bother a soldier than it is to hunt down President Johnson or the fools who talked him into this war for their own business interests. While the real culprits are more profitable than ever, living the high life, the disabled men who have enough trouble as it is are glared at and spit on. They are made to feel like foreigners and outcasts.
Vanes: Feeling life has no meaning for him, Ron tries to escape it with the bottle to a point where his mother can't deal with his lack of manners and change in ideals anymore. In a single scene, Stone shows everything that was wrong with that patriotic mentality. Ron takes the cross and asks his mother where was God when he was shot in Vietnam, when he was treated like dirt at the hospital. Where's his country, is a pat on the back and goodbye enough to pay for such suffering? His mother, strongly blinded by her catholic upbringing, can't deal with a different view of the world. She can't deal with the realization that there might be not be a God, that the values she was taught might have been wrong from the beginning. She wants him to leave, her ideals are STRONGER and make her blinder than the love she has (had?) for her son.
"Something good happens, 'It's His will.' Something bad happens, 'He moves in mysterious ways.' - Satan (Gabriel Byrne) in End of Days
He goes to Mexico hoping to forget the bad memories and start enjoying life again, searching for a meaning to his life. There he finally finds a friend Charlie (Willem Dafoe), another war vet who drowns his problems with tequila and prostitutes. He doesn't care at all, doesn't want to return to a place where people don't care about what he's done for them. Ron tries to forget his problems, and in a pathetic attempt to feel like a MAN once again, he pays a prostitute to have "sex" with him. He's reluctant at first, telling her "I feel nothing there, it doesn't matter." The prostitute, like she's supposed to as a professional, makes every possible attempt to make Ron feel like she's being pleasured, but he realizes he can't be a man anymore. Everything goes back to the war. His manhood, family, beliefs, and ambitions were all stripped by it. He cries, not knowing what to do.
Mike: I thought he was so defensive when
she tried to go downstairs because he's embarrassed and her doing so would
crush whatever is left of his delusion that he's still wholly male. She
knows he can't move anything below his waist, but if he keeps his pants
on he figures she won't realize his unit is missing. Whether she knows
this or not, he quickly comes to realize that he can no longer please a woman
or himself. We see her acting as if he's inside her, but know that both
parties realize it's just that, an act to mask the harrowing reality. He
lost his home because he screamed "Penis! Penis! Big fucking erect penis,
ma!" Now he's lost his sense of manliness because he
realizes all he could do is talk about it.
Vanes: Some people believed this scene was perfectly worthless or wasn't "sexy enough," but it was effective because it showed Ron's last attempt at forgetting, at trying to find a new life, trying to enjoy himself even though he couldn't live as a normal person.
Mike: How could it have been sexy when the only possible eroticism was in his head? He didn't approach the scene as a handicapped man looking for an alternative. He approached it as what he once was, a man who was capable of doing everything. He had to make concessions along the way because he realizes that's no longer him, but the whole excursion was an attempt to con himself into believing it could essentially be the same. It was just like the earlier scene where his hopes are so high that walking with his arms and supports could be an acceptable equivalent to walking like everyone else does. Logically one could tell you this can't be the case, but he's grasping at straws, clinging to anything that can allow him to maintain a positive outlook on life or at least give him a reason to go on with it.
Vanes: The rest of the film focuses on Ron's total transformation from overly-patriotic puppet buying into the American government's ideology to anarchist and activist who disrupts one of Nixon's public speeches. He wants to change things, wants people to know what is wrong with the country and the fact people are losing their lives for nothing and those who escape with theirs don't get the respect they deserve or, in fact, ANY respect at all. He attempts to fight his own fear and talks to the parents of the guy he accidentally shot in Vietnam. He knows he will always remember that incident, but at least he did what his conscience told him to do.
Mike: I thought his transformation was rather weakly handled. The film showed him adapting the view of those who influenced him. He initially believed in his mother's religion and his governments fight the red devils rallying cry. After coming home from the horrors of the hospital, he still can't believe that his brother Tommy could be against the war. However, when he finds out his girlfriend Donna (Kyra Sedgwick) is, he's almost immediately attending a demonstration that ends when the police attack the demonstrators in the name of breaking up an illegal rally. He also adopts the loathsome and hateful outlook of Charlie. Somewhere in all this, he suddenly ransmogrifies himself into the platoon leader he used to be except now he's heading a disabled veterans siege on Dick's Republican convention speech. After that, it jumps ahead to the point where he's written some book and has the notoriety to address the nation (he's speaking at the Democratic convention although the significance in terms of his views is passed over). Exactly what Ron did for the cause is unshown because Stone is too busy trying to give us the happy ending of Ron fulfilling his mother's dream that he'd stand before the people and do something great. When he goes out there for his speech, the film simply ends, making it a movie about a person who at least theoretically did something special for his country that only focuses on the horrors that lead him to this virtually unknown (at least to people like myself who were barely born) triumph.
My other problem with the movie, which ties into the previous, is I didn't like the transitions. Scenes either just ended in the midst or based on some convenient occurrence. It looks like Ron's going to lose his leg in the hospital because a pump breaks down, but then we skip ahead several months to his return home where we learn he still has his leg. He's separated from Donna, who appears to be in some danger, during the chaos, but the scene just ends with him in the middle of a combat zone. The scene where he gets into a fight with Charlie and they are lying at the bottom of a hill in the middle of the desert to die ends two seconds later when The Good Mexican pulls over.
Vanes: People wanted to see the "happy ending," so obviously they complained when Stone didn't show Ron's final achievement, speaking his mind in front of people at a democratic party convention and fulfilling his mother's dream, but was that really necessary? The message was perfectly delivered before that in such an effective way that didn't need any other tearjerker or sensationalist finale.
Mike: The problem is not so much the lack of the speech, but that so much time has just passed that we aren't sure if the speech is about the horrors of the war, what he's done to try to prevent further waste of life (based on the structuring of the movie there had to be more incidents like the disruption we saw at the campaign four years earlier), or both. It was another case where the film seemed choppy because so much was different from the previous scene that you were distracted from what was going on because you were trying to figure out the differences. This is fine when the scenes are longer, but this only lasted a few minutes and was interrupted by the flashback to a little Ron with his hopeful mother.
Mike: Cruise was always an actor that had some concept of bodily acting, but in movies like Risky Business & Cocktail he mainly needed to use it to convey his coolness. We don't need everything to be spelled out for us because the look on Cruise's, as well as the tone of his voice, tell the audience where he's at. His role in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money certainly wasn't one-dimensional, but it didn't announce him as an actor capable of delivering this performance either.
Vanes: There are a few other notably good performances. Caroline Kava is beautifully (and pathetically) close-minded as Ron's mother, while Raymond J. Barry is not so happy of his son's choice since he was still suffering from what he lived during WWII. Willem Dafoe gives a memorable performance as the boozed, wonderfully anarchaic Vietnam vet who abandons himself in alcohol and women to forget his past. Kyra Sedgwick isn't given a chance to do anything other than look cute and smile, but she plays her part effectively. Frank Whaley is effective as Ron's first real connection, as the first person he really can talk to without all the embellished and hypocritical bullshit of the others (Timmy grew up with Ron and also fought in Vietnam). He's the first one to understand him, and helps him change.
Mike: The cast is so huge Stone has included everyone from himself to Edie Brickell to Don "The Dragon" Wilson. It's Cruise's movie through and through, but unlike the talented Lili Taylor who got all of one line, there were some other good people who had the opportunity to stand out. Dafoe, in a very atypical role, was a scene stealer as the loud despondent veteran. Tom Sizemore makes his whacked out presence felt as a veritable wheel chair kamikaze. Whaley, barely recognizable with the unkempt look, was typically funny in a more serious role. Too bad he doesn't get more Opportunities.
Vanes: John Williams' score is simply mesmerizing, underlying the power of this film. Once again Tim Morrison shows his amazing talent with very touching trumpet solos, and while the soundtrack might not be as "imposing" emotively and musically as other Williams works, it's as beautiful as anything Williams has done. One of his 10 best works, and one of the most underrated since "The Towering Inferno."
Mike: I didn't find the soundtrack to be anything outstanding, but it's one of Williams' best works because it enhances the images without being cartoonish or stealing their thunder.
Vanes: Stone's regular cinematographer Robert Richardson is excellent, especially in the Vietnam scenes, which convey the feelings of Ron as well as the sense of confusion and urgency. There are a few memorable scenes like the whole shooting of Ron, focusing on his POV while he's carried away.
If there's one "flaw" in Stone's filmmaking style is that he's propagandistic; he wants to deliver a message and does so in the most honest, brutal way. There's no subtlety to the film; everything is perfectly portrayed for you to see. If you think this film is too one sided, doesn't give the "other parties" chance to mean something in the overall picture because they are reduced to cynical and sadistic close minded fools, you don't get Stone's message.
Mike: The one-sided argument doesn't make any sense. This is a film not Journalism 101. It's about feelings not balance and the pyramid.
Vanes: Stone is not trying to portray the Vietnam War with perfect historical accuracy. He doesn't want you to believe every single American family during that period was so close minded, overly patriotic and bigoted. He just wants to show the horror of the people who fought a war and mentally lost their lives there even though they technically were still alive. Ron's struggle to find something to hold on, to see a meaning to what he's done shows how meaningless that war really was. His life was destroyed, almost to the point of no return, until he saw the light and started believing war was wrong no matter what.
Mike: His life was still destroyed; it died on that battlefield. His redemption is finding a reason to go on. The positive thing he can do is make himself heard so other young men aren't conned into wasting their lives like he was. The tragedy is he could have found the same reason to live before he killed women and children, one of his men, and lost the use of half his body.
Vanes: The MESSAGE is what is important, not whether Stone changed the facts to show it. Certainly you can say the first half hour of the film projects a strongly stereotypical family, but that's necessary to deliver his message. He needs that kind of upbringing to show the two sides of the problem: the people at home preaching a dogma, believing in something they don't even know the meaning of, and the people fighting the real war, losing everything for an ideal that was just political self fulfillment or the desire to establish a sort of "supremacy" to show that their way was the best way. What Stone is trying to teach us is to learn from other people's mistakes, to avoid repeating the wrong choices he (Stone is a Vietnam vet) and/or Ron Kovic (who helped on the screenplay based on the book he wrote that inspired Stone to make the film) made.
Mike: Ultimately the message is that one must think for themselves. Ron bounces around from one ideal to the other throughout the movie until he adopts his own ideology (that is only vaguely explained in the film). He learned a lot throughout the course of the film, but always by doing. Due to this, it was too late for him to avoid the many bad experiences that he had. Ron couldn't turn back what was set in motion, but you probably can if you keep the brakes on.
Vanes: It might not be something entertaining or easy to watch, but it's so effective in delivering what he wants to that you can't deny its greatness.