Episode 571: Eight Guys Walking across France

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we tackle “Saving Private Ryan.”

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Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather opt out of this week’s summer blockbuster and instead observe the anniversary of D-Day by watching Saving Private Ryan.

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12 Comments on “Episode 571: Eight Guys Walking across France”

  1. Margo #

    Steven Spielberg’s tendency towards sentimentality and mawkishness has always been a turn-off for me. I haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan, nor do I intend to.

    A skilled director can evoke strong emotion and sorrow without overt sentimentality through great acting, writing, photography, music composed by someone other than John Williams, and all the other tools a director has at his or her disposal. As a recent example I point to the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, which tells of a real-life event of great loss and horror, yet avoids sappiness as one should avoid a badly-designed nuclear reactor.

    With Chernobyl, HBO also makes the case against cancelling one’s HBO subscription now that Game Of Thrones is over, although perhaps that is a subject for another podcast.


    • MikeO #

      HBO’s Chernobyl is as accurate to real life events as Saving Private Ryan was. There’s stuff you can point to that happened, but it’s drama (mixed with low key propaganda) foremost, and documentary second.
      I stopped watching GoT a season or two back, so can’t speak for what else HBO has to offer.


  2. Joseph Member #

    The translator character played by Jeremy Davies always struck me as the film’s audience surrogate. He’s the one early on who insists on carting around a typewriter which, given the film’s recurring motif of storytelling, I originally assumed that meant he was also the character shown in the film’s framing device. Of course, by the end of the film we know that’s not the case.

    What do y’all make of that character?


    • clayschuldt #

      Audience surrogate sounds accurate. I always thought he was a critique of the audiences who know about war but have not experienced it.
      He quotes writers about war and he quotes regulations, but when it comes down to it he can’t save his fellow soldier who is slowly knifed. This is one of the hardest scenes to watch because it dares to suggest the average audience would be too afraid to act. Then he commits a war crime, but it never punished. He is one of the few who lives. Does he need to live with his guilt or live with the realization the realities of war are harsher than academics would have you believe?


  3. John C Member #

    Discussions like this often make me wonder what the classic Spielberg movies would be like without the John Williams scores. When I think of those movies, I always start out thinking I liked them, then mostly focus on the abstract concept for the movie and the music. Obviously, he resonates more with other people, but something about his work never quite lands for me.
    And his latest venture (horror shorts that can only be watched between midnight and dawn) reinforces that disinterest…


    • Mark Lee OTI Staff #

      “Discussions like this often make me wonder what the classic Spielberg movies would be like without the John Williams scores.”

      Something like this?


      This is obviously for comedic effect, but it does really drive home how important Williams’ music is in making these scenes work. (P.S. Auralnauts is great, check out more of their YouTube channel. Like and subscribe, etc.)

      But that’s the amazing thing about movies, no? That they’re so much more than the sum of their parts, which is why plots don’t always need to be airtight so long as acting, cinematography, effects, and yes, music, all are working together well.

      Re: the music in Saving Private Ryan, it plays an interesting role in whipsawing the audience from bleakness to inspiration in the course of less than a minute in the scene with the downed glider plane and scores of injured troops. With the dead general and the dog tags, it’s so dark it could be straight out of Full Metal Jacket. But they quickly pivot when they find a lead on Ryan. As the squad assembles around Captain Hanks, that stirring music kicks in and then we’re back in “OMG these soldiers are so brave and their mission so noble” mode.

      To say nothing of the main theme, “Hymn to the Fallen.” Which is a beautiful piece of music, but a little out of step with the aforementioned darker corners of this movie.


      You know, come to think of it, his theme from “Born on the Fourth of July” strikes a better balance between darkness and light. This may be the artist at the top of his form.



      • John C Member #

        I was thinking more in terms of using pop music, like lower budget movies tend to do (and how would those scenes be recut), but yes, this is very close.
        And like I said, I’m probably an outlier, but this doesn’t quite work for me as a movie. And thinking about my pile of CDs and DVDs (and, sure, various tapes), I own a lot of scores from Spielberg movies (some from movies I never bothered to see), but…I think I only own “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as a movie.
        Which is all to say that the podcast nudged me to think about that distinction and why Spielberg seems less interesting to me than his massive success would otherwise imply.


  4. Three Act Destructure #

    Oh, boy. Has any director other than Spielberg spent so much time being controversial for spending so little time being controversial?

    There’s something sort of nauseating about how polished all of his ideas are. Which gets worse the closer that he gets to actually taboo or otherwise uncomfortable material.

    For example, if you treat Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List (a film which I have — both mockingly and adoringly — referred to many times as Mr. Smith Goes To The Holocaust) and Munich as representing a cohesive philosophical unit then his worldview appears to be that Nazis are bad, the purpose of American GIs is to kill Nazis and Jews have to be much more considerate about how they wield violence because it is, maybe, not as well suited for them.

    This is… not great.

    It’s also why Spielberg is difficult to talk about. Because he’s not asking you to look at his films as a whole representing himself. He’s not really introspective or even didactic at all, in fact. His art is, at best, there to reinforce beliefs rather than to actually teach them. History passes through his talent, untouched by his perspective on it.

    Saving Private Ryan only wants you to believe that WW2 was a just war. Because people already believe that. Schindler’s List assumes that you are already against the Holocaust but that maybe you would appreciate being reminded of why you are right to think that way. Munich is simply a reflection of how a consensus of historians already think about the events and nothing more.

    Lincoln is a movie that doesn’t need to talk about slavery because Spielberg knows that, yes, we know that slavery was bad. So he talks about politics instead. Not because he’s interested. But because they’re interesting.

    By all accounts, his fascination with war comes from the same place as his fascination with old movie serials and planes and aliens: his Baby Boomer childhood. He’s nerdy about recording Holocaust survivors for the USC Shoah Foundation in the same way that he’s nerdy about War of the Worlds.

    Speaking of, there’s one to revisit. War of the Worlds. Yikes. It might be the only movie he’s ever made with a real, individual point of view and it’s also possibly his worst.

    But I can’t bury the man. He’s as good as he thinks he is, despite an infamous aversion to complex feeling. I’m actually surprised to see a general attitude of weariness towards his work show up in the comments here. My impression was that Spielberg is one of those grand old artists who is easy to rebel against for a while but gradually consumes his viewers like a suffocatingly comfortable blanket.

    I mean, who else can get an audience to laugh right after showing them Vin Diesel being killed by a Nazi sniper?


    • clayschuldt #

      I agree. Spielberg has always managed to be among the best filmmaker.
      Spielberg was the first director I knew by name. I saw Jurassic Park in theaters at age 7. My mom mentioned the same guy did E.T. then my brother said he also did the Indiana Jones film, which I had also seen at this point. Then I found out his studio produced the Tiny Toons and Animaniacs.
      At this point, I came to the conclusion Spielberg was the greatest director.
      This is a child’s opinion, but I consistently like his work even when I didn’t know he was the creator.
      I don’t love every Spielberg film, but there is always the underlying quality that makes everything he does at least watchable.
      Saving Private Ryan is an incredibly manipulative film, maybe his most manipulative, but that’s kind of the point of great direction.
      Spielberg’s ability to switch from horrifying violence to light humor is worthy of further study.


  5. MikeO #

    I like the thought process on narratives being a force of motivation. The army told the Tom Hanks character one narrative to go on the mission, and he tells other narratives to the men to keep them going. And to get meta for a moment, Spielberg is telling us a narrative through this movie to keep us “going” (to where, you can overthink that).
    “Spiel”berg indeed.


    • clayschuldt #

      Yes! And I am remembering now when they do find Ryan, he rejects the narrative. He says it doesn’t make any sense. He chooses to stay at the bridge. Capt. Miller tells another part of the story, asking what we suppose to tell your mother when she is sent another American flag.
      Ryan suggests another narrative, “tell her I died with the only brothers I had left.”
      In the next scene, Miller says to his Srgt things took a turn for the surreal. Then the Srgt. tells a story about staying and possibly protecting the bridge and says that maybe “Saving Private Ryan” could be the best thing they ever did in this terrible war.
      We get a title drop in the motivational story.
      Then, while waiting for the attack to come, the men tell stories about being at home. Burns gets a story about his last day in his mom’s shop. Ryan tells of the last day with his brothers. These aren’t motivational stories, but stories used to remember, which might be what Spielberg is motivating the audience to do: remember.


  6. Justin Moahreb #

    Not even a Well Actually, but a minor note of Trivia, the role of ‘soldier who shouts “Don’t shoot, let them burn!”‘ was played by a Canadian actor named Matthew Sharp, best known for being killed offscreen in the first X-Men movie in his role as longtime X-Men/Avengers nemesis Henry Peter Gyrich.


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