Film class — week 3

7 September 2006, 2212 EDT

Film #3 “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Daniel Warner, “Two Realist Readings of the Tragic in International Relations,” 20 International Relations 2006, pp. 225-230.

Warner reviews the recent books by John J. Mearsheimer (The Tragedy of Great Power Politics) and Richard Ned Lebow (The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders).

While both Mearsheimer and Lebow discuss the tragic dimensions of international politics, they have a fundamentally different take. Mearsheimer focuses on the structural aspects of international politics, which he says make fear and conflict inevitable.

Lebow, on the other hand, emphasizes that human beings make the tragic choices that often define international relations. He criticizes Mearsheimer’s neorealism for its structuralism and argues that neorealism is incapable of offering meaningful criticism of hegemonic behavior and American foreign policy. By emphasizing the inevitability of conflict and the pursuit of power, Mearsheimer’s neorealism eliminates the complexity of human behavior — and the responsibility for human choices.

Obviously, “Saving Private Ryan” is a tragic tale. Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, makes a number of tactical choices throughout the film that have foreseeable tragic consequences.

  • Why did he direct his men to attack a heavily guarded radar post?
  • Why did Miller order the German survivor (credited as “Steamboat Willie”) to be set free, even when his squad members argued that the soldier would likely join another unit and fight other Americans?
  • Why did Miller and his squad remain in Ramelle to defend a bridge against much more heavily armed opposition forces — even after Private Ryan had been located and his mission was arguably completed?

The humility Lebow desires is clearly present in Miller’s “everyman” hero, though he makes one tragic decision after another.

At the same time, the grotesque and nearly anonymous violence at the beginning of the film arguably reflects the kind of tragedy imagined by Mearsheimer. Given the circumstances, the allied powers had no choice but to launch the D-Day attack — even at the cost of tremendous and completely foreseeable human suffering.

Thus, director Steven Spielberg introduces a film about a series of tragic human choices with a monstrous context that arguably overwhelms the rest of the picture. Film critics, in fact, have argued that the Omaha Beach battle sequence, which takes up nearly the first half hour of the film,

blows up the rest of the movie. For this shattering vision is so corrosive, so subversive of all logic, all morality, all stories, that it devours the story that follows.

Spielberg may have Lebow’s sensibilities, but his movie cannot escape Mearsheimer’s tragic vision.

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