Last Notes From the First Visit: This watcher from the shadows prepared for the descent on these parts of the Fondler in Chief by seeing Saving Private Ryan . It is a very good World War II movie, of the kind the studios turned out with regularity in the late 40’s and 50’s, but if it is the best film you see this year, then the art of cinema is in deep trouble. In other words, I completely disagree with the pants-wetters at New York magazine, The New York Times (whose chief reviewer now writes as if she has a script making the Hollywood rounds) and The New Yorker who have lavished the word “masterpiece” on Steven Spielberg’s latest outing.
The picture lacks sense, soul and a script. It isn’t a film about war, but about an idea of war, with none of the moral immediacy of Platoon or Full Metal Jacket . The tacky, distended beginning derives from Twelve O’Clock High (Dean Jagger, in mufti, bicycling up to a deserted Norfolk airstrip, climbing over the fence, walking along the weed-overgrown runway and gradually hearing the sound of B-17 engines) and one-hundredth as effective. Then comes the now-famous first 25 minutes of combat “footage.” These are as bloody and vivid and accurate as Stephen Ambrose and modern special-effects technology can make them. And it is to Mr. Spielberg’s credit that he eschews the audience-directed sadism that marks so much Hollywood bloodletting and has given rise to the concept of “a pornography of violence.” Indeed, I would have absolutely no hesitation about taking Francis, age 11, to see the picture. He’s seen worse under PG-13, especially in the language department. After all, the severed-limb ploy that has the critical weewee brigade guppying their little mouths in shock and wonderment was used by Mr. Spielberg in Jaws , when the shark swims under the bridge and takes the man in the skiff.
This scene may cause nightmares, as the critics claim, but of what kind and to whom? To people of the age of Mr. Spielberg (born 1947) or Our President, I suspect, who may wake with a start, sweating and thinking: “White people can get killed in battle? My God, if I hadn’t gone to Canada or Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar or if Dad or Uncle Don hadn’t fixed a deferment, this could have happened to me in Vietnam.”
Afterward, little makes sense, especially the “Horatius at the Bridge” final episode. Unless I misheard, I thought the point was to keep the Hun from seizing the bridge, crossing the river in force and cutting off Cherbourg, so why not just blow it up? At this point, Mr. Spielberg, clearly out of directorial gas and as confused and bored as I was, resorts to the technique which James Cameron elevated to Oscar status in Titanic : When all else fails, have your cast run back and forth, hither and thither, to and fro, for five minutes or so and then kill ‘em off. The best lines in the screenplay are by A. Lincoln (credited); a scene built around Eisenhower’s no less eloquent D-Day letter to his troops, which many G.I.’s stuffed in their tunics, would have helped.
The bottom line is, I had hoped an exposure to the great human issues I understood Saving Private Ryan to engage with would supply me with the grand moral framework needed to cope with the state visit of the first President to make semen a fashion accessory.
No such luck. As it turned out, not much moral gravity was required. From the moment the First Feeler (check his hand action in the new Time Monica videos) arrived at the Spielberg guest house, a mansion recently built, like so many around here, in a style that suggests it offers curbside check-in, he visited no place associated with local tradition, history or-depending on whom you talk to-real quality. He did not visit Boys Harbor, for instance. Not only is Anthony Drexel Duke’s summer camp for underprivileged city children now celebrating its 60th anniversary, but its founder and angel, Tony Duke himself (a World War II warrior), is celebrating his 80th birthday. Both camp and man are among the few surviving instances of genuine, old-fashioned, values-driven noblesse oblige left out here, and worth a Presidential salute, you might think. But no-not to a man who had time to stop his motorcade to greet Christie Brinkley.
Nor did he visit Eastville in Sag Harbor, along with Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard a summer retreat for well-off African-Americans from all over, and a place where his late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was an admired and cherished frequent visitor. That dead men tell no tales may be a more valuable contribution to the survival of this “What have you done for me lately” Administration than what some East Hampton leveraged buyout wizard ponies up, but ours is not an age that takes the long view. The only dead males this electorate and its chosen leader-who didn’t inhale at Oxford, and will now claim he didn’t come in the Oval Office-seem to give a damn about are a pair of white ones named Dow and Jones.
On the other hand, he avoided the obvious booby traps. He did visit Dreesen’s Excelsior Market, source of the 750 superb doughnuts baked by Rudy De Santi for the 800 guests at the Baldwin-Basinger bash, but given his leanings, bypassed the “Pork Store” (a.k.a. Villa Italian Specialties, purveyors of the best squid salad anywhere). Nor-despite the superior sperm-absorption qualities of the material-did he look in at the Monogram Shop to pick up a $250,000 “Lincoln Bedroom” terry-cloth robe; when the lady of this house put one in the window of her fine, trend-making store, she was accused of lack of respect for the Presidency. Her answer? She will show respect for the Presidency when the President does.
So where do we go now with this? My hunch is that the “come clean” (no pun intended) scenario will not eventuate. The American people can withstand being told that they are being lied to. But give them proof that they have been lied to, and they will raise holy hell! True Confessions could well produce a voter reaction that could cripple this Presidency precisely at the socioeconomic juncture when decisiveness is needed.
The voters themselves may not accept this risk. On the other hand, of all the organs that are vital to the American body politic, the wallet is the most vital, equivalent in importance to heart, kidneys, liver and lungs. To rout this President and his crew of thieves could well cost the stock market a couple of thousand points or more. Real money. Wouldn’t it be a better deal for everyone if all that is lost is honor?