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Owen, A. S. (2002). Memory, war, and American identity: Saving Private Ryan as cinematic jeremiad. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19(3), 249-282.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

Susan Owen begins her essay by noting the Vietnam Syndrome that contextualizes much of contemporary American identity before offering an analysis of Saving Private Ryan (SPR) as a secular jeremiad that offers a way home from contemporary self-doubt. To that end, Owen defines the jeremiad as a rhetorical form that names a covenant, laments its collapse, and prescribes its return [see notes from COMM 149]. She also addresses a vigorous debate about whether, despite their calls for change, jeremiads merely affirm the values of dominant culture, “containing” all challenges into a conservative narrative.

From this overview, Owen turns to post-Vietnam War cinema as a site whether Americans encounter grief over U.S. involvement in that bitter conflict. In many of these films (most notably, The Dear Hunter), “the route to salvation lies in individual confession, mortification, and martyrdom” (p. 254). Here, Owen discusses ways in which post-Vietnam War cinema reveals American self-doubt, particularly that doubt related to white-masculinity.

In response, SPR offers a return to America’s mythic roots. In this manner, Spielberg, “restores moral authority to the modern American nation-state” (p. 259). Owen begins by noting how Ryan is introduced as an old man, surrounded by fixed signs of duty -- a military cemetery and its flags. His personal doubts (“Tell me I’m a good man”) must be assuaged by his wife, but the American doubts that Ryan represents are already beyond dispute given the setting of this scene. Owen then turns to how Spielberg privileges imagery (and its production) over the “big speech” so typically required in other war films. In SPR, the audience is forced to “witness” scenes of carnage about which no words may be imagined. We do not witness from the outside of the scene but as insiders, those who share responsibility for what we see: “Through these techniques, we (the audience) are positioned within the jeremiad” (p. 365). Once more, we are called to participate reaffirm America’s mythic values.

Here, Owen turns to an analysis of Captain Miller’s complicated depiction of post-Vietnam sensibility and then to an analysis of Spielberg’s resacrilizing of the gun. In this first reading, Owen articulates Miller as a post-feminist leader. After offering examples of this leadership -- particularly recalling Miller’s response to a potential mutiny among his ranks -- Owen notes, “As viewers, we recognize the conventionally characterized ‘leader’ by his ability to inspire or intimidate men into cooperation. To say the least, speeches of personal self-disclosure, self-reflection and compromise -- in response to rebellion -- fall outside generic expectations” (p. 267). Thereafter, Owen discusses Spielberg’s reconnection of the gun and American moral purpose. As you might imagine, the sharpshooter becomes the means for this resacrilization. The character of Private Jackson represents American force exercised without doubt or guilt. As a result, “By transforming the act of killing into an art form, traumatic memory of moral uncertainty, atrocity, and defeat is displaced in favor of commemorative recollection of righteous retribution, of victory” (p. 269). Both Owen and Jackson offer a complete American myth, one that seems satisfied to forget its non-white male components, one whose actions may be shaken now and again but are ultimately affirmed in the higher good. Even so, Owen concludes by complicating the notion that all jeremiads are necessarily conservative. She exits with a reminder that the ruptures and struggles found in all hegemonic discourse contain the seeds of genuine change, even if they must be secretly cultivated.

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