This paper seeks to compare and make a critical analysis of the political and social values in the United States as reflected in film. The premise is that the elements of identity and self-perception can be seen in the types of movies during specific periods. Two Steven Spielberg films will be used for this purpose: “Jaws” which was shown in 1975 and “Saving Private Ryan” which was played in theaters in 1998. First, let me tackle the movie “Jaws”. The film has a simple but absorbing plot – it shows how a peaceful summer town called Amity Island is turned upside down with the attacks by a Great White Shark.
The new Chief of Police, Martin Brody, is one of the first persons to learn of the first attack, and has a gut feel that the incident should not be taken lightly, so he planned to have the beaches closed. Nevertheless, the first incident is brushed aside by the town Mayor since their locality depended so much on the revenues from tourists during the summer. Thus, Brody’s intuitions are disregarded and eventually, another shark attack ensues. As the story goes along, more incidents happen pointing to the fact that there is a shark frequenting the Amity Island beach.
Shark hunters from all over the country gather together to catch the killer shark, where a big Tiger Shark is caught but was later found to be a dud. With the Mayor’s consent, a contractor/shark hunter named Quint, is hired to catch the shark and Brody goes along with him together with Hooper, an ichthyologist, who specializes in sharks. The three of them get to work together to catch the Great White Shark, although unfortunately, Quint also becomes one of its victims.
In the movie’s climactic moments, Brody is able to feed an oxygen tank (used by divers) to the Great White Shark and shoot at it at the moment when it was already aiming to make him one of its meals. The tank explodes inside the shark, and its flesh splatters all over the area turning the dark blue sea into red. Hooper, whom Brody presumed dead, then emerges from the waters and they both become ecstatic because they have succeeded in killing the Great White Shark, and their mission has finally ended.
Since the movie was shown in 1975, it was not surprising that the values shown in the film were reflective of the contemporary cultural and social values during that time. At the initial part of the film, a group of teenagers are shown gathered around a campfire. One teenager is shown smoking something which is presumably Marijuana. As the camera pans right, a couple is shown kissing. In the foreground, some teens are gathered together passing around one stick which again seemed to be marijuana.
Then a teenage boy with a can of beer in his hand is focused; he was smiling at someone outside the fire, a girl who was also smiling back at him. Boy approaches the girl, girl runs for the beach, boy follows but passes out before he even gets to undress. This is the girl who becomes the first victim of the shark attack. The use of marijuana was rampant in the 1970s. Drug use was a new concept at that time and drug addiction was not considered an urgent concern then. It was the time of the hippies, sexual promiscuity and assertion of individuality.
It was also in the ‘70s when the abortion rate was at its highest point in the US. Sexual liberation reached its peak levels to the detriment of the young adults during that time. This is shown in the way that the teenage girl was inviting the boy to swim in the beach, but undressing along the way further enticing the boy to follow her. The sexual overtones were evident being part of a culture that was more sexually predisposed during the said period. Although the concept of feminism was already brought up in the 1960s through the Women’s Liberation Movement, the 1970s saw a second wave of feminism which took place.
However, this brand of feminism was not meant to be that successful yet as it was more slanted towards activism and asserting immediate social transformation. Hence, the portrayal of women in this film “Jaws” was still that of the inferior gender. An example of this is the typical housewife, like the wife of Brody who was portrayed as the one who kept the house and took care of the children. The character of Brody’s wife was portrayed as one who was supposed to be submissive, to cheer her husband up, to support him and be there for the kids.
Another scene is shown where a media man was shouting instructions to a woman who was taking down notes like a secretary. Being a secretary is synonymous to being a servant or a slave, which was how women were regarded in the early times. Women are also depicted as sexual objects as seen in the way a girl was shown screaming on the beach because she was placed by a guy on his shoulders, and she was thrilled with being on top. Being viewed as a sex object is also tantamount to treating a woman on unequal terms.
In the town meeting at the mayor’s office, the men (and some elderly people) are shown sitting down with the women standing at the back all throughout, thereby implying that women were still regarded as the less knowledgeable race – part of the audience but their opinion not really highly regarded. Actually, much of the important positions in the town were held by men, and most of the movie’s scenes were, for the most part, dominated by men. This implied a continued gender partiality which pervaded the social systems in the early days of government and is still seen on the film.
Conversely though, the teenage girl shown as the one initiating the sexual move in the initial portions of the film shows that there were already some hints that the social culture was already changing, and that the film’s director was seeing signs alluding to the inevitability of feminism. This goes to show that concepts of feminism and gender equality were still in the process of being materialized and it would take a few more years for its full development and adoption into society. In terms of political insights, the movie also tackled the issue of the Chief of Police’s seeming helplessness under the Mayor’s authority.
Despite the danger of possible shark attacks, the mayor denied Brody’s request to close the beach because of the anticipated loss of revenues. This denoted the irony of electing public officials who, instead of upholding the welfare of the local residents to whom they owe their place in public office, allowed even more lives to be endangered. Now, pertaining to the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, the movie as mentioned earlier, was shown in theaters in 1995, but the majority of the settings were in June 1944 in France, which was the beginning of World War II.
The film starts with an old man going to a military cemetery with his family, and he breaks down as he faces one of the white crosses. His identity is not revealed nor is the name of the soldier who was buried on the grave he was facing. His face is held in close-up and a foreshadowing technique is used to bring up what happened in the past. Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) heads an infantry of soldiers who were sent to Omaha Beach in France as part of the US Military troops to fight against the French and the Germans in World War II.
His troops are almost cut in half but they get to survive. Later on, Capt. Miller is given a mission by the Chief of Staff of the US Army, which is an instruction to find Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) of Iowa and bring him back to his mother at all costs. This was because Private Ryan’s three brothers who were also soldiers have all passed away, and it was deemed imperative to bring him back alive for his mother, who had no other family left but his only living son. Capt. Miller succeeds in finding Private Ryan but ends up having two of his men killed, and later on, he himself ends up sacrificing his life. Private Ryan is the old man who carries the guilt of having had three men to sacrifice their lives for his safety.
He cries at the foot of Capt. Miller’s grave telling him that he tried to live his life well just so he may become worthy of the sacrifices they made for his sake. The genre of the film is mostly action, although there were emotional scenes as in the time when Capt. Miller was trying to hide his sorrow from his other soldiers because of the death of his men. Leadership in the army is difficult because he always had to show his team that he was strong and always in full control of the situation. Other emotional scenes were:
1) one of his timid soldiers crying because he wasn’t able to do anything for his comrades because of his cowardice; 2) the army vehicle coming to the house of the Ryan’s where the news on the death of the 3 soldiers were to be informed to their mother; and 3) the time Capt. Miller died. As a 1995 film, I could say that the movie tried to veer away from politics and other social issues and sought to focus on the theme of the horrors of war. Since almost 95% of the film was set in the 1940s during the war, the presence of women in the film was totally inappropriate, and hence most of the scenes were dominated by men. The film dealt with the fight scenes between US soldiers and their enemies, the goal of accomplishing their mission and finally, being able to save Private Ryan.
No references were made to feminism or sexual issues, and there were no romantic scenes, or allusions to anything sexual in nature. There was one scene however when, there was a French song being played over the phonograph and translated by one of the soldiers who could understand the language. It was a melancholic love song and somehow, the conversation was directed to a memory remembered by one of the soldiers. It was about a woman who had big breasts and it was just one of those things that men talked about just to have a good laugh.
Other than this, there were no other issues raised pertaining to gender inequality or incidents of treating women as inferior. The only time women were shown in the film was 1) at the beginning and ending, when Private Ryan was heading for the Army cemetery with his family; and 2) in the World War II scenes when a family was taken hostage by some French soldiers. In both instances, the women were shown as merely part of a family, but nothing was implied as to what role they had to play or what duties they were expected to perform. In other words, the director preferred to stay in a “safe zone” on the feminism issue.
Regarding politics, no particular reference was made to the US government whether at the national or local levels, although the hierarchy in the military was certainly illustrated as the army soldiers had to follow the orders of their superiors at all times, even if it may cost them their lives. Such portrayal showed the strictness within the military – “obey before you question”, a popular adage among the uniformed personnel, is still practiced up to now. The making of a war film in the US during this time was perhaps influenced by the Gulf War, the war against Somalia, and later on against Haiti during the 1990s.
It was also the rise of the internet, the beginning of the Information Age and the emergence of the Third Wave of Feminism. Although these three concepts were not tackled in this movie, it is particularly significant that Director Steven Spielberg chose not to inject modernity into this film. Instead, it sought to capture the violence, carnage and cruelty of war, and the devastation – both physical and emotional – which it creates in the hearts and minds of its victims. The emotional scars made by the war are irreversible, and the lives lost as a consequence of war can be very painful for those who are left behind.
Comparing the two movies together, it can be said that Spielberg was good in eliciting fear from the viewer in both films – one due to the suspense from the shark attack, and the other because of the violence depicted during the time of war. Spielberg was excellent at showing the gore and aggression in two different film genres. Although movies are only make-believe representations of the real thing, Spielberg did a good job with regards to Jaws, where the editing is said to have been instrumental in making the illusion of the Great White Shark look very authentic.
The boat scenes and the chase scenes between the humans and the shark were filled with suspense as the film approached its climax. In like manner, the war scenes in Saving Private Ryan are an improved version of the bloodiness portrayed in Jaws. Here, the soldiers who have been shot, the mangled bodies, detached limbs, and blood gushing from the wounds of the injured soldiers just seemed so real, you could almost smell and taste the blood gushing out.
The climax of the movie was reached as the lead actor faced a tank with only a pistol on his hand. Similarly, both of the movies had happy yet tragic endings. In Jaws, the lead actor, Brody becomes triumphant as he succeeds in making the oxygen tank bit by the shark to explode and thus tear the shark to pieces. However, Quint, who is the shark hunter and who was actively in pursuit of the culprit, was not that lucky because he too was made into a meal by the shark. Conversely, the lead actor in the film Capt.
Miller dies because of a gunshot on the chest which he takes in while protecting Private Ryan. The protected soldier, Private Ryan, gets to live his life well, until his old age and is eternally grateful to his benefactors (Miller and his 2 soldiers) for giving him the importance that he didn’t think he deserved. In comparing the social and cultural issues during the two periods, it can be said that the status of women in society has significantly evolved from Jaws to Saving Private Ryan.
Moreover, the issues of feminism and gender equality have improved considerably from the older to the more recent film. As the quality of film-making was enhanced, so did the social and cultural issues become better in status. Politics and sexual issues which are considered sensitive concerns were not touched on in the 2nd film, perhaps due to the awakened realizations related to the current times – matters which were not taken into account during the filming of Jaws.