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Why Emotion (not Sentiment) Persuades

Many speakers set out to use emotion to persuade, but even the best communicators can fall into the trap of sentimentality

“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”~ Frank Capra

The use of emotion can be a powerful persuasive element, which is why we see it used in so many settings. Indeed, few things reinforce a strong argument or the perception of a great character as the strong emotion felt in the right way at the right time. Unfortunately, generating the correct emotion is a difficult thing. Even gifted communicators seeking to generate a particular emotion can miss the mark and fall into sentimentality. From my coaching, I have found that the distinction between emotion and sentimentality can be hard to grasp, and that defining both terms is a good place to start. An emotional response is a feeling that is justified and earned; in other words, we feel sad, angry, happy, etc., and the feeling seems genuine to us, not forced or artificial. Sentimentality is a feeling that somehow seems unjustified or unearned, i.e., we sense that a message is trying to manipulate us into feeling something we should not really be feeling. Put another way, emotion moves us while sentiment manipulates us. The following comparison may help clarify my point.

Steven Spielberg is among the most lauded and successful filmmakers of our time. His blockbuster films span decades, and there are few accolades his finest films have not received. However, as great as Spielberg is, he is criticized for one thing above all else: his weakness for sentimentality, i.e., he sometimes strives for emotion but generates sentimentality instead. As the film scholar Charles Burnetts has noted:

In contemporary cinema at least, there is probably no more visible nor successful filmmaker to whom sentimentality, as a pejoratively evaluative accusation, is more commonly levied or implied…Spielberg is all too often accused of not earning his endings, allowing implausible characterization and plot outcome or awe-inspiring scenes of spectacle to yield superficial and insufficient resolutions to the social, historical and psychological problems set out by his films. The endings to his films are by no means the only objects of scorn, but are often the most obvious, as instances of an emotional veering from realism and narrative cohesion to the Utopian pathos of melodrama.

The problem that Spielberg’s critics note is illustrated by comparing the endings of two of his most famous films, Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler’s List (1993). Both films involve events in World War II. Both were inspired by the lives of real people. Both were directed, photographed, edited, and scored by the same four people. Crucially for our purposes, both films end not in the timeframe of the movie but in the present, and in a cemetery.

In Saving Private Ryan, the final scene features the man who was rescued by the movie’s protagonist, Captain John Miller. In his dying words to Ryan, Miller asks Ryan to “earn” his rescue — a profound, perhaps impossible, thing to ask of a young man who never asked to be rescued and, in fact, leaves the battlefield unwillingly. In the film’s final scene, Ryan, now an old man, stands at Miller’s grave in Normandy, surrounded by his family. Ryan looks at his wife and says, “Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I am a good man.” She replies, “You are.” As Ryan looks upon the grave one last time, the music swells, and soon the camera closes in on the cross that decorates the grave. The film ends as the shot of the cross dissolves into a waving American flag that was first seen in the movie’s very first image.

In Schindler’s List, the final scene takes place in Jerusalem’s Latin Cemetery. We do not know that it is the present as a distant line of people appears on a hilltop and begins to walk toward the grave of the film’s protagonist. As the people approach, we see they are in modern dress and that each one places a small stone on the grave, a Jewish tradition. As they move, a violin plays the film’s main theme. When all have passed, a scroll informs us that more than six-thousand Jews are alive today because of Schindler’s actions, and that the film is dedicated to the “six million Jews murdered” in the War.

In his analysis of the ending of Saving Private Ryan, another film scholar, John Biguenet, noted how much critics disliked Spielberg’s use of the cemetery scenes to frame this otherwise spectacular film:

Nearly every commentator criticized this prologue and epilogue. Janet Maslin conceded that these scenes are among the film's "few false notes." Others derided this opening and closing as "maudlin," "completely unnecessary," and "a burst of schmaltzy ritual." In fact, most writers simply ignored the prologue. Anthony Lane, for example, writing in The New Yorker, described the first half-hour of the film as "the most telling battle scenes ever made" without bothering to note that one must first wade through five minutes of schmaltz to get to Omaha Beach. (Later in his essay, Mr. Lane did make quite clear that he had no patience for Spielberg's "sappy epilogue.")

The reaction to Saving Private Ryan contrasts with how critics viewed the end of Schindler’s List, and Roger Ebert’s conclusion is representative:

The film's ending brings me to tears. At the end of the war, Schindler's Jews are in a strange land — stranded, but alive. A member of the liberating Russian forces asks them, "Isn't a town over there?" and they walk off toward the horizon. The next shot fades from black and white into color. At first, we think it may be a continuation of the previous action, until we see that the men and women on the crest of the hill are dressed differently now. And then it strikes us, with the force of a blow: Those are Schindler's Jews. We are looking at the actual survivors and their children as they visit Oskar Schindler's grave. The movie began with a list of Jews being confined to the ghetto. It ends with a list of some who were saved. The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.

Why does Saving Private Ryan fail and Schindler’s List succeed in the eyes of critics and scholars? The answer to that question lies in the definitions presented above and in the trust (or lack thereof) the creative team had in their two works. As noted, sentimentality is unearned emotion. In Saving Private Ryan, we are given one of the greatest portrayals of war ever created — the D-Day landing scene can still leave a viewer trembling in fear. The story of the men who saved Ryan is told with care and skill. It is a complete and serious statement about war. Because the film is as good as it is, it does not need to say anything about the man who was saved. Spielberg, nonetheless, is unable to let the film speak for itself. Ending the movie with Miller’s dying request and the affirmative response from Ryan’s wife comes across as too “neat and tidy,” especially coming from a character about whom we know absolutely nothing. We may ask what does it even matter if Ryan “earned” his rescue or not? Would the sacrifices made by Miller and his men been any less heroic? Would their actions be wasted somehow? Isn’t that what happens so in war, where people often die for no reason with no one to give their deaths any meaning?

I think that critics disliked the ending to Ryan precisely because the film itself was so well made that it did not need Ryan to be a “good man” to make Miller’s sacrifice noble. Thus, rather than feeling any genuine emotion for Ryan, many critics felt manipulated and pushed to feel something for him that the film never justified. It rang false. It was sentimental.

In Schindler’s List — a story whose power, incidentally, comes from the main character’s negation of his character’s history as an amoral profiteer — the same kind of ending is used to profoundly different results. The sacrifices made so that the people we see could live have been described with great skill and sensitivity. The score, simple and hauntingly played on a single violin, is all we need to understand and feel that these people are present because of what Schindler did — they are the living consequences of his actions, and they ask us to feel respect and admiration for him and a contemplative joy for them. Both feelings have been earned by the film and are fully justified in the audience. The list of names in Schindler’s List represents life itself, and Spielberg and his team trust us to see that truth for ourselves. Indeed, the film tells us Schindler’s divorced his wife and failed multiple times as a businessman after the war, yet the power of his actions is not diminished in any way by the failures in his life.

Interestingly, Biguenet argues that perhaps Saving Private Ryan’s end is really about what the living owe to the dead, i.e., what those who are spared suffering owe to those whose sacrifices make that escape possible. As he notes:

…the prologue and epilogue, even if they are embarrassingly sentimental in their presentation and do pander, perhaps, to their audience, pose what remains a fundamental question after the blood-drenched 20th century: What is our responsibility to those who have gone before us? Like Schindler's List and Amistad, Saving Private Ryan is not about those who suffered; it is about those who have been spared suffering. Spielberg's subject, in the end, is not the courage of the soldiers who fought at Normandy; his subject is the debt owed them by their children and their children's children.

Whatever Spielberg’s goal, I think the critics are correct in their analyses. In Saving Private Ryan we see a director gently manipulating us, perhaps unconsciously and with consummate skill, into agreeing with him that Ryan owed Miller a good life. In Schindler’s List, we see a director who knows the greatness of Schindler’s act speaks for itself.

The distinction these films illuminate is found around us in many ways. Valentine’s Day cards are often sentimental, which is why we typically add our own words to them in order to generate the desired emotion. Celebrities tweet phrases and emojis in support of some cause, though they themselves have no history of caring about the issue. Unskilled leaders present appeals to “values” or a company’s support for a non-profit to generate enthusiasm, because they lack the substance that would make emotions genuine. In almost all these cases, sentimentality, not emotion, is the only thing we experience. We may act or follow because we understand the greater purpose, but the messages themselves are not what persuades us. Indeed, most people will never formally define sentimentality as we have above, but they know it when they see it.

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