Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Reviews tend to be a tricky little game of cat-and-mouse, where the reviewer dances around their true opinion of the film, until their ideas come together at the end for the big reveal. There's no statement of opinion made that can't be turned with a little "however" placed in the middle. Ideally, the definitive opinion of the movie isn't truly made until the concluding paragraph, or even the posting of the score.
Certainly, this isn't a rule when it comes to reviews, some choose to post their scores at the top of their reviews (this is especially true of short reviews). But it is the style that I usually follow, but will not be following this time. Instead, I'll make my definitive statement first, then use the rest of the review to argue my case. My statement is this, Saving Private Ryan is one of the greatest movies in the history of cinema. Allow me to explain why.
First off, I'll readily admit that much of what I'll write here has been said elsewhere. Proclaiming the excellence of Saving Private Ryan isn't exactly groundbreaking; but, it'll be the first time it's said here, so that's something. Any discussion of Ryan must pay tribute to the film's opening 30 minute portrayal of the Normandy invasion landing at Omaha Beach, which are 30 of the most intense, brutal, and brilliant minutes ever captured on film. Such is the power of this scene, that it tends to obscure the excellence of the rest of the movie. Which is unfortunate, because the rest of the movie is excellent. It's understandable, because the opening scene is that good, belonging in any discussion involving the greatest scenes in movie history, but unfortunate all the same.
Any viewing of the opening sequence will instantly remind the viewer of its impact. It is as visceral, haunting, and powerful an experience as one can get while watching a film. Spielberg puts the viewer in the heart of the action, with no establishing shots or accompanying score to help create an emotional distance for the viewer. Spielberg made the brilliant directorial decision here to employ the use of hand-held cameras, giving the movie a documentary-feel, and adding to the chaos that surrounds the soldiers and audience experiencing the landing (the only unfortunate thing about this is that it has since led less-talented directors to constantly use the shaky-cam effect, to the point of cliché, trying to create their own Private Ryan scene). He uses every trick at his disposal in this scene, speeding up the film, bleaching out colour, muting the ambient noise, quick cuts, the works. The effect is astounding, bombarding the audience with horrific imagery and sounds, erasing in mere moments any preconceptions the viewer might have had about the glory of war and thrill of combat. The scene grabs the viewer, shakes them out of the comfort zone, horrifies them with its brutality, and numbs them to the reality of the situation. I've seen it dozens of times, and while it can't hope to have the same effect on me as it did when I first saw it in theatres almost 8 years ago, it never fails to deeply effect me.
However, one great scene does not make a movie great. Even a scene as superlative as Private Ryan's Normandy landing. Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line also featured an excellent scene with the taking of a hill, but I still think it a terrible movie. Private Ryan follows up its virtuoso opening half-hour with scenes both quiet and explosive, thought-provoking moral quandaries that demand discussion, and characters that will stay with you long after the last shot is fired. Spielberg is a technician of the highest order, but, above all, he is a storyteller. In finding the fictional Private Ryan story (based on an actual story told by author Stephen Ambrose, who would later collaborate again with Spielberg and star Tom Hanks in the excellent Band of Brothers series), Spielberg found a new story to tell in the annals of World War II, one that would allow him to give his depiction of conflict while maintaining the necessary narrative structures that go into telling a story.
Spielberg gets his fair share of criticism for being too populist a director to truly be considered as one of the medium's best. In my opinion, it's those populist leanings that add to his greatness, and help this film tremendously. Too often, directors get too focused on their art, trying to film something in a different way, or deal in abstractions, that they create cold, bloodless films that operate mainly as think-pieces. In my mind, you're doing something very wrong if you make one of the most base elements of humanity, the nature of warfare and the fight-or-flight instincts that guides it, and make it into a bloodless affair. Private Ryan is not one of these films. It cares very little for the bigger ramifications of war, or the politics that drives it. It is a human affair, intently focused on the men caught up in the war, mystified at their seemingly inane task of rescuing one paratrooper, at the possible risk of their own lives.
Anonymity is a tool used in the opening 30 minutes, where the viewer has no other central focus than Hanks' character, Captain John H. Miller. It makes the scene more chaotic and disorientating. However, once the opener is finished, Spielberg sets out to create characters as three-dimensional as possible, giving their struggle a human face, and investing us in their lives so that we care about their fates, and are moved by their deaths should they happen. The cast is uniformly excellent, crafting memorable characters, in and out of battle scenes. From Edward Burns' wise-cracking Private Reiben, to Barry Peppers' scripture-quoting sniper Private Jackson, to Giovanni Ribisi's kind-hearted Medic Wade, to Vin Diesel's charismatic Private Carpozo, to Adam Goldberg's fidgety Private Mellish, each etch out memorable moments for themselves, creating memorable characters that are extraordinarily ordinary, average citizens that happen to be soldiers rather than larger than life war heroes one would see in a John Wayne movie. Other than Hanks, who gives one of the best performances of his career, the standouts are Jeremy Davies as the wide-eyed Corporal Upham, a translator added to the unit with no combat experience, and Tom Sizemore as the hardened, yet warm, Sergeant Mike Horvath. Sizemore has never been better than he is here, while Davies acts as the audience surrogate, presenting a character as shocked and awed as we are by that which he sees and experiences (although, personally, while it is a great performance, I've always hated the Upham character. I think it's a good character, but I'm always screaming at him to go help Mellish in the final battle. I also don't buy into his redemptive moment at the end).
The film is filled with memorable scenes that would get more attention in another movie, from Captain Miller's futile attempt to shoot at an approaching tank with his sidearm, to the close-quarters fighting in a burnt-out French town, to Wade's quiet remembrance of his mother, to the Godot-like waiting for the final battle, while the men ponder their fates to the tunes of Edith Piaf. Some critics dislike the framing scenes Spielberg uses with an older James Ryan (portrayed during the war scenes by Matt Damon) visiting the cemetery in Normandy, but it always gets me. I think it gives the audience an emotional outlet at the end, which I think is a wise decision. The movie is a difficult experience for the audience, so I think it provides a cathartic experience that helps them digest the film better. That, and it always makes me almost-cry (which is as close as I ever get to actual tears).
So, there you go, a sampling of some of the reasons why I believe Saving Private Ryan to be one of the greatest movies in the history of cinema. All that's left is to post the anticlimactic score.
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