#106 Saving Private Ryan
(1998, Steven Spielberg)
“This time the mission is the man”
Saving Private Ryan is about as far from a traditional Spielberg film as you can possibly get. Far from a happy world of aliens and daring adventurers and suburban children getting wrapped up in shenanigans, this is a film purely about the horrors of war.
It’s World War II, and following the Normandy beach operation on D-Day, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is asked to form a team with a specific goal – to track down Private James Ryan, who is missing in action, and have him brought back home. His three brothers have already been killed in action, and the US Army doesn’t want his mother losing all her sons. Miller reluctantly takes the assignment, recruiting a team of six men from his company (played by Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi & Vin Diesel) along with a translator (Jeremy Davies) to find out where Ryan has gone.
The first thing that is obvious from the brutal opening D-Day sequence is that this is not typical Spielberg. The sequence, shot in a very documentary-like style, is very bloody and graphic as soldiers are gunned down, their helmets completely ineffective at the flurries of bullets that come their way. It goes on for a while, highlighting the seemingly endless struggle. With all the harrowing blood and gore, it’s easy to forget Spielberg was involved at all.
Despite feeling that I wouldn’t enjoy Saving Private Ryan, I actually did. It’s a movie of mixed emotions, and unlike other war films, doesn’t always feel the need to bog itself down with either feverish pro-war raving or cloying anti-war messages at every turn. Admittedly, there is an anti-war message in there (the opening sequence being a key indication of this) but it’s subtle and doesn’t feel the need to hit the viewer over the head constantly. And while there is a Hollywood sheen on the whole thing (it is a Spielberg movie, after all), it never once feels like it’s aiming to the lowest common denominator or dumbing down on its subject matter.
There are some issues though. There are times when scenes or shots seem dragged out longer than necessary, particularly the scenes of the squad sitting waiting for the final battle on the bridge. The performances were good, as they are throughout the movie, but overall it felt like padding in some places. I’m not necessarily saying the movie needed to be all action all the time, but there were moments where I wished the film would just move on and stop dwelling on certain scenes.
In addition, there are a couple of emotionally manipulative scenes bookending the movie, with Ryan as an old man visiting the Normandy memorial which could have been shed without too much trouble since they added little to the overall story. These scenes were reminiscent of the similarly unnecessary and equally manipulative closing scene of Schindler’s List, which I even listed as the scene that bugged me in my review.
I also felt some aspects of Miller’s character were poorly explored. There was a persistent reminder that he had a nervous twitch in his hands at times, but ultimately this didn’t pan out to anything, nor did we see any major concern from his men over this issue despite them clearly noting it. There was also a scene where he bursts into tears suddenly after finding a piece of paper on a fallen soldier, but there’s very little indication as to what he’s crying about.
Apart from these relatively minor issues though, Saving Private Ryan is a very effective war movie, and a genuinely moving drama. And I’d recommend it over Schindler’s List.
Starring Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon & Tom Sizemore
Written by Robert Rodat
Produced by Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn & Steven Spielberg
Music by John Williams
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Michael Kahn
Favourite Scene: When Miller and co finally meet up with Private Ryan, and he refuses to go home because he doesn’t want to just give up. It seemed like a simple yet heroic moment.
Scene That Bugged Me: Lose those bookend scenes, seriously. There are subtler ways of showing Ryan accepting the sacrifice that was made for him
Watch it if: You’re looking for Private Ryan
Avoid it if: You want Vin Diesel to start blowing stuff up – he doesn’t