Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Release Date: July 24th, 1998 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Steven Spielberg Actors: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina, Leland Orser, Nathan Fillion
ollowing a popular yet completely unnecessary pattern of narrative structuring, “Saving Private Ryan” bookends its potent WWII tale with an older version of one of the main characters reminiscing about the coming events. It serves to highlight the immeasurable sacrifices made (he strolls through a seemingly endless sea of gravestones) and the mental toil sustained by a now aged survivor. But it’s still greatly extraneous, especially since it adds minutes to an already lengthy project; it takes away from the characters that the audience truly cares about (or those characters during their most important embodiments); and it actually sets up a confusing viewpoint, since a zoom into the old man’s eyes shifts the setting to a battlefield at which he never fought. If this is purposeful misdirection, it’s utterly pointless for this project.
The actual central characters begin their journey on June 6th, 1944, as they approach Omaha Beach. It’s one of the most iconic moments of World War II and this portrayal just might be the most intense, severe, and traumatizing depiction ever put to celluloid. Soldiers are pelted by bullets before they even disembark from their boats; bodies explode, viscera is sprayed onto the sand while hands attempt to hold spilling intestines in place, and limbs are severed; and flamethrower tanks ignite, lighting up entire platoons. Sergeant Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore) and Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) attempt to spout orders to their panicking troops, but the chaos is so great, it’s difficult to imagine any semblance of order was ever enough to overtake the enemy fortifications on higher ground up the beach. But, with the sheer number of soldiers clamoring onto the shoreline, the U.S. infantry does eventually make some gains. Positions are advanced until the opposition finally retreats or surrenders, though the casualties – on both sides – are staggering.
Back in the States, a colonel (Bryan Cranston) is informed that three brothers have been killed in action, despite their separation in varying companies. When this information is brought to a general (Harve Presnell), the order is given to man a rescue mission for the fourth and final brother, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), who parachuted in with the 101st Airborne somewhere in Normandy. Although it’s likely that he died immediately during the mis-drop, and that sending soldiers into hostile territory amidst swarming German reinforcements is practically suicidal (or an extreme misallocation of valuable military resources), eight men are nevertheless assigned to the task, with Miller in the lead. Others in the group include French and German translator Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), who hasn’t had any actual combat experience and clearly represents a perspective of naïveté toward the heated emotions of combatants; Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel) and Private Reiben (Edward Burns), who maintain healthy sarcasm; Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), who is easily irritated by just about everything; Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) the medic; and Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), a wizard with a sniper rifle.
The opening moments on Omaha Beach are surely the most memorable of the entire film. The level of gore and violence, the tension and disadvantageous entry point, and the editing – itself a marvel of technical accomplishment, particularly with the use of sound effects and the cutting out of sound entirely – are astonishing and mesmerizing. Striking cinematography also goes hand in hand with the design, mustering beauty and wonder (silhouettes make for breathtaking compositions) even as it’s intermixed with overwhelming horrors. The acting, too, is flawless, especially as characters cope with the general disorder, witness the bloody falling of their comrades, and even break down into tears as they absorb the destruction or realize – perhaps in a second of nervous gratefulness – that they’re not among the heaps of corpses now turning the listless waters red. Curiously, there’s little cursing going on, marking the dialogue as somewhat unusual for this degree of graphicness. “When was the last time you felt good about anything?”
And yet, despite the ferociousness of that sequence, the film doesn’t exhaust itself just then. A civilian family is caught in a crossfire, prompting the father to attempt to give the children to the U.S. soldiers in a heartfelt interaction; a sniper duel is sparked between Jackson and an embedded German marksman; and a sizable bag of dog tags is sorted through as fellow paratroopers watch in obvious distress. Ultimately, the overarching rescue mission allows Miller and his men to survey key locations and engage in numerous, different confrontations in the war (including against a stationary machinegun and grenadiers and even hand-to-hand fighters), each ratcheting up the suspense, mayhem, and heroism. As the senses of purpose and humanity begin to disappear (even an act of mercy backfires spectacularly), the film culminates in a sensational standoff finale, where anticipation escalates unbearably as a ploy to trap a tank coming toward a bridge stronghold takes shape. This riveting, remarkable conclusion, accompanied by the voiceover narration by the general, would have been a fine ending. But, unfortunately, because of the introductory scene, a return to that dispensable bookend turns the parting shots into something annoyingly less than perfect.
– Mike Massie