Saving Private Ryan
Screenplay : Robert Rodat
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Tom Hanks (Captain John Miller), Tom Sizemore (Sergeant Mike Horvath), Edward Burns (Private Reiben), Matt Damon (Private James Ryan), Jeremy Davies (Corporal Upham), Vin Diesel (Private Caparzo), Adam Goldberg (Private Mellish), Barry Pepper (Private Jackson), Giovanni Ribisi (Medic Wade)
The sky is overcast and the gray ocean waves are choppy as the Higgins boats advance steadily toward Omaha Beach. Inside each boat, rows of soldiers stand in formation, gripping their weapons, some nervously vomiting on the deck. All of their faces are scrawled with terrified anticipation, not of greatness or glory or fighting for their country, but anticipation of death.
When the boats arrive and the front gates drop open, we get the first wave of that death. In an instant of heavy machine gun fire, what was once a boat-full of soldiers is reduced to a pile of blood, bones, and gristle. Not one of them manages to even take a step forward before they are reduced to bullet-riddled corpses. This doesn't feel like war; it feel like senseless slaughter.
This is only the beginning of an excruciatingly intense, graphically depicted re-enactment of the storming of the beach at Normandy, which opens Steven Spielberg's masterful war epic, "Saving Private Ryan." The sequence lasts for nearly half an hour, and it is the most brutal, devastating cinematic account of warfare ever filmed. No movie has captured, with this mixture of bloody chaos and intense clarity, the subjective experience of war.
Spielberg's camera does not simply record the violence, it puts the viewer in the middle of it. When soldiers are being blown to pieces by bullets and shrapnel, we the audience are not relegated to being simple onlookers; we're in the middle of it all. Shaky, jittery hand-held camera work puts us in the shoes of a foot soldier clamoring up the blood-soaked beach. At some points in the action, we are made to feel like we are literally inside a firing machine gun.
It is interesting that Spielberg would be the man to render the gruesome violence of war in such vivid strokes. Like Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone, both of whom started by making gory horror films and later made intense films about the violence of Vietnam, Spielberg started his career with stylized cartoon violence. From the man-eating shark in "Jaws" (1975) to the pulp adventures of the "Indiana Jones" series, Spielberg showed early on that he can choreograph action and violence.
But in "Saving Private Ryan," he infuses that violence with meaning. Gory as it is, there are plenty of splatter horror flicks far gorier; but the context in which Spielberg puts the horror and the way cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ("Schindler's List") shoots it in washed-out hues that make it resemble newsreel footage, makes the violence in "Saving Private Ryan" almost too real.
The opening half hour of "Saving Private Ryan" will be analyzed and scrutinized for years to come in every film studies class as the superior example of how to subjectively draw the viewer into the action. With complete visual and aural technical mastery, Spielberg and Kaminski thrust us face-first into the fighting, and never let us back out for two hours and forty minutes.
The story concerns a squad of men, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), that has been ordered on a morale-boosting public relations mission to go behind enemy lines in France and find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers have all been killed in action. Miller's squad includes the dedicated Sergeant Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), the outspoken Private Reiben (Edward Burns), Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), a translator who has never shot a gun in battle, and Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), a sharpshooter with a Southern drawl and a penchant for quoting the Bible to steady his hand while taking aim at the enemy. All the men react to the assignment in different ways, some resentful that eight men have to risk their lives for one man they don't even know, and some more resigned to the fact that it is an order from General George Marshall (Harve Presnell), and in war one doesn't question orders.
As the film progresses, Spielberg allows us to get to know each man individually. Like the battle on Omaha Beach, Spielberg brings us inside the squad, so that when the men fall in battle, we feel an acute sense of loss. Screenwriter Robert Rodat makes each man unique, but purposefully keeps them very plain. It is important to understand that World War II was not fought by unforgettable John Wayne characters--it was fought by everyday men, many of them kids.
What makes "Saving Private Ryan" such a brilliant success is its ability to succeed on both the small and the large scale. War movies often sacrifice realistic character and plot developments in their rush to depict war on a grand scale. Many of the gung ho World War II movies of the forties and fifties did this by giving us stock characters and clichés to fill the quiet moments between glorious, honorable battles. Or, on the other hand, movies like "Platoon" brings us close inside a group of ordinary soldiers, but we never feel much understanding of the war outside the platoon's point of view.
In "Saving Private Ryan," Spielberg uses the opening sequence at Normandy to give us understanding of the violence of war in the largest sense, then he shows us the politicking and public relations in the offices of the top brass, and then hunkers down and filters the entire experience through a small group of ordinary men fighting for their lives amid the chaos. From whatever angle you look at it, Spielberg's message is clear: war is hell. There's no sermonizing or moralizing, but the film does force you to contemplate what war is worth.
As a movie about war, "Saving Private Ryan" is a technical masterpiece. As a human story about courage, honor, fear, and frailty, it is also a dramatic tour de force. All the actors give top-notch performances, especially those in the secondary roles. Supporting character actors like Tom Sizemore and Edward Burns show that they are every bit as talented as Tom Hanks, whose honorable persona gives the movie a perfect emotional center of gravity.
I never thought Spielberg would be able to reach deep enough inside himself to make a film worthy of comparison to "Schindler's List" (1993), his devastating account of the Holocaust. "Saving Private Ryan" has proved me wrong, and I have a hard time imagining that there will be a more powerful film this year.
©1998 James Kendrick