Thursday, August 4, 2011

926. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Running Time: 170 minutes
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Robert Rodat
Main Cast: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Matt Damon


Concluding "Spielberg Week" (or two weeks) is "Saving Private Ryan" - a film that I initially dismissed, when I first viewed it many years ago, as just another war epic. I was wrong and I'm here to admit that.

The plot is pretty simply and probably barely enough to stretch into a full paragraph. The film is set during World War II and kicks off with the Normandy invasion, in which American troops land on Omaha Beach and are immediately met with artillery fire from German forces. Captain John H. Miller (Hanks) is at the helm, leading his men in to battle and trying his best to get control of the situation, as he watches soldiers pacing the beaches, looking for blown off limbs and smelling the stench of death all around him. Eventually American forces take over the situation and we switch gears. Mrs. Ryan has just been informed that three of her four sons taking part in the war effort have been killed in combat. The forth son, James Francis Ryan (Damon), is ordered to immediately be brought home and the word is passed down the chain of command until it lands in Captain John Miller's ear. Miller will lead a squad of seven men on a mission to find Private Ryan and make sure he is returned home safely. The rest of the film follows the crew as they search for James F. Ryan.


I intended to watch "Saving Private Ryan" tonight and then get back to the blog tomorrow to write about it. However, I couldn't hold my thoughts in for that long and felt that if I did, I'd only corrupt the quality of my own writing, probably forgetting some points that I wanted to make. I'm not a fan of war movies, whether they're long or short. So many times I've been told about a war movie so good that even a person who doesn't like the genre wouldn't be able to resist. Time and time again, I'm disappointed as movies like "Platoon" and "Patton" do nothing to turn me on to the idea of a good war movie. However, with the exception of "All Quiet on the Western Front", I feel confident enough in my own opinion to brand "Saving Private Ryan" with the title of "Greatest War Movie Ever Made". I may get a lot of flack for that statement, but seeing as how I'm not an aficionado on the subject of war film, don't let it ruffle your feathers too much.

A lot of times Spielberg gets painted with an unfair brush, but I've gotta' say that I think he made most of the right decisions when it came time to make and edit "Saving Private Ryan". The pale, desaturated film stock that was used to color the film reminds you constantly of the dark and horrific reality that is death and war. Spielberg didn't hold back when it came to showing violence and blood shed and made sure we realized that war isn't pretty and that there is never a winner and that it ALWAYS brings out the bad in people. A haunting line from the movie, that is still echoing in my ear is when an American soldier screams out, "Don't shoot, let them burn!", following the torching of a German bunker. A man pacing back and forth, picking up severed limbs and trying to identify his own missing arm - haunting. Blood spurting from the throat of a wounded soldier and the gurgling noises that he makes as he leaves this Earth, all while an American soldier fights off a German. A long take (something Spielberg isn't really known for) during the final battle scene at Rammelle bridge, as Americans ascend a staircase, ready for combat. Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) getting shot, our main character getting his fatal, final blow and Spielberg not even accompanying it with any close-up or any music. Just letting us witness it from afar, reminding us that even the greatest heroes go down in the blink of an eye, when in combat.

The opening scene is something to behold and even if you don't want to take my word for it, you owe it to yourself to at least watch the Normandy invasion sequence. Of course, the joke will be on you, because following that sequence you'll probably be unable to turn the movie off. Spielberg didn't shove music down our throats here either, and just let John Williams conduct his score softly in the background, only allowing it to make it's presence known when absolutely necessary. Honestly, I could've done without a score entirely and just let the actions and images speak for themselves. Speaking of images, Spielberg captures some breath taking ones. Some may be ugly and gruesome, but there's no denying that on a movie screen their either beautiful or harrowing, sometimes both. Spielberg also coaxes some really good performances out of the unlikeliest of places, as this marks a landmark movie where a Vin Diesel appearance doesn't make me want to toss my T.V. into the street. Add to that good - great performances from Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg and Jeremy Davies and the always great Tom Hanks and you have a fantastic cast.

When it came right down to it, I couldn't deny "Saving Private Ryan" it's due. It's a war film, something I don't normally care for, but this isn't your normal war film. For me, it stands head and shoulders above most other war pictures and earns an enthusiastic nod from me. I rarely nitpicked and for the most part I was simply stunned at some of the choices Spielberg was making and how "balls to the wall" he was being. You could tell that this was a subject that was very passionate to him and he didn't shove it down our throats or anything. He didn't make it a three hour long salute to America. He simply told us that war is never good, but that the brotherhood that one can find while in such a hell on Earth, is priceless. And that at the end of the day, whether the battle was worth fighting for or not wasn't necessarily the important thing, but rather or not you made your life worth living and was your life worth saving?

RATING: 10/10 I know, right? Gotta' be the best war movie ever made, for my money. "All Quiet on the Western Front" is great too, but even it didn't get a '10' from yours truly.



I think a lot of times Steven Spielberg gets painted with an unfair brush. Perhaps (if I may make an analogy), he's like the high school quarterback, the one who always had the girls hanging off his arm and the load of friends sitting around his lunch table. The one that you always secretly called a "jerk" and chastised for being "that guy". But then one day, your standing in the lunch line and I'll be damned if you didn't misplace your .75 cents and this guy spots you the change so you can buy a carton of chocolate milk and you say to yourself, "Hey, that guy's not so bad after all". Spielberg is always going to be the prettiest girl at the ball. He represents Hollywood and he made a reputation out of making blockbusters, using special effects and catering to people who drool for sole entertainment. But, when you get right down to it, he's actually good filmmaker too. Spielberg wouldn't have gotten as far as he did, if he was a talentless hack, like so many "film buffs" like to write him off as. Sure he's made some stinkers - "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and probably a few that weren't even included in this text. However, he's also made some really good movies. "Jaws" is one of the most fun times I've had at the films and contains genuine suspense, "Schindler's List" would make a stone cry and "Saving Private Ryan" is not only a violent war epic, but it also oozes artistic value as well. You can write off Spielberg all you want, but that's not going to make him disappear. The best thing to do is to realize that he has been named Homecoming King of Hollywood, but at least he knows how to direct a good picture. He's not getting an automatic pass to the top of my favorite director's list or anything, but I have no problem giving credit where it's due and Spielberg deserves some credit.

August 4, 2011 2:39am

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