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Saving Private Ryan

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Saving Private Ryan

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: R
RunTime: 160 Minutes
Release Date: July 1998
Genres: War, Action, Drama

Review by Walter Frith
4 stars out of 4

As the 20th century closes out at the end of next year, 'Saving Private Ryan' is a timely release that reminds us that the last 100 years has been a time of warfare unlike any other in history and that six of those 100 years, 1939-1945, were the most horrific times in the broad spectrum of human conflict ever seen by mankind with unmatched weapons of devastation and the senseless slaughter of millions of lives both on and off the fields of battle.

Director Steven Spielberg has ventured into World War II territory twice in his career before this film. His flawed but mildly satisfying 'Empire of the Sun' (1987) and his masterpiece 'Schindler's List' (1993) are films that show the diversity of war from the concentration camps of the Pacific to the holocaust the plagued Europe. On both occasions, Spielberg plunged his audience into the insanity of war, with all of its evil qualities but found a curious sense of pride and redemption among noble characters on each attempt and taught movie audiences of the way film should be used as not only an entertainment medium of visual extremes but as a redefined account of human conscience.

D-Day: June 6, 1944. Omaha Beach on the shores of Normandy (France). This is the setting for the opening half hour of 'Saving Private Ryan' but shortly before the battles commences, the opening scene is set in the present day where an elderly man and a couple of generations of his family visit the landmarks erected to Omaha beach veterans. There is no dialogue and the scene ends with a slow zoom into the man's eyes as they fill the movie screen completely and we later realize that this elderly man is one of the film's central characters and then the film moves to the past and shows the D-Day carnage.

Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) leads his infantry into battle. You will never experience the impact of bullets upon human bodies more realistically than you will see in this film. Heads, legs, and arms are mangled and one soldier's guts are spilled into full view of the audience and another soldier picks up his arm and walks away with it after it is blown off. It is a shocking and difficult thing to watch but Spielberg is to be commended for his immediate and unglamourous look at the realities of war. As the battle winds down the film takes a sympathetic turn which will later put Hanks and his men in the arms of a mission that will turn out to be the most important one in the eyes of one Iowa family.

Private James Ryan (Matt Damon, whom we don't see until the last hour of the film) has lost his other three brothers in combat and the war department decides to send Hanks and his men on a mission to find him and bring him home to his family. The family has already received three telegrams of regret with three folded American flags in memory of the men lost and the mission is set in place. Tom Hanks is brilliant in this film as he plays his role of the leader with a quiet sense of authority, gaining admiration from his men, and his character is sympathetic but never sentimental. He has seven men with him and the most noteworthy members of his squad are actors Tom Sizemore ('Natural Born Killers', 'Heat') and Edward Burns ('The Brothers McMullen') who each turn in brilliant performances as soldiers who feel uncertain about the mission, questioning the logic in sending eight men to find one, and the mission is described as "finding a needle in a stack of needles".

The mission sends Hanks and his men into the fields of Normandy as they experience combat, the personal bonding that soldiers experience during war time and the realistic killer instinct that all humans have and although Spielberg is credited largely with the film's success, screenwriter Robert Rodat has written an evenly paced script that carefully illustrates and details the total scope of tension among the film's characters that looks and feels like nothing a war film has accomplished before.

The most impressive technical aspects of 'Saving Private Ryan' numb the human mind as the hand held camera, used in many scenes (Spielberg actually held the camera himself at times), plunges its way into battle, complete with constantly changing shutter speeds, frenzied shots of action and the film's sound effects will leave a permanent impression on your brain as bullets hit their mark and mixed together with the film's sensational editing, the constant thuds heard in the film as soldiers go down in tragic fashion are haunting to say the least. I was seeing and hearing the film vividly, a few days after I saw it. Director of photography Janusz Kaminski and longtime Spielberg editor Michael Kahn, both of whom did 'Schindler's List' with Spielberg, and the sound team of 'Saving Private Ryan' are Oscar bound as is the rest of this film.

I doubt a better film will come along in 1998 to match the intensity of 'Saving Private Ryan'. After all, Spielberg is the century's most noted and impressive film maker as five of his films, 'Schindler's List', 'E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial', 'Jaws', 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', and 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', recently made the American Film Institute's Top 100 list of all time greatest films from 1896 to 1996. No other director, not Wyler, Ford, Hitchcock, Coppola, Wilder or Kubrick have matched Spielberg in the eyes of his peers and the cultural historians who have judged him in the first century of film. Even when Spielberg makes a mediocre film, it seems to grow on you after a while and the amazing thing is, Spielberg's only 50.

Copyright 2000 Walter Frith

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