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
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