DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Saving Private Ryan

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan (1998) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ed Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies


By Alan Bacchus

The opening 30 mins of this film so heavily weighs people’s opinions of it – negatively and positively. Many people I know love the D-Day scene and dismiss the rest. Like the ‘Schindler’s List’ detractors this group seems to become more populated the older the picture gets. I certainly didn’t have this opinion when I first saw it in the theatres. I, like many others, went along with the band wagon of Spielberg’s visceral rebooting of the modern ‘war film’. But these 10 years later it’s interesting to watch the picture again with a more critical eye.

The first scene is still a doozy. And with it Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski essentially wrote a new language manual of war/battle cinematography. The ‘documentary-look’ which moved beyond mere hand holding the camera was given even greater gritty texture with Kaminski’s unusual de-saturated look, flashed film and short shutter angles. Absolutely no one was using 45degree shutter angles at the time, and now it’s a staple of a cinematographer’s bag of tricks.

I don't agree with the extreme naysayers who feel the first 30mins is brilliant and the rest is crap. Though it makes good hyperbole, it’s also quite valid. The fact is, the final Remmel sequence – the ambush by Tom Hanks’ infantry platoon and their last stand at the Alamo bridge is as thrilling an action sequence in any film ever made. And in my opinion a better sequence than D-Day. Remmel is better because a) we know the characters by now and thus have greater attachment to their survival; b) Spielberg and his writer Robert Rodat split up the sequence into a number of tense set pieces resulting in more contriolled rhythm and pace; and c) despite the chaos, Spielberg achieves a sense of geography where we know where everyone is at any one time.

In between these two scenes includes enough smaller moments of action and battle to successfully keep out adrenaline and our wits up until the raucous Remmel ending. The scene which features Vin Diesel’s Caparzo character falling victim to sniper fire, pulled right from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’, is a fine set piece.

Unfortunately when guns aren’t firing or bombs exploding Spielberg is also as heavy-handed with his character-based drama, to near excruciating annoyance. I never liked the bookended scenes in the present day featuring the older version of Private Ryan revisting the soldier’s graves in France, and I hate them even more now. They are so god-awful it opens and closes the film with such a sour taste it almost taints the entire film. The characterization of the older Ryan as a feeble old man hobbling toward the graveyard weeping as he searches the graves for Capt Miller is an emotional stink bomb. I’ve met many veterans of the War through a number of war documentaries I’ve worked on, and none of the men I met would have been weeping with such uncontrolled restraint. Even the awful actors in the background, the old man’s family members who look like beauty pageant queens tenderly following the man from behind walking on eggshells and taking quick snap photos has the subtlety of a bull in a china shop.

The final bookend scene hammers home an overarching journey which attempts to put into greater perspective war, courage and sacrifice by bringing it to the present. After witnessing the well orchestrated death of Captain Miller at the bridge we should have felt the emotional gravitas enough to see Hanks bite the dust by the bullet of that German POW released by Miller himself. And then there’s that awful morphing dissolve from Damon to the old man...but enough of that.

When Spielberg exits the DDay sequence, he puts us into the Allied basecamp with General Marshall and the discovery of the deaths of the Ryan brothers and thus causing the mission to save Private Ryan. It’s an awkward transition from the visceral realism of DDay to the shameless political maguffin, with General Marshall’s eye-rolling heavy-handed speech about Abraham Lincoln stretching our ability to suspend our disbelief. There’s even more bluntness through the rest of the picture which though not as sickening as these scenes but reinforces the fact that ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is an action picture.

Despite the problems with Spielberg’s picture, it should be savoured best as an action picture – one of the greatest ever made. A film which defined a new cinematic language for war and set a new bar for military realism for the future.

To contrast the lingering effect of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ with the ‘other WWII film’ that year, ‘Thin Red Line’, there’s little comparison as to which is the better picture. Terrence Malick’s spiritual elegance is like a fine wine aging gracefully adding more tastes and flavours with each tasting, leapfrogging over Spielberg’s technical proficiency.

“Saving Private Ryan” is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment


researcher123 said...

Actually, I thought the opening scene at the Normandy American Cemetery was excellent. When you see the French and American flags waving above the cemetery, and then the elderly man walking by the long rows of headstones, you immediately sense that a high price was paid on foreign soil for our freedom. I thought Spielberg was right to start his film at the cemetery and then show the flashback to the chaotic beach landing. It would have been too emotionally draining for us movie goers if he had started out the film by showing the carnage that took place on the beach. Instead, he wisely eased us into it.


Titus Prime said...

Eased us into it? Most "movie goers" in America don't know what country Normandy is in even. I am serious just ask 10 totally random people and see for yourself. I only mention this because Spielberg emotional drivel is horrendous. Creating false images of people suffering loss does not put the loss itself into perspective at all.

I definitely agree that Saving Private Ryan is a damn fine film all in all. After being in the military and serving during the current engagement, it's uncomfortable to watch the opening scene.

The people who consider it genius and so on are right in many ways. But it is not action I see out there and the beach scene brings tears to my eye's long before any hallmark veterans graveyard moment ever could.

This sort of drivel lowers the value of the much better work that truly bring us into the human condition. The audiences have been trained what to expect. Anything deeper is boring for they lack the curiosity that good film, music, art and conversation about them brings to our lives.

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

Alan, you are fast becoming one of my favorite movie bloggers -- you're an excellent and insightful writer. Keep up the good work!

The action sequences in "Saving Private Ryan," for me, are good enough to outweigh what you astutely call the heavy-handed character development. To be frank, I've always disliked that about Spielberg's films. That man can spread cliches and Big, Important Messages like the plague.

This movie always makes me a little sad because I wish I could have seen it with my grandfather. He lived through that scene on Normandy's beaches, and I wonder what he'd have thought of the movie.

Alan Bacchus said...

Hi M Carter:
Thanks for the praise...
I too agree that the action scene outweighs the bad stuff. Three stars is not bad at all. Maybe another half star is deserving? But who's counting anyway. I chose to emphasize what irked me about the film as much as what I liked about it, because that's what jumped out at me this time round. Thanks,

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks Titus and Researcher123, I very much appreciate both your comments.

Unknown said...

I asked my uncle who had been with the landing party if he had seen the film. He told me he had no reason to want to see something like that ever again. That he was happy he couldnt remember much of that time. Just blurs between moments of quiet.

After returning from Iraq, I went to the theatre to see Miami vice with my mother. Within 5 minutes I stood up and left the theatre. I was as close to burssing into tears and throwing up as I have ever been . But for seemingly no reason.

In the first scene a man is blown to meat in his car as he is driving about 1/2 a mile from the shooter. The weapon focused in a long pan back to the shooter was a M107 Barret. .50 cal sniper rifle.

I have intimate relationship with that weapon and never wanted to know the end result of my skills.

Shack Noir said...

Interesting retrospective - I'm in agreement about the 'present-day' aspect feeling clumsy; I certainly cringe every time I watch it. But as you say, it's an action movie at heart, and Spielberg really raised the bar.

Ryan's influence can be seen in many, many films since; Ridley Scott added a lot of the tricks wholesale into his subsequent movies.

Everyone remembers the opening scene of Ryan, plus the stand-off at the end... but one moment that doesn't get mentioned often is the dubious decision on the part of Hank's character to take out the radio tower/machine-gun nest, resulting in a particularly painful loss. The confusion and intensity of that skirmish had me right there on the battlefield with those guys.