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