The opening 30 minutes of this film so heavily weighs people’s opinions of it – negatively and positively. Many people 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 bandwagon of Spielberg’s visceral rebooting of the modern ‘war film’. But more than 10 years later it’s interesting to watch the picture again with a more critical eye.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ed Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies
By Alan Bacchus
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 45-degree 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 30 minutes 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 as any ever made. And in my opinion it's 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 controlled rhythm and pace; and c) despite the chaos, Spielberg achieves a sense of geography so that 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 our adrenaline and wits up until the raucous Remmel ending. The scene featuring 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 and bombs aren't 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 they open and close 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 while walking on eggshells and taking quick snap photos, have the subtlety of a bull in a china shop.
The final bookend scene hammers home an overarching journey which attempts to put war, courage and sacrifice into greater perspective 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 D-Day sequence he puts us into the Allied basecamp with General Marshall and the discovery of the deaths of the Ryan brothers, thus causing the mission to save Private Ryan. It’s an awkward transition from the visceral realism of D-Day 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, although not as sickening as these scenes, which 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 film – one of the greatest ever made. It's a film that 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, The Thin Red Line, there’s little doubt about 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.