Saving Private Ryan

(USA 1998)
Rated R

Starring:
Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies and Matt Damon

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writing credits: Robert Rodat

Dreamworks/Paramount * 168 minutes

 

Steven Spielberg is arguably the only baby-boom generation director who could have pulled off a World War II drama that does not celebrate the Last Great War. That he has managed to do so without incurring the ire of flag-waving politicians who themselves have never served, let alone the actual veterans of that war, is amazing. Spielberg's latest effort is the voice of a generation, now old enough to understand, saying "I get it now, Dad."

In SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, Spielberg once again proves that he is in fact a filmmaker-artist, not merely a commercial hack. While not the Great Film is has been touted as, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is an Important Film, in that it manages to question the very concept of war itself without making a political statement about a particular war.

One of the reasons we in the baby boom generation have been loath to acknowledge the debt we owe to our fathers' sacrifice is that World War II was never accurately presented to us, neither by our fathers nor by the mass media. When I think of WWII movies, I think of John Wayne -- always courageous, never afraid. I think of American soldiers always victorious. I think of enemy soldiers who are notoriously bad shots -- an image carried over into good guy-bad guy films even today. I think of clean wounds and noble deaths. In their well-intentioned portrayals of the glory of the Allied victory, filmmakers have done the men who actually fought that war a disservice. "You kids don't appreciate what we did for you in the war..." became the veterans' mantra, which fell upon the deaf ears of their children. No, we didn't appreciate it...because they, scarred by their own experiences, were unable to convey them adequately, and those who tried to tell the story for them were politically unable to convey them properly.

When we protested the Vietnam war, we knew that sending young men to die horribly because of the political disagreements of national leaders seemed somehow absurd -- a silly and futile way to solve political problems. When the goal of such a war was ill-defined, as was Vietnam, it was even more silly and futile. Yet we too were unable to adequately articulate this idea, further widening the schism between us and our veteran fathers.

While not the only film this year to attempt to set the record right, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is the first, and is an achievement for which we can all, particularly WWII veterans, be grateful. For it manages to truly convey the individual horrors experienced by the men who fight, without denigrating their sacrifice.

The story, in which a squadron of soldiers, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is sent to find and return the last surviving brother (Matt Damon) of an Iowa family, is not important. The film's power is in its much-criticized graphic portrayal of what really happens to human bodies in warfare. It should, and does, make us ask serious questions about when such tactics are worthy. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is amazing. Use of the hand-held camera and varying film speeds creates a strobe-like, surreal effect in the battle scenes. Blood splashes onto the camera, giving the scenes a documentary feel. And while the graphic gore -- yards and yards of intestines spilling out of a soldier's wounds, a severed arm carried by its owner through the battlefield -- has been called pornographic, it is not merely gratuitous, but acts in service of the film's message, and is therefore appropriate.

Spielberg is to be commended in that he avoids many of the clichés of war movies. The enemy soldiers are virtually indistinguishable from the Americans, rather than the cartoon bad guys to which we are accustomed. There is no character (the one who invariably is killed) with the photo of the girl back home. And while the obligatory Jewish Guy, the obligatory Brooklyn Guy, and the obligatory Sensitive Sweet Intellectual Kid (Jeremy Davies, looking eerily like a grown-up Henry Thomas of E.T. fame) are present, they fit into the story and are drawn subtly enough that they do not seem like the war clichés they are.

The performances are almost uniformly excellent. The cast of relative unknowns (with the exception of Hanks and Damon) perfectly portray the bravado/fear of young soldiers. Unlike earlier WWII films, these guys are kids, and they look like kids. Hanks is again excellent, in a subtle portrayal of a military officer who is as frightened and emotionally damaged as any of his grunts -- without sacrificing leadership and strength. Hanks is beginning to lose that boyish quality, and the hard set of his jaw in this film promises a stellar body of work to come as his roles grow ever more sophisticated. The only weak link is Matt Damon as the eponymous James Ryan. Here he reprises his Boston Southie cigarette-puffing tough guy, this time by way of Iowa. Yet he somehow fails to compensate for the shortcomings of the script, in which Ryan is insufficiently written to make the viewer feel he is worth the lives of the better-drawn characters who die in the effort to find him. Minus the killer haircut he sported in GOOD WILL HUNTING, he still has those fabulous teeth, and when he flashes them in a grin, his presence screams "movie star" -- a jarring note in this context.

Spielberg continues to top himself with each film. However, he again succumbs to his need to beat his point into the viewer with a sledgehammer. Instead of allowing the inherent power of a visual image (in this case, the morphed-into-old-age Ryan standing in a cemetery of white crosses) speak for itself, he insists on having the character speak some inane lines -- just to be sure we "get it." Steven, we get it.

- Jill Cozzi

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN official site

 

 

 

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