Saving Private Ryan (15)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Edward Burns

You must have heard of it- Speilberg doesn't make films he makes Movie Events! I resisted seeing this film for a while, as if you have heard of it, no doubt you have heard of the extremely realistic violence of the beach landings as many soldiers became cannon fodder in a badly planned invasion. I am not a huge war films fan, and while I loved Schindler's List, I was apprehensive, worried that it would be a pornographically violent manipulation of the audience's senses. However, I suppose forewarned is forearmed. Yes those opening scenes of the US soldiers attacking a beach in Northern France were unlike any seen in film, but once again Spielberg pulls it off. Realistic and harrowing as the opening 20 minutes or so is, I didn't find it too much generally. A few scenes were a bit extreme, but I can't say whether it was completely authentic. I am sure Speilberg did his research, but I am equally sure he wanted to go as far as possible in the shocking reality of war.

The film is roughly divided into four parts. We open with an old war veteran at a war cemetry with his family- which is also the epilogue to the film. The film proper begins with the platoon of soldiers led by Captain Miller(Hanks) as they approach a beach. Then the chaos begins as they are picked off one by one by the German guns. Corpses pile up before Hanks and co. begin to find safety and launch their attack on the German guns. While the US soldiers die around them, the American treatment of the Germans they capture is just as vicious- this is war.
The next section has Hanks' platoon go on a strange assignment. Private James Ryan's three brothers have all been killed within a few days of each other, and the US army decided his mother has suffered enough and want him brought home. Hanks' team have the job of locating and retreiving him. Along the way they meet various obstacles and have further encounters with enemies and allies.
The next section is when Ryan is found. He refuses to leave his fellow soldiers as they have a crucial assignment to defend a bridge to prevent German tanks passing. Hanks and his team join with Ryan's in an even longer battle section.

Spielberg seems only to make epics these days, and singlehandedly has revived interest in war films. What he does very well is to remind the audience of the horror of war. The violence of a bullet in the belly hasn't been as graphically shown since Reservoir Dogs. Life is cheap, but Spielberg shows us that every life has value. No heroic and painless looking slump to the floor on this film. We get the blood and guts and the panic of the dying men. As the world wars get further away and the survivors age and die, it is crucial that the sacrife of the men and women who died is not forgotten. Someone like Spielberg has the influence to do this.
I also found it interesting to see how the German's are portrayed. I would imaging that with this film and Schindler's List, he is reminding the German people of their past rather painfully. However, there are no stereotyped Nazi's here. We only really hear from one German in the film- a prisoner who is manning a machine gun that the team capture. One of the US soldiers dies in the attack and the others want to execute him. In other scenes, we see Germans shot while trying to surrender and they die just as graphically as the Americans. They are merely the enemy, after victory just like the Americans.(Note- not the British or French- this is very much a US film, and this was a very sore point here amongst the many British soldiers who have seen the film.)
I preferred Tom Hanks when he as funny, and I don't think he is the greatest actor in the world, although when he waves that Oscar statue next March he will probably be lauded as such. He was very good in this film- he has become the first choice as the ordinary guy in extra ordinary situations. He is a sympathetic and likeable actor, and a perfect central character. Humane but determined, and thankfully with not too many patriotic and sentimental speeches. He has won 2 Oscars already though, and I really don't think he is so outstanding that he deserves 3- which would make him the biggest winner I think. He will probably win and be declared the greatest ever- and this will not be true. (Rant over).
However, the acting is uniformly excellent particularly from Hanks' group. All the characters are well drawn and distinct, and we feel their deaths- well its not giving too much away to say many of they die. Matt Damon really has a rather small role, and our sympathies are definitely with the other soldiers rather than him.
I found the structure of the film a little strange. The end battle was over long and got a bit repetitive, and the actual hunt for Ryan could also have been shorter. I am also curious to know whether something as sentimental as this really would happen- one soldier searched for and sent home from occupied France. However, Spielberg's greatest strength has always been as a storyteller, and personally I liked this aspect. While the film will be remembered for its action sequences, I liked the drama and reality of the characters and their dire situation. The young and inexperienced translator who had no combat training, the medic with his stories of home, the cocky macho soldier, the shocked pilot who had crash landed killing a high ranking officer. Expertly done by an old hand at telling stories.

I read a quote somewhere about Spielberg. It went, his films don't make you think, they make you feel. I think this is very true. Certainly while you are in the cinema, both this film and Schindler's List were emotionally engrossing and shocking to the senses, but later you may wonder if the holocaust was really that upbeat and the battle in northern France was OK because Private Ryan got saved. Alright, it is a bit of a generalisation but I think it is true to say Spielberg appeals to the emotions. While he does it as well as in this film then I am not complaining. This is a fine film, and does deserve its success. In these days of heartless and brainless action shoot 'em ups, it is good that one of the biggest box office successes reminds people of the value of life and the painful reality of war.
I wish Spielberg had included a slightly more balanced view of the other allies who fought. The British and other allied soldiers who died played an equally important role, and a disparaging remark about Montgomery is the only mention of British forces in the whole film. The sequences with the old soldier at the start and finish were typically sentimental, and less effective I felt, than the similar part of Schindler's List. But niggles aside, this is a film that will probably clean up at the Oscars next year, and good luck to it. (Apart from Tom Hanks!) 8.5/10.

September 1998

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