Saving Private Ryan (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Devastating. If, for some reason, I was asked to write a one-word review of Saving Private Ryan, that would be the term I would use. As was true of director Steven Spielberg's other masterpiece, Schindler's List, the impact of this motion picture must be experienced; it cannot be adequately described. No film since last year's The Sweet Hereafter has left such a searing and indelible imprint on my mind and soul. This movie did not need to be released at the end of the year to be considered for a flood of Oscar nominations; it's so forceful that no one who sees it will be able to forget it -- not even Academy members with two-month memory spans.

Saving Private Ryan opens with a 30-minute cinematic tour de force that is without a doubt one of the finest half-hours ever committed to film. This sequence, a soldier's-eye view of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, is brilliant not only in terms of technique but in the depth of viewer reaction it generates. It is certainly the most violent, gory, visceral depiction of war that I have ever witnessed on screen. Spielberg spares the viewer nothing of the horrors of battle, using every tactic at his disposal to convey the chaos and senseless waste that lies at the core of any engagement. We are presented with unforgettable, bloody images of bodies being cut to pieces by bullets, limbs blown off, entrails spilling out, and a variety of other assorted examples of carnage. And, when the tide comes in with the waves breaking on the body-strewn beach, the water is crimson. Those who are at all squeamish will find the opening of Saving Private Ryan unbearable. This aspect of the film almost earned it an NC-17 rating; only the fact that Spielberg rigorously avoids even a hint of exploitation convinced the MPAA to award an R.

In addition to showing what happens when projectiles rip into the soft flesh of the human body, the director employs other methods to capture the essence of battle - hand-held cameras, a slight speeding up of the images, muted colors, and several different kinds of film stock. Put it all together, and it adds up to a dizzying, exhausting assault on the senses. As good as the rest of Saving Private Ryan is, and it's very good, the D-Day attack on Omaha Beach is the sequence that everyone will remember most clearly.

Most World War II movies fall into one of two categories: heroic tales of glory and valor or biopics (my all-time favorite film, Patton, falls in the latter camp). Saving Private Ryan is neither. Instead, it's a condemnation of war wrapped in a tale of human courage and sacrifice. In many ways, the picture painted by this movie is more grim than the one Oliver Stone presented in Platoon, which has often been cited as the most daring anti-war film to come out of Hollywood. Saving Private Ryan quickly and brutally dispels the notion that war is anything but vicious, demoralizing violence that makes a cruel joke out of the human body and spirit. Although the film is only loosely based on a true incident, it's hard not to accept these characters and events as real.

Saving Private Ryan begins with a short sequence in modern-day France that shows one man visiting a particular grave in the sea of white crosses that marks the memorial to those who died liberating the country. From there, the film slips more than five decades back in time, to June 6, 1944. The D-Day invasion at "Bloody Omaha" Beach forms a prologue to the main story. Following the opening half-hour sequence, we learn that two of the four Ryan brothers died in this action, while a third perished elsewhere. The mother is receiving all three telegrams on the same day. The U.S. army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell), is stirred by the grief-stricken woman's plight, and decides to send a group of men into the French countryside to find and rescue the fourth son, paratrooper Private James Ryan (Matt Damon).

Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), a hero and survivor of the Omaha Beach battle, is chosen to lead the team of eight men whose goal is, in Miller's words, like finding "a needle in a stack of needles." His hand-picked team includes six men who have served with him throughout the war and one newcomer: Upham (Jeremy Davies), a French/German/English translator who has never seen active combat. Together, they strike out across the French countryside, heading in the general direction of Cherbourg. Along the way, they learn that skirmishes in small towns can be as deadly as the attack on the beach.

There's nothing especially complex about the structure of Saving Private Ryan. The film, which runs nearly three hours, is bookended by two major battle scenes. In between, smaller fights alternate with quiet, character-building moments that flesh out the soldiers, allowing them to escape the threat of stereotyping. Spielberg, along with writer Robert Rodat and the actors, ensures that everyone in the movie is developed into a multi-dimensional individual for whom we can grieve if and when they die. They are "citizen soldiers" -- ordinary men caught in the teeth of extraordinary circumstances. With the exception of a little manipulation at the end (when tears are actually a welcome source of relief from the film's intensity), Saving Private Ryan rigorously avoids toying with our emotions.

Although this is not Tom Hanks' highest-profile role, it is one of his best performances. His portrayal of John Miller is the perfect mix of war-weariness, resignation, and a devotion to duty. The teacher-turned-killer, who has lost 94 men in assorted battles from Africa to France, survives the madness by recalling special memories of his wife pruning rose bushes, while worrying that she will not recognize the husband who returns to her, because, "With every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel."

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Edward Burns' Reiben uses cynicism and sarcasm to hide his uncertainty about the validity of his latest mission. Like the others in the group, he isn't sure whether saving one man's life is worth risking eight others. Burns, the actor/director who entered the public's awareness after making The Brothers McMullen, turns in a fine performance. Jeremy Davies (Spanking the Monkey) makes Upham a believable figure whose horror at the sudden onslaught of trauma and violence is something almost everyone in the audience will relate to. Matt Damon, who exploded into the spotlight with The Rainmaker and Good Will Hunting, is solid in a role that calls for the character to be as much a symbol as an individual. Finally, perhaps the best secondary performance is given by Tom Sizemore (The Relic), whose portrayal of Miller's faithful friend and sergeant is vivid and engaging.

Spielberg's meticulous period detail effectively re-creates the war-torn countryside of occupied France. The American soldiers visit two bombed-out towns where all that remains standing are the half-shattered husks of once-impressive structures. Many of the weapons that appear in Saving Private Ryan are authentic period pieces, bought from collectors. And, following the successful landing at Normandy, we are treated to a spectacular panorama of the beach, with a variety of mighty ships anchored offshore and the sky thick with blimps. Even though the Omaha Beach sequences were filmed in Ireland, they nevertheless offer a sense of verisimilitude that those familiar with the actual place on the English Channel shore will find hard to dispel.

With Saving Private Ryan set alongside Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg, once known as a purveyor of well-crafted-but-lightweight feel-good fare, has given us two of the decade's most gripping, disturbing, and powerful motion pictures. I consider Schindler's List to be one of the most amazing movies I have ever experienced, and, in many ways, Saving Private Ryan is its equal. Although both films take place during the same time period, they focus on different ideas. Schindler's List personifies good (Schindler) and evil (Amon Goeth), and plays out the struggle against a tragic backdrop. In Saving Private Ryan, there are no human villains, and the enemy isn't so much the Germans as it is the implacable, destructive specter of war. The film's central question (When is one life more important than another?) is never really answered. For those who are willing to brave the movie's shocking and unforgettable images, Saving Private Ryan offers a singular motion picture experience. I will be surprised if another film tops it for the best of 1998.

Saving Private Ryan (United States, 1998)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1998
Run Time: 2:50
U.S. Release Date: 1998-07-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: WAR
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1