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Saving Private Ryan

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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Saving Private Ryan is as disturbing a portrayal of war as has ever been committed to celluloid. The movie gets off to an uncertain start that veers toward sentimentality as the camera follows a war veteran through a military cemetery. But then, in the next scene, we're in a landing craft headed for Omaha Beach--the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Normandy Invasion. No macho-man heroics here. As the bombs spray salt water and machine gun bullets whiz overhead, the soldiers hunker down in the landing craft. Some are so nervous they're shaking. Others throw up. As the landing craft hits the beach and the gate drops, German machine guns mow down the soldiers before they can get past the gate. Soldiers leap over the sides and into the sea, but the machine gun bullets pierce the water and find their targets. Soon the waves are blood red. With little or no air support, the soldiers stand little chance.

Director Steven Spielberg presents this violence with an unflinching attitude. The chaos on the beach is conveyed with an overpowering sense of despair and loss and confusion. Bullets rip into helmets and soldiers crumble. Bullets rip through long-dead soldiers. Bombs blow soldiers to pieces. One soldier stops to pick up his arm and then he runs for a medic.

For Spielberg, war isn't about heroic action, although Saving Private Ryan arguably contains several war heroes. Foremost, it's a movie about regular men and what they are capable of accomplishing in extraordinary times. Instead of giving us larger-than-life characters, Spielberg gives us characters who are disturbed by what they've seen on the battlefield. They're tired, wet, and confused. Most of them haven't been able to sleep for several days. They just want to go home, but they have jobs to do. Instead of giving us war as a tactical maneuver, Spielberg gives us war as human experience.

This time around, Spielberg has thrown away his storyboards in favor of a more spontaneous approach. Hand-held cameras help pull us into the horror of the beach invasion--as if we're watching newsreel cameramen as they follow the soldiers. In addition, all the action is shot on desaturated film stock with little color. The results impart a gritty realism, with explosions so crisp you'll be tempted to duck for cover.

The story gives us Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) as the central character. In the ensuing chaos of Omaha Beach, he rallies the soldiers after the original tactical plans have been shot to hell. Against overwhelming odds, he leads his men to destroy the German machine gun bunkers. In the past, he had been able to rationalize sending men into battle because he considered that he saved lives in the long run. "For each man, I saved 10 lives, maybe 20," he says. But now, he has a new mission--from General Marshall himself: to find Private James Ryan, who parachuted in 15 miles behind enemy lines, and bring him back to safety.

Private Ryan's three brothers were all recently killed in battle, and in a sympathetic gesture to the mother of the boys, the military plans on returning home her one remaining son. However, now the soldier is the mission. Why is one man worth risking the lives of eight men? Why is his life worth more than their own?

All the men in his command begin to question the mission. Tom Sizemore plays Sergeant Horvath (everyone calls him "Sarge"). He knows more about Captain Miller than anyone else, but he doesn't know what the Captain did before the war. Edward Burns (who directed and starred in The Brothers McMullen) stars as a wisecracking New Yorker who resents the mission. Jeremy Davies (who starred in Spanking the Monkey) plays a young interpreter with no battle experience who gets assigned to accompany the mission. Barry Pepper plays an expert marksman who can pick a fly off a wall at 100 yards. In addition, in small supporting roles, you'll also find Dennis Farrina (as Lt. Colonel Anderson) and Ted Danson (as Captain Hamill).

Much of Saving Private Ryan's effect comes from the excellent performance by Tom Hanks. He's clearly not playing an action movie hero. Captain Miller is disturbed by what he has seen. As a result, his right hand shakes uncontrollably. But he's a by-the-book officer, who always follows his orders. He distances himself from the men in his command by never talking about himself. Therefore, the soldiers have a $500 pot for anyone who finds out about the Captain's pre-war vocation.

In the past, Spielberg might have painted this mission as a great adventure story. But he's not so sure anymore. The mission to bring back a mother's last-surviving son is certainly an honorable quest, but it's also a rather foolish one that immediately puts the lives of several soldiers in great jeopardy.

Saving Private Ryan may very well be the best movie of Spielberg's career. But to label the movie as simply an "anti-war" movie is somewhat deceptive. Spielberg doesn't actually question the necessity of war. This is after all the war that freed Europe from Nazism and the horrors that Spielberg recorded in his Schindler's List. Spielberg's real interest lay elsewhere: he wants us to understand the effect that war had upon the psyches of the men who endured its battles, he wants us to appreciate the great sacrifice (that's the key word here, "sacrifice") that the soldiers made for their country, and he wants us to experience some of that brutality and carnage so that we can better appreciate what they endured. Other movies have ventured into this territory before: Sam Fuller's Steel Helmet (1951) and Lewis Milestone's A Walk in the Sun (1945) come to mind. But no one has ever presented a more disturbing and horrific vision of war than Spielberg does in Saving Private Ryan. This movie is a masterpiece.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]

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