Saturday, June 8, 2019

Review: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language

Score: 5 out of 5

I wasn't ready for Saving Private Ryan. I knew this movie by reputation, knowing that it horrified audiences and critics in its day for its harrowing violence and gore, the sort of thing that, back in the old days of Hollywood, existed less in Audie Murphy's movies and more in his PTSD-induced nightmares -- and was still regarded almost immediately as one of the greatest war movies ever made, in large part because of how unflinching it was in its depiction of war. Not a film that, even after Schindler's List, many people would associate with Steven Spielberg, the king of family-friendly blockbusters that may have had some scary elements to them but wouldn't go that far. (To which I say, remember when they opened the Ark of the Covenant?) Make no mistake, there is nothing lightweight about this movie. It is violent in ways normally expected from horror movies, and truth be told, it is pretty damn horrifying. All the better for a personal story about people whose lives have been profoundly changed by war. This isn't a grand-scale epic like The Longest Day or Tora! Tora! Tora!, but an old-fashioned "men on a mission" war movie done with the best special effects that the late '90s could provide, assembled by one of the greatest living filmmakers bringing his A-game, plus outstanding production values and writing that, together, made me feel like I was in the middle of the hell that was Normandy in 1944 right there with these characters. On a deeper level, it's a movie about what we're willing to sacrifice for the values we hold dear, and on a surface level, it's just one of the all-time great action movies. It's not a movie that's meant to get you pumped up or feeling like a badass; it will straight-up kick your ass.

We start with the action, and when it comes to that subject, there's really only one thing a lot of people talk about when it comes to this movie: the first 27 minutes. The portrayal of the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach is still the gold standard for cinematic depictions of World War II, a fiery, graphically violent, muddy trek into the jaws of a meat grinder where we can see precisely what happens when machine guns, artillery, and flamethrowers do what they were built to do against human bodies. When something explodes next to a group of people, we don't see bodies flying; we see body parts accompanied by a pink mist. We see people badly mutilated, clutching what's left of them while they cry out in pain. There is little that is triumphant about the opening scene; the US soldiers eventually break through, but most of them are just glad that that nightmare is over. If that were it, however, then I doubt that the Omaha Beach scene would still be brought up as one of the greatest action scenes in history. The truth is, Spielberg shot the hell out of it. He did an outstanding job capturing the geography of the beach, of the GIs slowly pushing in from the water and towards the German lines, such that the viewer can, at a glance, tell what is going on and how the invasion is progressing without having much dialogue to listen to. He is one of the few directors who's managed to walk the fine line of making "shaky cam" (used by too many hack filmmakers as a shortcut in lieu of crafting good action) work, imitating the look and feel of vintage newsreel footage of the war in order to convey that the characters are in a chaotic situation without letting the action turn incomprehensible. Spielberg repeats the feat of the opening battle sequence throughout the film, from a sniper ambush in a village to a chaotic raid on a German encampment to a final battle at a bridge that matches the D-Day scene in both intensity and brutality, and no matter what, I was enthralled by the action. I can still trace out the flow of the combat of many of those scenes in my head, as Spielberg remembered throughout the film that firmly grounding the geography is one of the best ways to keep viewers invested in the action, especially in a film where figuring out where the enemy is coming from or heading to is an important component of many scenes. During the bridge scene, the Germans' attempt to flank the protagonists, which contributed so much to their increasingly spiraling situation, was such that I could tell you where they were coming from and probably draw it on a piece of paper. There's a reason why so many movies, TV shows, and video games about World War II to this day still lift much of their visual shorthand of the war from this movie.

All of this technical accomplishment, however, would've been for nothing if there weren't an actual story and characters to hang it on. It would've been a fine technical showcase, but one likely remembered as a footnote in Spielberg's career as opposed to a film that should've won Best Picture if not for one of the greatest Oscar snubs of all time. (Of course, Harvey Weinstein was to blame.) Where this movie really takes off is in building a team of men who feel like true brothers in arms, played by a cast comprised of esteemed movie stars, character actors, and rising young talent alike. Tom Hanks leads them as Captain John Miller, a schoolteacher from Pennsylvania turned battle-hardened veteran who's been to North Africa, Italy, and now Normandy. Miller is not an action hero. None of these characters are, really. To be sure, he is a badass who pulls off impressive feats, but he is not a born killer of Nazis; he was an ordinary man living an ordinary life who has been profoundly changed by the war, and wonders if he will ever be able to truly "go home" to his wife even if he survives. The rest of his men are not dissimilar, all of them traumatized by the fighting (one of them, the dorky Upham, straight-up freezes in shock at a critical moment) and questioning the mission they've been sent on, which is to rescue a 101st Airborne paratrooper named James Ryan whose three brothers have all died in combat; the brass didn't want to send Ryan's mother a letter telling her that the war had claimed the lives of all of her sons. The most puzzled of all is Ryan himself, played by Matt Damon as a young farm boy who just wants to do what's right for his country. Learning that his brothers are all dead only motivates Ryan to keep fighting, figuring that his fellow soldiers are the only brothers he has left now and that to abandon them, while they still have a mission to complete, would be an insult. The tension between Ryan and the other men once he's rescued is palatable, the rest of the team wondering what the point was in sending eight soldiers to save one who wasn't critical to the mission, and Ryan himself wondering that as well.

And it's here where the other side of the film comes into play, the story of patriotism and sacrifice in service of a greater good. Miller and his men aren't fighting to save Ryan because it's important to the war effort; they're doing it because that is what they believe is right, to let a mother in Iowa know that at least one of her sons will be okay. Spielberg may have a certain, oft-parodied style when it comes to portraying America and its ideals, but it is a style born from conviction rather than pandering, and it is one that he expertly crafts the film around. The film never flinches from the great loss of life that the war resulted in, and not just in the battle scenes; one hard-hitting moment comes when the team is searching through a pile of dog tags left by fallen soldiers in the hope that Ryan's isn't among them, and the sheer size of the pile soon hits home to everybody, including the viewer. Even at the end, Ryan is left wondering whether their sacrifice was worth it, a feeling that he continued to have even as an old man visiting a cemetery at Normandy over fifty years later. But that "Spielbergian" tone, that which so many critics often dismiss as overly sentimental and even sappy, proves to be this film's secret weapon. It is what keeps this film from sliding from raw and gritty to just plain grim, even as bullets tear through flesh in ways that Eli Roth was probably taking notes on. We are always left with the hope, and more importantly the knowledge imparted by the opening scene, that somebody will make it out alive, and that, in the end, it turned out to be worth it even if the characters themselves are wondering such.

The Bottom Line

This film was close to three hours long, but it never felt like a slog. It is beautiful, haunting, brutal, harrowing, and uplifting all at once, making for one of the all-time great war movies and a top-tier effort from a top-tier director. Whether you're a military nerd who wants to check out all of the historical equipment and attention to detail, an action buff who wants to see some great epic battles, or someone interested in a tale of camaraderie and hope amidst the nightmare of war, this movie earns the recognition it's received as a classic.

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