Saturday, September 20, 2014

Film Review: Saving Private Ryan

"Saving Private Ryan"  **** (out of ****)

Director Steven Spielberg honors the brave in the World War II drama, "Saving Private Ryan" (1998).

As I began watching Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" again, I noticed it is a different war film than the war movies that had been previously released at that time. Many of the war films released prior to Spielberg's film dealt with Vietnam, movies such as Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (1986) and "Born on the 4th of July" (1989) and Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979). Those movies were anti-war. They showed the psychological trauma associated with war. The effects war had on the men; both mentally and physically. Those movies told us war is bad. The government lied to us. War is/was a political action. But, pay attention to how Spielberg presents World War II and how he treats the soldiers.

There is no talk in "Saving Private Ryan" about the government lying to its people or about WW2 being an unnecessary war. Yes, the movie shows startling images. At its time of release the buzz surrounding the picture was the first 25 minutes of the movie as we see soldiers hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day as they are under fierce attack. We see limbs flying off bodies. We see soldiers on fire. Men getting hit with bullets. Spielberg has his camera move at a frantic pace all in an attempt to show the chaos of war. But Spielberg presents these men as heroes. What they did was honorable. World War II was seen as a moral war. The last "good war" this country fought. It was necessary to stop the spread of Fascism and Communism. Remember, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill never said the war was about protecting Jews. It was a war of ideology.

That is the underlying theme of "Saving Private Ryan"; heroism. Spielberg is not interested in controversy. He doesn't want to rock the boat and make a political commentary. He plays it safe, down the middle. The movie has the same attitude, the same spirit as American films made in the 1940s. The American soldier is the guy good. The moral authority. We do the right thing. The American soldier is brave, trustworthy and honorable. Contrast this movie with Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket". Kubrick says war takes away a man's humanity. None of the soldiers in "Saving Private Ryan" are shown as having a lust for blood. None of them are morally corrupt.

I wondered how the opening sequence would affect me seeing this movie a second time. Sixteen years have passed since I last it. Would those images still be as gritty and realistic as I remembered? They were. Spielberg packs a punch. Especially, now that I am older the image of men dying strikes me more. It has a greater emotional effect on me.

These scenes do show the harsh nature of war, it does show what hell these men had to endure but the underlying message beneath showing us these gritty scenes is to make us say or feel, look how brave these men were. Look at what they had to endure. The viewer may watch these scenes and turn their head away because of the violence but it is not showing us these images to push an anti-war agenda. War is tough and these men were brave, that is the message.

When I first saw "Saving Private Ryan" I was 15 years old. At that point in time I was fiercely anti-Spielberg. I had not been a fan of any movie he had made prior to this one. I hadn't seen "Schindler's List" (1993) by 1998, but I never liked any of the old audience favorites; "E.T." (1982), "Jaws" (1975), "Jurassic Park" (1993) or "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc" (1981). Spielberg was nothing more than a hit-maker in my opinion. He was not a "personal" filmmaker. He didn't make stories which injected his personality the way Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen or Ingmar Bergman did. Spielberg seemed to specialize in childhood fantasy pictures and that's fine, but it didn't interest me. "Saving Private Ryan" was the first movie that Spielberg made that caught my attention. I thought here is a director that had something personal to say. It wasn't autobiographical (clearly) but it had a message Spielberg wanted "out there" and I appreciated that and responded to it.

With five years between "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan", Spielberg was positioning himself  to become the filmmaker that brought WW2 to a younger generation. He was going to keep the memory of it alive. He and Tom Hanks would go on to produce a HBO mini-series called "Band of Brothers" (2001) and, not to mention he is the founder of the Shoah Foundation.

Tom Hanks stars in "Saving Private Ryan" as Captain Miller. After leading men to the Normandy Landings, Miller is given his next assignment, straight from Gen. Marshall, assemble a unit to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). Private Ryan had three brothers enlisted in the war. All three died during the Normandy Landings. All three letters will be mailed to their mother on the same day. In order to spare the woman some grief, it is decided the army cannot kill all of her children and must at least allow one of them to return home alive.

Captain Miller and his men; Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Private Reiben (Edward Burns), Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Private Carparzo (Vin Diesel) and Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) are not happy about the mission. Why should they risk their lives to find a man they don't even know. They all have mothers too. Why can't they go home and spare their mother's some grief?

The structure of the film is a bit episodic as they travel from town to town searching for Ryan and encounter other infantries and help out when needed, demonstrating their courage under fire.

One of the most interesting things that happens along the way is they capture a German soldier that has just killed an American. The initial reaction of the unit is to kill the German until one of the soldiers, Corporal Upham, stops the men, telling them it is not right. He surrendered and should be treated as a prisoner of war. They must follow the law. This presents Upham as a Liberal coward. He is acting as the conscience of the group. Trying to make them do the right thing. However, in films and perhaps in society, whenever someone talks about due process, you can pretty much guess they are a Liberal, and here Spielberg, also a Liberal, gets to subtly inject some politics about Americans having the higher moral authority. Although, if you have ever seen a movie before you know the cowardly Liberal will have to be transformed. There must be a scene where he is allowed to "redeem" himself, "act like a man" and kill someone. Don't believe me? Okay, watch "Straw Dogs" (1971), "Full Metal Jacket" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962)  as some examples.

Some criticisms I have for the movie is the beginning and end. Spielberg can't help himself and gives us unnecessary schmaltz. The first image we see is of an older Private Ryan visiting the grave of Captain Miller. Why is this necessary? The movie could have easily started off with the beach landing. But Spielberg must make every attempt to pull at our heartstrings. The last image of the movie is also of Private Ryan, staring at Miller's grave and we see the tombstone of other soldiers. Again, this isn't necessary. If Spielberg felt compelled to add the schmaltz, all he had to do was leave us with the image of the graves of all those dead soldiers and fade to the credits. You didn't need Private Ryan standing there.

My only other complaint, the "last mission" of the movie goes on too long especially since we don't understand the stakes involved. How important is it to secure this territory? This sequence goes on for roughly 40 minutes. Not needed. You could have easily cut it in half.

Still, you have to admit "Saving Private Ryan" is a strong film. It has some good performances but not just from Hanks (who was nominated for an Academy Award) but everyone is given an opportunity to shine. Vin Diesel has a nice moment, Edward Burns has his spotlight moment and Jeremy Davies gets to challenge the viewer with his cowardly, Liberal ways.

What is best about the performances though are they seem sincere. Yes, they are "movie soldiers", so they are a bit more "lively" than you may expect and make smart alec remarks but they aren't reduced to cliches. These characters have individual spirits.

Upon its release the movie was a box-office success grossing more than $400 million dollars. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won five including best director for Spielberg. Some felt it should have won the best picture Oscar as well, but, it lost that year to "Shakespeare in Love" (1998). Although it did win the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama that year and was nominated in four other categories. I even put in on my top ten films of 1998 list, in the number two spot.

If "Schindler's List" didn't prove it, "Saving Private Ryan" helped cement the idea Spielberg is a serious filmmaker. He is capable of tackling serious subject matters and will do them justice. He is not just a childhood fantasy director. "Saving Private Ryan" is a strong film with some very gritty battle scenes and a nice, non-controversial message. It is one of Spielberg's masterpieces and one that seems to have a "timeless" quality to it.