DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
Regarded as one of the best war films ever made, it certainly qualifies. The opening twenty minutes are still as breathtaking, shocking and disturbing realistic as they were back in 1998. It is hard to imagine that it has now been over twelve years since Saving Private Ryan broke the mold of World War II film making.
Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Director for Spielberg, Best Cinematography, and Sound, which was astonishing, even by today’s standards, it failed to win Best Picture, losing out to Shakespeare In Love. Shakespeare In Love! Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film, but easily forgettable compared to Ryan, only proving yet again that if you touch upon the British monarchy you get Oscars.
The film is a fictional account of four brothers, all serving in the U.S. Army, three of which were killed in action on or around the D-Day landings. The fourth, James Ryan played by Matt Damon is somewhere in Europe, and Tom Hanks with his platoon are sent to bring him home, to spare his mother anymore heartache.
Tom Hanks, who was also snubbed at the 1998 Oscars for his perfect performance as Captain Miller, the everyman who was losing himself in the horrors of war, underplayed his role perfectly. He is believable on every level, emotionally, physically and has a sense of subtly with makes him of Hollywood’s greats.
The action is visceral, gritty and horrifying. But never played for crass effect. Scenes of soldiers intestines spilling out, limbs flying asunder and brutal killing left, right and centre are recreated for one purpose. To truly demonstrate the horrors of war, and to change our perceptions of the global conflict which had almost become a joke, a setting for gung- ho action films, where the Yanks reign supreme and single-handedly win the war.
This shows troops crying, hurting and making decisions which should not be made under any moral circumstances, but you understand why, whether you agree or not. There is no doubt that Spielberg is not innocent of making an American film, but it is about as even-handed as you might expect, with the exception of Tora! Tora! Tora! or The Longest Day.
So, the action is first-rate, graphic and perfectly toned to recreate to horror of the last century’s greatest and most of destructive conflicts. But that’s only half the story.
The other half is the talking, reminiscing and the almost sepia tone is more than a little cloying. The U.S. General’s monologues, which seem to consist almost entirely of Lincoln quotations are overly sentimental, erring on the side of sloppy patriotism rather than Jingoism, which is hardly a bad thing but it isn’t good either.
The civilian scenes, such as ‘The Widow Ryan’, washing a plate as she sees the car drive down to road to inform her of her sons deaths are so sentimental that they jar against the realism of the war scenes. It’s not so much contrast as it is as extreme as black and white.
The action is obviously interspersed, as all war films are, with rest stops and moments of talking, pondering etc., but the scenes drag on too long and disrupt the tone of the film. On the other hand, the direction is brilliant when explaining the situations during and around the action, but Spielberg seemed to think that we needed these sloppy and often boring moments, such as The Church, and the outside the cafe in Ramelle, to express the emotional torment of the characters, but I think that these scenes are so boring and pointless that I’ can hardly remember them, as my attention drifts off during them!
But I do have an understanding of the soldiers, and this was achieved, quite adorably without these scenes.
Overall, this is a film of two halves if ever there was one. The battle scenes and the journey through war-torn France are brilliant, gritty and educational, but the scenes of American sentimentality are in danger of derailing the whole film. Many feel that is the best war film of all time. I do not agree, favouring Black Hawk Down over this, but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Blank Hawk Down owes a debt to Saving Private Ryan, by opening the door to the gritty war dramas of the naughties and to the style itself.
This film is one of the most important contributions to cinema ever, and has done so much to finally show to true nature of WWII and war in general. But even though I would rate this 10/10 if it was just for the war scenes, the slop just gets in the way and devalues what should have been perfection.