Directed by: Steven Spielberg || Produced by: Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn, Steven Spielberg
Written by: Robert Rodat || Starring: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi
Music by: John Williams || Cinematography by: Janusz Kaminski || Editing by: Michael Kahn || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 169 minutes
A true work of filmmaking ingenuity, spearheaded by perhaps the best opening scene in all of cinema, Steven Spielberg crafts his greatest film yet in the World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan. No other war film comes close to matching the thrill of this tale of self-sacrifice and the crossroads of right and wrong. Few movies, based on wars or not, tackle their emotional themes in such personal and visceral style as SPR. Spielberg perfects his classical blockbuster filmmaking style with perhaps his most mature film yet.
Ryan’s opening scene is as powerful and memorable as Scarface’s (1983) climax. Like that gangster ending, Ryan’s beginning is so well shot that it is mind-boggling. The viewer feels like they are charging the beaches of Normandy as Nazi defenses rain bullets down upon them. The invasion is fast-paced, breathtaking, and absolutely brutal. More so than any other film in his long and storied career, SPR showcases the incredible direction and camerawork that Spielberg can deliver. He shoots one of the most gruesome battles in human history, tackling a setting that consumed human lives by the thousands, but he films it with the awe and effect of a massive blockbuster, all the while keeping the tone as deadly serious as the setting and never once making the charge feel over-the-top.
The now trademark violence and sheer graphic nature of SPR is done neither for cheap, exploitation purposes, nor does it serve primarily to portray the horrifying conditions of combat in humanity’s greatest war (although it certainly does do that as well), but rather to establish the film’s grit and violent tone. Right from the get-go, we are greeted with images of Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, and other soldier’s grimy, dirty faces, the visuals of sea water splashing over the sides of amphibious armored vehicles, one soldier vomiting his guts from sheer nerves (as the others wearily sidestep the throw-up), and then finally, the dropping of the vehicle’s gates and the wave of German machine gun fire that mows down the first wave of troops with shocking ease, hot bullets piercing body, armor, blood, and bone.
The action only gets worse as Hanks and Sizemore yell for everybody to bail over the side while Nazi defenses continue to rain down lead death from the beach. The unforgettable images and audio FX of the soldiers plunging into the cold Atlantic, the muffled sound as bodies struggle underwater while machine gun rounds penetrate the shallow depths, turning the water red, rifles and bloodied helmets sinking to the ocean floor, and finally the jarring effect of Hanks and another US soldier (Sizemore?) desperately hauling each other to the beach as the tide repeatedly sucks them below the surface… are cinematic memories that will burn their way into your brain whether you want them to or not.
The fact that even the dialogue stands out in one of the greatest battles in film history is a testament to the legendary directing skill of Spielberg, as well as the sound design talent of his team. After only about ten minutes of screen-time, most of which has consisted of shooting, screaming, ripping body parts, and violent explosions, we’ve already established the personalities and military roles for most of our cast. How’s that for efficient filmmaking?
Spielberg has never been, nor is he now, a director who has sought to design narratives that challenged the archetypal style of cinematic storytelling. He has never come close to imitating or influencing the more unconventional directorial techniques of filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock, or Martin Scorsese. He has long established himself as the archetypal blockbuster auteur who, along with George Lucas, inspired the likes of James Cameron, J. J. Abrams, Michael Bay, Joss Whedon, Christopher Nolan, Robert Zemeckis, and similar modern blockbuster director. Spielberg’s films, at least all of his major ones as far as I know, are defined by character-driven narratives built around a relatable main character or hero. If this sounds formulaic, that’s because it is — this “hero’s journey” structure encompasses well over 90% of the global motion picture body of work, as well as most stories ever told by humans.
Though Spielberg never ventured far from the relative safety of traditional storytelling structure, he is hardly a one-trick pony with regards to genre success. He is no stranger to directing films with different tones and diegetical backgrounds from one year to the next. From Jaws (1975) to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) to Indiana Jones (1981, 1984, 1989) to Empire of the Sun (1987) to Schindler’s List (1993) to Jurassic Park (1993) to Minority Report (2002) and many others in between, Steven Spielberg has done it all with regards to genres of narrative filmmaking.
SPR is his greatest film out of a long line of outstanding work because it channels this straightforward, protagonist-driven story better than any of his other films. While the matter of this screenplay’s prowess compared to the rest of Spielberg’s directorial efforts comes down to splitting hairs, the direction of this original band of brothers blows that of Jurassic Park, Jaws, E.T., and even Schindler’s List out of the water. The focus in the calm moments of reflection, and the jaw-dropping scope and attention to detail in every set-piece are like nothing else in the rest of Spielberg’s filmography, and put all action scenes of other war films beneath this WWII epic. The special FX done in master alone are astounding. This is by far Spielberg’s best directorial effort.
As for the screenplay itself, all the characters feel real, have likable personalities, and are memorable. The team dynamic of Hank’s squad plays out beautifully at every point of the adventure, from the harrowing charge up the beaches of Nazi-occupied France until the squad’s last stand in a war-torn village, fighting to the last man as German forces close in all around them.
The last major thing to discuss is the outstanding finale to our team’s mission to save Private Ryan (Matt Damon). While unable to hold a candle to the D-Day scene (how unforgivable), the differences in quality are, again, like splitting hairs. What’s great is that both could not feel more different, as both scenes take place in different contexts and give us contrasting strategic perspectives on war combat. Unlike the action at Omaha Beach, here in the film’s climax, we follow Hanks as his team assumes the defensive position and lay in wait to ambush their enemy; this time they are the outnumbered ones. Intense close-quarters-combat is the main feature of this finale, and Spielberg weaves the camera in and out of the lead-infused action, giving us just the right amount of time to breathe before plunging us back into each firefight. We see all perspectives of Hanks’ squad members interspersed throughout the battlefield. It’s every bit as thrilling to watch Hanks, Edward Burns, and Matt Damon gun down Nazis on the ground as it is to zoom through the scope of Barry Pepper’s sniper rifle as he sends soldiers of the Third Reich to heaven with a hallowed recalling of Scripture. The battle peaks in waves, the tide of each side surges back and forth, and the ending leaves you exhausted in the most satisfying way imaginable.
As far as the basics go, Saving Private Ryan is beautifully written, wonderfully paced, boasts dialogue that is natural and provides plenty of comic relief, and Spielberg’s direction places you right in the center of earth’s greatest conflict. There is no other war film like this on any scale.
In the end, SPR will probably be remembered most for its iconic opening and its infamous loss at the Academy Awards to Shakespeare in Love (1998), but despite that, Spielberg’s masterpiece far outlives its Oscar competition and shines as a beautiful example of human art and victory in the darkest of settings. Moreover, it epitomizes the emotional power and technical skill of Spielberg’s blockbuster style, built upon one of the greatest collections of special FX-extravaganzas in cinematic history, as well as a dedication to classical character-driven storytelling.
SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATION: Saving Private Ryan demonstrates Steven Spielberg’s utter command of classical storytelling and bombastic, epic set-pieces while further elaborating his maturation as a filmmaker into darker, adult subject matter. He creates one of, if not the greatest opening scene in movie history, and brings out one of Tom Hank’s finest performances.
— However… Ryan’s color-palette is washed out and relatively one-note. Bring a barf-bag for the first twenty minutes.
—> Saving Private Ryan receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? Vin Diesel is in this movie of all people. Did you know that?