A Study in Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

19 Apr


When Spielberg made Schindler’s List in 1993, it had such an impact on me that I felt that he could never reach that kind of personal or artistic pinnacle again.  When I saw Saving Private Ryan five years later, I remember that I liked it but it didn’t have the same jangling effect on me that it seemed to have on everyone else.  Oh, I thought it was a great movie, but somehow I wasn’t nearly as excited as those around me.

This attitude changed just the other night when I got a chance to sit and watch the film again with fresh eyes.  I hadn’t seen it since the summer of 1998, and this time I was able to concentrate on its intricate details, on great storytelling brought about by Spielberg’s direction and the screenplay by Robert Rodat.  This time, I feel like I saw the movie without the distraction of expectation.  This is a great successor to Schindler’s List because it takes place in the same world, essentially.

Saving Private Ryan takes place on the other side of the war.  While Schindler’s List dealt with the horrors of the holocaust, this one dealt with the horrors of the American G.I.s who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day and shows us the pure Hell of blood and guts and noise and randomness that went along with it.  The first 25 minutes of this film are a brilliant reconstruction of man-made war at its worst.  There is no movie-style heroism here, no John Wayne heroics, and no brave lads giving their all for Uncle Sam.  Spielberg’s documentary-style approach puts us in the middle of the chaos, in the midst of the noise and the misery of that day.  Spielberg takes out certain shots and edits across several moments at differing speeds to give us the sense of disorientation.  We see soldiers torn apart by bullets and fire.  We see body parts, intestines, men killed for the simple act of being the wrong place at the wrong time.

Spielberg’s goal here, I think, is to overturn the notion of World War II being “The Good War.”  Yes, we won but just like every other war, this one is nasty, ugly, brutal and often propped up on decision making from the top that seems fool hearty and careless.  The central story deals with a platoon led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) to travel into the heart of German territory to find one particular soldier in order to bring him home.  The reason: a P.R. stunt that is noble at heart but questionable in terms of ethics.  A certain Private James Ryan has had all three of his brothers killed in action and the Army wants to spare her from losing her last remaining son.  So Miller and his company have to move into occupied territory to pull him out and bring him home.  The problem: They only have a vague idea where he is.

This could have been a silly, simple-minded action picture, but Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat have thought this story out.  The eight men of Miller’s company question the wisdom of this mission and wonder why they have to risk their necks to same one man on a P.R. stunt.  Miller doesn’t care about the mission, his goal is simply to follow orders and get the job done.  That’s what I love about this film.  It oversteps all the clichés of World War II movies and deals with the subject rationally.  This company of eight men is not seen as colorful, goofy stereotypes but as ordinary men with realistic ideas about war.  The closest to my heart is Corporal Upham, a translator who has been pulled into action because he speaks French and German.  Upham is wet-behind-the-ears and hasn’t seen combat, he admits “I haven’t fired my weapon since basic training.  I think he represents those of us who don’t have the brute strength.  He’s filled with naiveté and idealism, much of which will be washed away by his experience.

The combat scenes here are a reminder of how badly other movies get them wrong.  There is a bold continuity to the chaos.  Yes, combat is random, but we are aware at every moment what is happening, we are aware of the positioning of every soldier in relation to the enemy so that the tension builds not from words, but from the moment.  Spielberg, in these scenes, comments on the action by not making them into big entertainments but into the horror show that they really are.  I was reminded of the chaos and the sadness of seeing All Quiet on the Western Front the story of soldiers in World War I.  Both films do a great job of exposing the realities of a war that isn’t cinematic – it’s a war that you don’t want any part of in terms of heroic fantasy.

I can’t say enough about Saving Private Ryan.  I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the movie when I saw it, but revisiting it again I now understand the glowing response.  This is one the best war movies ever made, one of the best anti-war movies ever made.

The movie would become a sort of turning point.  It was the first time that Spielberg would work with Tom Hanks and it turned out to be a great partnership.  The two have worked together four times and in all four cases, they have done great things together.  Here, Hanks turns in one of the best – if not the best – performances of his career, just as good as his work in Forrest Gump.  Here he plays a man whose body and soul have been deadened by war, but who does his job without regard for personal feelings.  He’s a man who buries his feelings and his insecurities in the rigors of the job.  I’ve always loved Hanks as an actor when he moves out of the Tom Hanks that we are all familiar with.  Here he gives a brilliant performance, and one that stays with me.


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