Saving Private Ryan Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

Omaha Beach, as envisioned by Steven Spielberg

Tuesday, June 6th, 1944. At 6:30am that fateful morning, an initial assault wave landed at Omaha Beach, the first step of the offensive campaign aimed at putting a dent into Hitler's Atlantic Wall: D-Day. This first assault wave included ninety-six tanks, almost fifteen hundred assault infantry, and a task force of engineers to clear the landing area of obstacles. In the hours leading up to the landing, the German shore defenses had been pounded by Allied artillery, naval guns, and aerial bombardments. However, as the first landing craft came within a quarter-mile of shore, it was clear that the enemy fortifications had not been neutralized. Rough seas and poor visibility had hampered the artillery barrages, and overcast conditions increased the margin of error for the bombing runs conducted by the Eighth Air Force Liberators-- many of their bombs hit too far inland. Establishing the beachhead would be much more difficult than originally envisioned.

Assuming that the landing craft were able to make a 'dry landing' without being first taken out by enemy mortars, the infantry immediately found themselves under concentrated small-arms, mortar, and artillery fire from enemy fortifications that covered every part of Omaha Beach. Heavily-loaded with equipment, weakened by seasickness, tired, and disoriented by the pandemonium around them, the disembarking infantry had to move through knee-deep to waist-high water, making them easy targets for the Germans. Upon reaching shore, they then had to cover up to two hundred yards of open beach before reaching any sort of cover. All this while avoiding enemy fire, which was fell thick and fast all around them. Not surprisingly, the heaviest casualties were suffered in the initial half-hour immediately after touchdown-- in some cases, entire Companies were cut down in this seaside slaughter.

Omaha Beach

Others did not fare as well. Some landing craft became grounded on sand bars a hundred yards away from the landing zone, and the infantry found themselves being dragged beneath the water by their heavy loads. And those who did make it to shore found themselves seriously outnumbered and outgunned, with their fellow infantry units landing late or off-target. Even worse, some landing teams found themselves without the benefit of tanks to provide covering fire, another result of the numerous mislandings that occurred that day.

The more men I kill, the further away from home I feel.
Jeremy Davies

It is in this carnage that Steven Spielberg's latest World War II opus "Saving Private Ryan" memorably begins. In this artfully-done soldier's eye view of the initial assault wave, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his men hit Omaha Beach, and many are cut down as soon as the landing ramps are lowered. This initial half-hour sequence, containing some of the most horrendous violence ever committed to film, immediately dispels any preconceived 'romantic' notions about the 'last Great War' and breaks it down into a simple matter of arithmetic-- throw enough men into the maw of the enemy and hopefully enough will survive the slaughter to over-run the enemy defenses. Using specially-designed cameras that mimicked news cameras of the period, a toned-down color palate, and frantic freehand camera-work, Spielberg with the help of his lenser Janusz Kaminski, puts the audience on the beach with the Allies-- you can almost smell the death that permeates the air. And death is not pretty in this film, not sanitized for the benefit of the audience-- war is shown as it truly is, grim and unglamorous, a seemingly futile effort with every inch paid in blood. This opening sequence not only lays a foundation for the questionable moral 'no-mans land' in which Miller and his men find themselves in later, but allows the audience to experience their constant fear-- of being hit by a sniper or being killed by a land mine.

The boy's alive and we're going to send someone to save him... and we are going to get him the hell out of there.
Tom Hanks

Miller and his men survive the Omaha Beach landing, and are immediately pressed into service again. This new mission, to find a lowly private that is missing in the French countryside, is dwarfed in comparison to the magnitude of securing Normandy, but the top brass deem it important enough for Miller and seven of his men to venture deep into enemy territory to retrieve him. In a singular act of compassion, one of the women in the military's typing pool, whilst in the middle of typing hundreds of letters of condolence, notices three men with the same last name and the same home address in her correspondence. Bringing this to the attention of her commanding officer, the three men are brothers, all recently killed in action, two of them at Omaha Beach. The third brother, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon of "Good Will Hunting") is a paratrooper that is lost somewhere in France, and General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) orders that Private Ryan be found and brought home to his grieving mother. Thus, Miller gathers up his troops to find this lost soldier, despite his own reservations of such a foolhardy mission. Along for the mission are his loyal sergeant and friend Horvath (Tom Sizemore), a cynical New Yorker who openly questions the merit of such a mission (Edward Burns, writer/director of "The Brothers McMullen"), and a naive translator who's never endured combat (Jeremy Davies). Their search for Private Ryan takes them deep into enemy territory, where they come across pockets of German resistance, families displaced by the fighting, brushes with moral depravity, and a defiant stand against an almost unstoppable onslaught of German infantry and mechanized units amidst the skeletal remains of a town.

We're not here to do the decent thing-- we're here to follow fucking orders.
Amidst an amoral no-mans-land

Miller is not on a mission to save the world, or even to turn the tide of war for that matter. He is on a mission to save a single man, risking his own life, and the lives of his men, an act that requires just as much courage and faith, if not more. Miller and his men are seen debating the merits of such a mission, and it seems that this is a central theme of this elaborately-constructed narrative. "Saving Private Ryan" seems to celebrate the singular acts of human decency by its characters, despite the difficulties that discourage them from doing so. There are numerous selfless acts portrayed in the film-- the woman in the typing pool taking time to inform the top brass of the three Ryan deaths, Miller and his men searching for the Private Ryan, Miller's medic re-transcribing a bloodied letter pulled from a fallen comrade, and mercy being shown to a prisoner of war. However, this central message becomes muddled as the film progresses, as each of these singular acts of human decency fail to achieve the desired outcome, or achieve them at a very high price. In essence, the development of the story fails to take into consideration the thematic underpinnings to Miller's search, if any. What is Spielberg's thesis? It is unclear... and a missed opportunity.

I just don't have a good feeling about this one.
When was the last time you felt good about anything?
Matt Damon

Despite the weak thematic development in the film, it is compensated by the film's unforgettable visceral elements. With attention to detail in realistically portraying the Second World War (even the rifles used in the film were bought from gun collectors), the surrealistic pauses in the heat of battle, the jarring camera work that sustains the edgy atmosphere of the story, and the complex epic-scale battle scenes, Spielberg has created a devastating assault on the senses. Come Oscar nomination time, the sheer power of the scenes that Spielberg has crafted is sure to be remembered.

This Ryan had better be worth it-- he better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb.

Likewise, performances from the cast, which includes the likes of Ted Danson and Dennis Farina in supporting roles, are strong without falling into the tiresome cliches of the archetypal war film. Hanks delivers a strong performance as a middle-class school teacher that tries to distance himself from the horror and the vicious acts that he must commit in the name of self-preservation. Sizemore effectively conveys the ideals of friendship and loyalty in his role as Miller's second-in-command. Burns does well in his devil's advocate role, and Davies is believable as the timid novice who retreats in fear as the violence closes in around him. And though Matt Damon is given little to work with in the title role, he still manages to impress.

To me sir, this mission is a serious misallocation of valuable military resources.

"Saving Private Ryan", despite being weak and muddled thematically, is a powerful piece of work, and rivals his earlier "Schindler's List" as one of his best, most gripping, and most thought-provoking motion picture. This memorable and moving experience is not one to be missed.

Where's the sense of risking eight lives for one guy?

Images courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures. All rights reserved.

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