Saving Private Ryan

Important movie making at it's most powerful, but where are the Brits?

Released in 1998, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 07 Jan 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Private Ryan is brutal. If you are squeamish in the least you will have difficulty coping with this film, as it pulls absolutely no punches in it's depiction of warfare. People are blown apart by explosives, shot point-blank in the face, and grown men die with their innards hanging out, screaming for their mothers. Even for a supposedly 'desensitised' audience it is a difficult watch for exactly the same reason that it should be watched. There is a very good reason the BBFC passed this movie uncut with a 15 certificate, and that reason is that we owe it to our ancestors, the men who died on both sides during World War Two, to understand exactly what they went through and the sacrifices they made. Private Ryan is as close as any film has come to conveying the sheer enormity of sacrifice made by the selfless many, and as such it is a phenomenally important piece of work. However, it is not without it's flaws...

Ask anyone about this film and their immediate recollection will be the beach landings of Normandy. Within minutes of the film's opening we are in the landing craft approaching the beaches of France, and find ourselves hurtled through what is undoubtedly the most intense opening twenty minutes of any film ever. Words cannot describe adequately the emotion of the sequence, suffice to say upon my first viewing early one morning my cornflakes had turned to untouched mush by the time the Bosch are abandoning their flip-flops. It's a potent beginning and I challenge anyone not to feel upset in some sense. It blows the mind to think that the scale of what we see occurred tenfold in real life.

The beaches cleared, the story kicks off proper. We learn of Private James Ryan, only survivor of several brothers who stormed the beaches. Concern is aired when it transpires his mother will receive all of the condolence letters on the same day, and the decision is made to remove Jimmy Ryan from any further involvement in the conflict. The only problem is that nobody really knows where he is, since his parachute drop behind lines has gone somewhat astray. Hence a group of landing veterans is assembled, headed by Tom Hanks as Captain John H. Miller, to locate and extract the whippersnapper before Mamma Ryan gets a fourth letter.

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Here we have the film's emotional core, and to an extent it works well; a single act of humanity in the midst of the most ferocious and inhumane conflict of all time. For the most part it's quite moving, but the seams come unstuck when, as always, Spielberg can't resist treating the subject with an unnecessary amount of schmaltz. It's really quite annoying, as in less sentimental hands these portions of the film would have worked substantially more effectively. As it stands they are an almost forgivable distraction from the surrounding action, of which there is plenty.

The cast are uniformly impressive, particularly the younger, lesser-known members, and Hanks turns in another fine performance as an Everyman under the most extraordinary pressures. Hell, even Vin Diesel manages a fine attempt at being a slightly dumb, fool-hardy young Amer...oh, hang on... While not entirely naturalistic, the turn given by the majority of the cast strikes a suitable balance that bolsters the film well and gives the viewer a good grounding in understanding how these men reacted to the horrific situations in which they found themselves. Unusually for an American movie of this ilk there is even a half-hearted attempt at understanding the enemy, embodied for the most part by a superb Joerg Stadler as 'Steamboat Willie'.

The other unfortunate but frankly avoidable downside is the complete ignorance shown in respect of troops other than the Americans. We all know they came in late only when the war affected them directly, but in fairness they came out fighting and sacrificed as much as any other nation. To ignore the other Allied troops, in particular the Brits, however is a huge insult to those involved, and it's here that Private Ryan scores a painful own goal, marginalising it's audience unnecessarily. In retrospect however, it's almost possible to forgive this oversight, and it still does not detract from the core of the film since everyone, Americans, Brits and Germans all died in spectacularly brutal fashion.

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Special mention must also go to Janusz Kaminski for a most impressive feat of cinematography. War is at times an intensely intimate thing, and Kaminski puts us right in the thick of it with bleached tones and heart-stopping, motion sickness-inducing handheld camerawork that does much to convey the sense of chaos and confusion. The sound department too goes into overtime and anyone with a decent home cinema setup will find their speakers suitably tested to the limits during any of the battle scenes.

Despite it's flaws Private Ryan survives the conflict intact on account of it's undeniably spectacular merits. As a document of the times it succeeds superbly in terms of placing the viewer amidst the carnage. Short of inventing a time machine this is as close as you or I will get to experiencing the horror of conflict in our lifetime (impending global conflict not withstanding). As a history lesson to the younger members of our society who may not otherwise appreciate what mass sacrifice is it can only be matched by Spielberg's other WWII epic Schindler's List. It's hard to imagine another mainstream director having handled the subject quite so well, and sentimentality aside there can be no other verdict than a distinct tip of the hat to old Stevey.

This is the kind of film that crops up occasionally and reminds you that cinema is not only a media for entertainment, but also an important form of documentation. Saving Private Ryan is not so much a movie to be enjoyed as it is to be experienced, and absolutely everyone owes it to those who fought to watch and learn in humbled silence. It has it's flaws, but then since when was war perfect?

Out of sheer respect for the men who died for my freedom today, there can be no other verdict than a 5-thrust salute to Private Ryan and the people it portrays.

Steven Spielberg
Cast list:
Tom Hanks (Capt. John H. Miller)
Matt Damon (Privt. James Ryan)
Tom Sizemore (Sgt. Michael Horvath)