Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving More Than Just Private Ryan
We're not here to do the decent thing, we're here to follow fucking orders! - Captain Miller
With Steven Spielberg at the directional helm you would be right to expect a movie of epic proportions, and "Saving Private Ryan" doesn't really fail. The action is impressive, the acting is solid, the direction is first class, the special effects are brilliant and the cinematography is award wining, what is surprising is the actual story and the characters are pretty weak. For a movie which is just short of 3 hours long, you would expect it to require quite a heavy plot and in-depth characters to keep you entertained, but with "Saving Private Ryan" there are so many more elements to the movie that it is not until you finish the movie and think about what you watched do you realise that although you have been truly entertained and in some ways educated, the premise for the movie is pretty thin and in doing so you also realise that the characters were extremely thin as well.
Having lead and survived one of the assaults on Omaha beach during the D-day landings, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks - Toy Story) and his team of 8 soldiers are selected for a special mission to enter into German occupied France to try and rescue a soldier by the name of James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon - Good Will Hunting). Having come to the attention of General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell - Face/Off), that Ryan's 3 brothers had all been killed in action and that his mother was to receive all 3 letters informing her of their deaths on the same day, that to spare her anymore misery they should do their up most to bring the remaining Ryan back alive. Although opposed to putting their own lives at risk in the hope of saving just one man, the group of 8 men enter occupied France in the hope of finding and rescuing Private Ryan.
Although the main premise for the story is that of saving private Ryan, the movie has in fact four clear sections which work brilliantly to build up the story of the actual rescue mission but also attempts to educate you on what life was like for the soldiers in the war.
The initial thread, and probably one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history, is the initial assault on Omaha beach during the D-day landings. This scene, although not relevant to the overall story of saving Ryan, sets the scene for the period and also shows how brutal the D-day landings were, as waves of young men were shot as they left the boats to get onto the beach. Although I cannot judge on how realistic this scene is, I cannot honestly say it is eye opening as to the brutality of it all, as two armies which basically could not see each others faces just blasted the living daylights out of each other. What this part of the movie clearly demonstrates is the chaos of the war, as amongst all the explosions, flying bullets, blood and vomit you see young men confused under the attack. One of the most poignant parts of the opening sequence for me, is watching a young soldier who has lost an arm, walking around dazed and confused, open to being shot and killed, in search of his lost limb.
The second section to the movie is where the main story starts and takes us to one of the war offices back in America, where they are typing up the letters which are sent out to the bereaved families of soldiers who have died whilst in action. From here we discover that Mrs. Ryan is about to receive letters informing her of the deaths of 3 out of her 4 sons. This leads us to General George C. Marshall in his Washington office, where he reads a letter that he owns which Abraham Lincoln wrote consoling Mrs. Bixby of Boston, about her sons who died in the Civil War. This leads to the decision that they must save the final Ryan boy for the sake of his mother, even though his advisors are opposed to risking a group of soldiers for the life of one man. Now me being sceptical me, would say that this comes across as more of a publicity stunt, where the retrieval of a soldier would be great publicity in the face of the thousands which were killed during the landings. Whether this is the case or not, this section of the movie clearly starts the main story and goes somewhat to show the difference between the clean cut war which was thought in the offices and the messy war which was being thought on the frontline. It also starts you thinking along the lines of whether it was right to try and save Ryan with the risk of loosing lives in the process.
The third section of the movie is the search for Ryan as Captain John Miller leads his troops into war stricken France. What is very good during this section of the movie is that his men high light their opposition to the mission as they were there to kill Germans and not to rescue soldiers. This is demonstrated in a scene where they come across a German radar centre and instead of avoiding it and going on there way in search of Ryan; they rebel against their mission and launch a successful assault on it. What is annoying is that this section of the movie takes up the biggest percentage of the movie and in reality is the weakest part, not that it is not important, but by the time they move onto the final section of the movie, it does start to feel like it has dragged a bit. Although it does drag, there are some very important parts to it, which not only demonstrate what war was like but for me, educated me to some things I never knew, such as the soldiers carrying letters written home in case of their deaths, and the basic medical treatment they received whilst in action.
The fourth and final section of the movie revolves around the events which occur once they find Private Ryan and I must say, although highly entertaining, I feel that this is where the movies falls out of being realistic and panders to the audience's need for an epic finale which would match the opening sequence. Without spoiling the ending to the movie, they discover Private Ryan camped with a small band of men defending a position in a town, refusing to leave his comrades until proper back up arrives, Captain Miller and his men aid the small band of men in defending their position in a huge bloody battle. As I have already said, this is highly entertaining and packed full of special effects, but if falls into the realms of machismo as men carry on fighting once they have been shot, in true hero style.
I have already mentioned that the character depth seems pretty weak, as we hardly learn any history on any of the main characters, although there is a diverse range of characters. The only time this changes is when after months of people betting on what Captain John Miller did before entering service, he tells them that he was a school teacher. Now for me, I find this very annoying as I found it very hard to associate myself with any of the characters, but then you could look at it as Spielberg demonstrating that the war was in fact full of people that you never really got to know, they were just names and faces.
What is pretty impressive is even though the main stars of the movie were Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore and to a certain extent Matt Damon, although he only appears in the final section of the movie, not once did it feel like I was watching a Tom Hanks movie or a Sizemore movie. Gone were all the traits which you can usually pick up in their movies, and although the characters were weak, they were different to those which they usually play. On top of this, the movie has a plethora of other well known stars such as Vin Diesel, Ted Danson, Edward Burns and Dennis Farina, all of which have minor roles all of which put in solid performances. I also found myself sitting their watching the movie and thinking I recognize that actor, but couldn't name them, as "Saving Private Ryan" has several roles which feature many non main stream actors who are just breaking into movie but are recognizable from TV appearances and other minor roles.
This very rare for me, but I cannot criticise the direction of "Saving Private Ryan" at all, not because it is Steven Spielberg, but because in my opinion it is perfect. Right from the opening sequence on Omaha beach, where at times it may feel like it is blurry and all over the place, it just goes to show the chaos which was happening all around. Through to a scene where tension between Captain Miller's troops reached fever pitch as guns get pointed at each other for dissent, where he not only manages to demonstrate the tension but also the softer side of things when Miller sorts out the mess.
Even though I felt that the third section dragged on, this was not down to poor direction, but down to the story and in hind sight, the gaps in between action may not seem to achieve much, they gave you time to divulge the significance of the scene you have just watched.
What this all boils down to is that even though I feel that the premise for "Saving Private Ryan" and lack of real character depth is a negative point, it still remains a fact that the movie is not only very entertaining and educational, but also hugely successful. Probably its greatest achievement is that it manages to highlight how brutal the D-day landings were whilst still managing to entertain you with both solid performances and plenty of action. Although the premise of saving Private Ryan may feel a bit thin, in hind sight a much more detailed and heavy story may have detracted from the overall enjoyment and effectiveness of the movie.
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