The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan had been so hyped that I wondered if anyone had questioned whether it fit with the rest of the movie. I knew it would be amazing, but I wondered if it would be gratuitous, Spielberg’s way of showing off his technical skill, a little treat before the rest of the movie got underway....
R for Violence, gore
Sergeant York, 1941, Howard Hawks, a film that shares Saving Private Ryan's ambivalence about the morality of killing in war, and the value of human lives.
Forrest Gump, 1994, Robert Zemeckis, another episodic film with Hanks in the army, giving another great performance.
Up Front, 1945, Bill Mauldin, a book of cartoons originally drawn for Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper, along with Mauldin's observations on the gritty and dangerous life of the American infantryman. Mauldin later became a Pulitzer prize winning political cartoonist.
Did You Notice?
Hanks and his co-stars actually went through 10 days of "boot camp". After 4 days, the younger actors voted to quit, but Hanks stayed on, inspiring the others to stay on as well.
- Matt Damon: Damon lets his Bourne Identity come out
- The Rainmaker
- Good Will Hunting
- Titan A.E.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley
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- Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
- Ocean's Eleven
- The Bourne Identity
- Project Greenlight/Stolen Summer
- Stuck on You
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- The Brothers Grimm
- The Brothers Grimm
The sequence is rightly praised for it’s grim depiction of the chaos and casualties of the invasion of Normandy. Spielberg’s approach is to portray the confusion and violence of battle on a personal, not a tactical, level. There are no establishing shots or god’s-eye views of the beach. We never know how the battle is being played out because the hand held camera has a personal point of view, following only a handful of the film’s main characters.
In a sense, the first sequence is gratuitous, and Spielberg most certainly is showing off. The sequence is full of small details that must have been extremely difficult to set up. For each soldier the camera watches die, it seems two others are killed in the corners of the screen. Yet this whole sequence has little to do with the plot of Saving Private Ryan. If it were cut, the story could be summarized in the same way.
But the film’s plot is not what the film is about. It is merely a thread that ties together the patches that make up the rest of the film. Saving Private Ryan is really a tour of the life of American soldiers in Europe. There are distinct vignettes in the film, each one showing a small part of the big picture. In that sense, the taking of Normandy is an important part of the tour, and therefore, its depiction is not gratuitous.
The plot is that Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) must find and return Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) to the States. Ryan’s three brothers died in combat and his mother received the news of all three deaths on the same day. A general back in Washington, feeling sympathy for the mother and possibly seeing an opportunity for some good P.R., ordered that James Ryan must be saved.
But as I said, the film is not about its plot. It is about the war in Europe, and more deeply, about the value of human life. The film follows Miller from his landing at Normandy to the fields of northern France. From the rainy town threatened by a sniper to the wreck of an American plane. From an isolated nest of German machine-gunners to the rubble-strewn bridge in need of defending.
In each episode, Spielberg finds a way to explore the value of human life.
At Normandy, one soldier suggests that they hide behind the defenses on the beach, because advancing costs so many lives. Miller points out that if they don’t advance, even more soldiers will die and it will have been for nothing. By advancing, their lives buy two things: precious ground against the Germans and more meaning, a higher value, if you will, for the lives of those already killed.
When Miller and his seven men learn of their mission to save Ryan, they are outraged at the thought that so many lives should be risked for the sake of just one. Yet Ryan’s life is worth so much more, at least to his mother, because his three brothers have died. An exponential curve is at work, making the last son’s life worth more than the first three combined.
At the site of the plane crash, we learn that 22 soldiers died because one general wanted extra protection for himself. He ordered a steel plate to be welded to the plane under his seat to protect him from flak. But the weight of the steel made the plane fly “like a freight train,” and the pilot was forced to crash-land, killing and wounding dozens of soldiers in the process.
While talking to his men one night, Miller recounts the number of lives lost under his command. He believes there must be a formula, some factor by which each lost life can be multiplied, whose product is the number of other lives saved. Losing 96 men must mean that at least 960 other lives were saved. True or not, it is one way Miller can assuage his guilt.
In one of the film’s most interesting dilemmas, a single German gunner remains alive after a battle. Most of Miller’s men want to kill the German, slowly and painfully, but, as Upham (Jeremy Davies, in a very interesting role) points out, that would be against the rules. They cannot take him prisoner because he would hinder their mission, so Miller must weigh the moral costs of killing an unarmed man against the possibility that, once released, he might live to kill more U.S. soldiers, perhaps even Miller’s own men.
The movie is very well made. That’s not surprising considering the skill of the director. Thankfully, this time Spielberg refrained from including his sermon and his directorial signature. In Amistad, there were signs throughout the movie that reminded you what a clever director Spielberg was. It was downright distracting. In Saving Private Ryan, there are no directorial flourishes, just good filmmaking.
During battle scenes, the camera is hand-held. The picture is jittery, but not blurry. It’s as though Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski used a camera with a very fast shutter speed, or else shot at double speed, then used every other frame. I can’t say what the intent of this was, but it made the film feel sharper, edgier, less soft.
The film also pays very close attention to sound, making us feel much closer to the events on screen. As Miller prepares for the invasion of Normandy, the landing boat’s motors are clear and distinct. It’s a detail that makes the scene seem mundane and real, not heroic and romanticized. For a time the camera goes underwater and the sound becomes more distant, more dreamlike, but as soon as it breaks the surface, the nasty whizzing of bullets and screams of dying men return. At two points in the movie, the sound takes the point of view of Miller, mentally and aurally drifting away from the battlefield, before coming back to insistent reality.
Finally, the casting of Tom Hanks as Captain Miller was an extraordinary stroke of genius. At first he seems unlikely to lead a pack of soldiers in a war movie. He’s too much the nice guy. His voice is a gentle tenor instead of a cussing bass. And yet, that seems to be exactly the point that Spielberg was making in Saving Private Ryan: that World War II was fought by normal, everyday men. There were gruff generals and posturing politicians, but the men on the front lines were average Joes with wives, jobs, and rose bushes back home. And that makes the violence of the battle scenes all the more horrifying, the cost of 96 lives all the more painful.
One final comment is worth making. I believe this film raises the level of acceptable graphic violence in mainstream movies. Soldiers are disemboweled, decapitated, and blown to bits on screen. Perhaps the most difficult scene is a closeup of a German soldier slowly and gently stabbing a G.I. in the heart. It is hard to imagine this film getting anything less than an X rating as little as a decade ago, yet it got an R rating from the MPAA on the first try. Spielberg handles the subject matter well. He deals with a gruesome subject matter honestly and appropriately. One scene reminds us not to treat death lightly, even when it is too widespread to be comprehended. No scene glorifies the mass slaughter of enemy soldiers. Still, the standard has been raised, and the next war movie will have to be even more gruesome to make its point.
Let us hope the next filmmaker will be as thoughtful, careful, and serious as Spielberg.