Here’s the deal. I can sit here and relate to you just how fantastic Saving Private Ryan is. But I don’t want to do that. I’d never seen the film beforehand, but I knew going in that this film was guaranteed to be fantastic. I mean, Spielberg at the height of his game, directing Tom Hanks at the top of his game in a World War II epic? There’s not much margin for error there; particularly from the rumors I’d heard about the depictions of war in this film being the closest to the real thing we’ve ever gotten. So yes, this film was pretty much guaranteed to be incredible before it was even put to film all the way back in 1998. But this isn’t 1998, and by this point, most everyone who is reading this has seen the film. So to do a properly structured review of everything, the direction, the characters, the plot, the acting talent, the lighting etc. would seem a little frivolous. So instead I am simply going to present a few elements that particularly stuck with me about this movie. I am going to assume that you have already seen this film, so if you have not, perhaps don’t venture onward and instead go find this masterpiece and watch it.
One of my least favorite things in films where characters are put in dire situations is the framing story of the main character looking back on events that happened in his past. Let me explain. Say you have a film about a group of explorers traversing through Antarctica. The movie opens with some old guy sitting in a rocking chair telling his earnest grandchildren about his adventures as a younger man. Then we cut to his adventures as a younger man and our movie begins. I am not fond of this device because it ruins all tension throughout the rest of the film because we know for a fact that the main character doesn’t die. It’s fine in a film that isn’t framed around deadly situations but in a film where the drama and plot are propelled by sequences of action, having a protagonist who is guaranteed to survive causes us to lose all sense of dramatic tension. Therefore, when the movie opened with who I could only assume to be Tom Hanks as an old man, flashing back to the war, I was immediately disappointed. Then, throughout the rest of the movie, I was a little removed from his character, simply because I wasn’t worried about him. I still loved watching him on screen, as I bore witness to the best performance I’ve ever seen Hanks give, but in the back of my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking, “well this is somewhat meaningless as we know he’s going to live.” But then the denouement arrives and we learn that Tom Hanks dies. What on earth is happening now? This is a genuine surprise. Now I am to learn that it was actually an old Matt Damon all along. I think that genuine surprise is a bitter of an understatement. This is the best plot twist I’ve seen in a long time. Had they all been aliens the entire time I would not have cared as much as I did upon learning that the old man at the beginning of the movie was actually Private Ryan. I mean honestly, I’ve seen other movies turn movie tropes on their heads, but this one was completely unexpected and much, much appreciated.
I’ve seen plenty of Spielberg films before, so the man’s vision with a camera is nothing foreign to me. I’ve seen Spielberg direct action before. I’ve even seen Spielberg direct Nazi action before. But I’ve never seen Spielberg (or anyone else for that matter) direct action like this. The war scenes in this film are some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’m serious. And when I say beautiful, I mean terrible, realistic, intense, grounded, honest things I’ve ever seen. Nothing in this movie is gratuitous. Nothing. There are no sweeping shots of soldiers walking through explosions with emboldened American flags waving behind them. Instead, there are soldiers crawling through dirt while their friends die around them. There are harrowing shots of people on both sides losing their lives attempting to do what they see as right. It’s completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Everyone always talks about the opening scene. And that they should, because it is an impeccable piece of cinema. But rather than talk about the first battle sequence, I’d like to talk about the last battle sequence, because that is the one that affected me most. By the end of the movie, we are completely invested in all of the characters, so watching them fight for their lives in one last desperate exchange is positively electrifying. The sequence of Melish wrestling with the German while Upham is petrified on the stairs is one of the most enthralling sequences of cinema that I’ve ever seen. There’s a shot in the film where Hanks and Damon are lying in a ditch, contemplating how the insurmountable task of taking down a tank when out of nowhere a second tank appears behind them. This shot floored me. But not as much as my favorite shot in the movie. Tom Hanks, a wounded man, firing at an impending tank with nothing but a pistol. And yet, where in a Michael Bay film, it would feel over-the-top, this felt raw and immensely real.
That is how I would describe this entire movie. Raw and immensely real. I mean really, I was cued in for its entire running time. There was not a single second where I felt bored. I would say my favorite scene is the one in which Tom Hanks tells his squad what he did for a living. It was just perfect. I literally have one complaint with this movie. Only one. Vinn Diezel. Why was he in this movie? It wasn’t that he was bad or anything, it was just weird. It took me right out of the film every time he spoke. Although I’m sure I wouldn’t have had that reaction had I watched the film in 1997. Honestly, Saving Private Ryan is pretty near perfect, I must say. This is one of those movies that I know I will see dozens of times in my life. Although I am awfully glad that I got to see it today, for the first time.
Image: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Max Martini in Saving Private Ryan, A Dreamworks picture presented by Paramount