Review: Saving Private Ryan

After a visceral depiction of the D-Day invasion of Normandy during WWII, we are given the story of a small platoon (played by Ed Burns, Tom Sizemore, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel) and their leader Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) who are tasked with finding the soldier of the title, whose brothers have all been killed. They need to bring Pvt. James Ryan back home to his mother, a crazy ‘needle in a haystack’ mission.

Steven Spielberg (“Jaws”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Minority Report”, “War of the Worlds”) gives us one of the more memorable war films of the modern era with this 1998 revisit to WWII. Scripted by Robert Rodat (“Thor: The Dark World”, of all things), it’s one of Spielberg’s more personal films, and also one of his most mature. On his day, I believe him to be capable of being the best living director, and he had a damn good day here. The director of “E.T.” gives us a pretty unflinching, gritty, realistic war film that would greatly influence the way war films have been made since. Just look at the opening D-Day sequence, quite simply unparalleled for the genre in the way Spielberg and his chosen cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (“Schindler’s List”, “Catch Me If You Can”, “The BFG”) make you feel like you’re really there in it with the troops, or that you’re watching real war footage that just happens to be in colour. You don’t even think about Tom Hanks being in it. Instead, you’re too busy noticing the guy walking around holding his own severed hand, or the guy with his intestines sticking out crying for his mother. Spielberg, often seen as Mr. Mainstream and the “E.T.” guy pulls no punches here whatsoever. It’s truly harrowing, confronting, visceral stuff. 10 minutes in and you’re already horrified that this is something that people now sign up for voluntarily. I’m anti-war, I think it’s awful, but it’s a necessary and inevitable evil. Spielberg (who I think is actually incredibly underrated as a filmmaker and very, very smart and adept at his craft) really does show what a nightmare the D-Day landing must’ve; Confusing, dreadfully deadly, bloody, and noisy as hell. It’s a truly stunning section of filmmaking with among the best use of handheld camerawork in cinematic history. It’s one of those very rare occasions when it actually does help you to become immersed in the reality of the situation instead of alerting your attention to the presence of the camera. It’s probably Kaminski’s best work to date as cinematographer. I actually think it’s a really terrifying opening.

After that prologue with D-Day, we’re presented with our real plot: Tom Hanks leading a platoon to track down the last surviving member of a family of soldiers to bring him back home to his mother. It’s a helluva yarn, actually and loosely based on a real story. Yes, there’s some corny moments here and there. Yes, the film is too long and it’s easy to see what could’ve been left out or trimmed. The bookend scenes, for instance, aren’t essential nor terribly helpful. I loved seeing British actress Kathleen Byron (the loony nun from the exquisite-looking “Black Narcissus”) on screen, and I get why Spielberg uses the bookends. However, the only thing it really adds is running time. A quick shot of all those crosses would’ve sufficed in my view.

The film features a top-drawer cast from top to bottom, of veterans and then up-and-comers, all of whom acquit themselves well. Adam Goldberg does some good, early acting as a Jewish-American soldier who gets overwhelmed when he comes across a Nazi weapon. Tom Sizemore gives one of his best-ever performances in what you might call the Ernest Borgnine or Ward Bond role of the no-nonsense second in-command officer, to Tom Hanks’ Gary Cooper or John Wayne. Everyone’s favourite prima donna Vin Diesel plays a wise arse with a soft spot for kids, and does it rather well. A lot of people loathe Jeremy Davies as an actor due to his very affected acting style. I get it, but here he’s well-cast as a rather timid translator, a scaredy-cat who eventually gets to ‘man up’, so to speak. Ed Burns is an appropriate choice for the cynical smart arse who complains about everything, including the mission itself. He’s the perfect agitator in a situation where that’s the least helpful thing possible. Burns, Goldberg, and Giovanni Ribisi definitely convince as the kind of guys you’d typically find in a platoon in WWII. They just seem right. Barry Pepper gets a particularly good showing here as the confident, brave, religiously-minded sharpshooter of the platoon. Even the small parts are well filled out by familiar faces like Dale Dye, Ted Danson, Dennis Farina, David Wohl, Harve Presnell, Nathan Fillion, Paul Giamatti (probably his widest exposure at the time), and of course Matt Damon, who all do classy jobs. As for our lead Tom Hanks, he gives a really strong, yet quite subtle performance. I won’t say Roberto Benigni didn’t deserve the Best Actor award at the Oscars that year (“Life is Beautiful” is a terrific film), but Hanks definitely deserved his Oscar nomination for one of the best leading performances of the year.

Unlike the completely tedious and uninvolving “The Thin Red Line”, you can at least spot all the actors in this one and it helps draw you in. One detail I really liked is that beyond all the usual American flag-waving, patriotism, and sentimentality, Spielberg shows these guys occasionally behaving like complete dicks. Even Hanks’ character isn’t perfect. Also, Spielberg gives life and death here a real weight and importance, albeit from one side of the coin. The ‘enemy’ aren’t often shown on screen here. Meanwhile, the opening D-Day segment might be the film’s highlight, but the final battle is terrific stuff, too.

Spielberg was a maturing filmmaker at this point, even if his love for the material does prevent him from seeing opportunities to trim things down a bit. Still a horrifying, moving experience with a great cast, outstanding cinematographer and a great filmmaker at the helm. One of the best war movies post-“Platoon”, and the best film of 1998.

Rating: B+


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