The genre of war has been around for ages, and they can depict it from all kinds of stories that are fictional and based on real-life. You always want to experience the right stuff to sink your mind into, no matter how they are. While 1998 might’ve also given us The Thin Red Line, but anything from Terrence Malick doesn’t matter in life when you have someone like Steven Spielberg blew every film from the genre out of the water with Saving Private Ryan, a film where it sets the bar above everything else.
What’s the Story: A small group of U.S. soldiers, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) are assigned to go behind enemy lines to retrieve a soldier during WWII. The soldier, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), has lost all of his brothers in combat. The group has to find Ryan so he can go home and must also deal with German soldiers & their own questions about the importance of their mission.
If Schindler’s List was Spielberg’s way of depicting war during the worst time in history, Saving Private Ryan takes the concept of war to a realistic and versatile approach. This has always been one of my favorites from the director ever since I watched it in full for the first time. My first viewing experience was when we watched in our history class during my freshman year of high school and was intrigued to watch the rest of it whenever I get my hands on it. For a film centered on World War II, I had to imagine theaters having veterans who fought in the war watch everything happen. I can see this would’ve been the most powerful thing they must’ve experienced through the perspective of a war drama, where there was no clapping, just in-awe with the 169 minutes spent in the theater.
When you’re talking about this film, the first thing that will always be in the conversation is the Normandy Invasion opening. It’s impossible to not think this was a fantastic way of bringing forward to battles of the war with the most realistic sequence in all the cinema combined. Spielberg really wanted the audience to feel close to the experience while sitting with your jaw-dropped throughout. It’s almost like an entire movie by itself when you look at it. Recreating this horrific day in history is something you can’t take your eyes off of when you captured how everything was planned, from the explosions to the gunfire in the most brutal way imaginable. Yes, it holds nothing back with the R-rating. That was enough to let us know that war isn’t the greatest thing in the world to fight for when bodies are flying and a dozen of men’s blood is in the ocean. The entire sequence took 27 days to shoot everything, including cranking of the high shutter speed to create the hyper style of the shoot, and they accomplished everything in feeling like you’re trying not to get killed like everyone else on the beach.
Some would say the rest of the film doesn’t get better or live up to perfection after the 30-minute mark, and I say they’re wrong for thinking that. We have a whole other movie right behind it to where the point of this mission to save this soldier and bring him home is crucial to pay attention to for the rest of the time. Most of the film is the squad is them walking around through a war-torn France and fight whatever comes in their sight to see if he’s alive. That might sound boring to some, but it didn’t to me. Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat (The Patriot) could tell this story not only about the effects of WWII but about the courage we see from these heroes. They didn’t have this made to be another typical Hollywood war movie when it stayed close to the ground in making every single aspect realized. The circumstances of what it brought happened. I could’ve bought this story if it was actually true because it’s the kind of a heroic tale that sounds so believable. But would I be brave enough to have the guts to take a step forward to go on this mission? I have never fought in any kind of war before, but that’s a question I still ponder whenever this comes up.
Do I love Tom Hanks? You’d be crazy if you don’t love him. Saving Private Ryan marked the first out of four collaboration with Spielberg, and this has got to be their absolute best. He was killing it in the ’90s if winning two Oscars back-to-back years wasn’t enough, but his dramatic performance as Ct. John Miller proves he can do anything when he’s given the right material to work with. Like everyone else, we don’t see Hanks’ character as a war captain, but a former schoolteacher, which we learned about later on with his character, who’s just an ordinary man who has changed when given this order and wants to return home.
Besides Hanks, everybody else in their respective supporting performances was also excellent, and it was a surprise to some of them when the work they’ve done after hasn’t hit the big wheel of critical acclaim. With all that said, you’re able to follow these guys on their mission through every step. Tom Sizemore (Horvath), Edward Burns (Reiben), Adam Goldberg (Mellish), Jeremy Davies (Upham), Barry Pepper (Jackson), and Giovanni Ribisi (Wade); there isn’t a weak link in the ensemble. There are even appearances from actors you completely forget are in this, including Vin Diesel as Caparzo, Ted Danson, Bryan Cranston, Paul Giamatti, and Nathan Fillion in one of his earliest roles as the other Private Ryan. And then there’s Matt Damon as the titular James Francis Ryan, giving a great performance in his early career before he really became well known.
Everything on a technical aspect is pitch-perfect, in my mind. The rest of the combat action sequences felt realistic to watch when you have this confidence, feeling nobody will get killed and the sense of tension throughout each one of them. From the sound design with the action is taken place and the bullets are flying, Janusz Kamiński’s beautiful cinematography, the production design of the set pieces, looking like they weren’t filmed on sets, and John Williams’ score doesn’t get mentioned as much as his other film score, but his musical piece “Hymn to the Fallen” is enough to get more attention.
Spielberg is no strange to directing for war theme films in the past when he had already tackled it with 1941, Empire of the Sun, and Schindler’ List, respectively. But you’d be surprised by how much he threw into a project we didn’t expect could stay within our minds after multiple viewings. I can’t tell you how much I love his direction when you can sense he had everything in his mindset when crafting every moment. He also made this for his father, who flew missions in WWII and told him his war stories. When you’re watching this, this has the heart you come to expect along the way with this brotherhood the team has where you start to like them and what they represent. Yet, Saving Private Ryan does a tremendous job of keeping an important lesson to follow through. These are men who must travel to risk their lives to save this young solider they don’t even know; they didn’t want to be a part of all of this, but it’s their mission to sacrifice themselves to keep each other alive. Sometimes, it’s dangerous to fight for your country, but you don’t want to leave your loved ones in pain for what may happen. Probably the most relatable character out of everybody is Corporal Upham, since we don’t know if we are really cut out to be in this serious position. Seeing how Private Ryan’s three brothers were killed, he needs to bring home so his mother wouldn’t get four death notices about her sons at the same time. You feel like you’re part of the squad from every moment, and when they lost somewhere, you feel that heartbreak too. I’m not ashamed to admit when Miller’s final words to Ryan was, “Earn it.”, it was emotional, and the ending made me cry.
As for problems, this is almost three hours long, and it didn’t exactly feel long when it’s over two-and-a-half-hours. But there were a few moments where it slows down a bit with the characters having conversations where I didn’t feel lost, but that thought could always change whenever there’s a chance to re-watch it.
Because of how successful this turned out to be, we wouldn’t have memorable war flicks later on with Hacksaw Ridge, Dunkirk, and most recently with 1917. People have regarded the film as one of, if not the best, film to come out from the genre. Becoming the highest-grossing film at the domestic box office in 1998, it earned 11 Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Director for Spielberg (his second win), Film Editing, Cinematography, Sound, and Sound Effects Editing. But did it end up winning Best Picture? Nope. It lost to Shakespeare in Love, one of the most controversial Best Picture wins ever, and one of the worst winners ever from the Academy. An upset that has been 21 years later and everyone is asking why? We all remember this, not a pretentious period piece where a “monster” producer probably rigged the votes.
Saving Private Ryan is one of the best films in Spielberg’s filmography, to which it is a masterpiece when it comes to the epic war genre. Generated by its pulse-pounding and realistic action, stellar performances from all, and its depiction of war in the most memorable way, there will never be something to top what the director brought on a whole other level of entertainment to show the respected dedication the soldiers who fought. For how incredible it is, it’s impossible not to love this, and everybody must watch it.
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