Saving Private Ryan

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The Boy's Alive and It's Time We Get Him the Hell Out of There

Sep 7, 2006
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Action Factor:
  • Special Effects:
  • Suspense:

Pros:Spielberg's Direction, Script, Look, Locations, Editing, Cinematography, Music, Sound, & Cast.

Cons:None, Though the Battle Scenes are Extremely Graphic.

The Bottom Line: Saving Private Ryan is a Raw, Gripping, yet Harrowing War Masterpiece from Steven Spielberg & Co. with a Great Cast led by Tom Hanks.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

Considered to be one of the greatest yet horrific wars of the 20th Century, World War II was a huge conflict between the Allies that consisted of many countries led by the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia and on the other side were the Axis led by Germany, Japan, and Italy. From 1939 to 1945, it was a war that costed millions of lives and helped change the outcome of world power as the Allies defeated the Axis. Since then, stories about WWII emerged from books to movies were popular ones like The Dirty Dozen and Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One revealed the chaos that is war. In 1998, two films about WWII came into two different mediums.

The first of which came from Steven Spielberg whose previous work had contained two dramatic features about WWII. The first was 1987's often-underrated Empire of the Sun that starred John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and in his film debut, Christian Bale. The second was a far more personal yet engrossing feature on the Holocaust called Schindler's List starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Sir Ben Kingsley. For his third and final film about WWII, Spielberg goes into far more personal territory by going in-depth into the world of combat and patriotism while channeling the horrors of war in his 1998 masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan.

Written by Robert Rodat (with additional work from William Goldsman and Steve Zailian), Saving Private Ryan tells the story of an army captain in 1944 WWII Normandy who leads his platoon in German-occupied France to find a lost paratrooper whose brothers were killed in the war. Produced and directed by Spielberg, the film is by far his most graphic and realistic portrayal of war as he explored the journey of men trying to find another soldier to bring him home while exploring great lengths of themselves in and out of combat. With an all-star cast led by Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Ted Danson, Dennis Farina, Paul Giamatti, and Matt Damon. Saving Private Ryan is a powerful yet harrowing view of war and patriotism.

It's June 6, 1944. D-Day as a group of American, Canadian, and British troops go on an amphibious mission to land on the beaches of Normandy as a group of American troops land on Omaha Beach. Leading his troops is Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) who tries to get his men onto the end of a treacherous beach amid machine guns, cannons, and everything else. The mission is a success despite the loss of many men including a man with the last name of Ryan. Two men by the last name of Ryan were killed in Normandy while another brother was killed in New Guinea. A fourth Ryan named James is missing as the army is forced to tell the news about the death of three sons to its mother. With the fourth James Francis Ryan's status remain unknown, General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) reads a letter from Abraham Lincoln about the death of brothers to a mother to his officials. He is convinced that James Ryan is alive and feels that it's time to get him out of the war.

Back in Normandy after its horrific battle, Capt. Miller gives his reports to his superior, Lt. Col. Anderson (Dennis Farina) who informs Miller that he's to embark on another mission. Miller is given an assignment to lead his platoon to find James Ryan in the middle of France where he's been lost after parachuting somewhere. With his senior officer Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Miller gathers the remainder of his platoon that included a Southern sniper named Jackson (Barry Pepper), a cantankerous Brooklyn native named Reiben (Edward Burns), a Jewish rifleman named Mellish (Adam Goldberg), an Italian-American named Caparzo (Vin Diesel), and medic named Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). The only thing Miller is missing is an interpreter as he brings in Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) who knows French and German but lacks combat experience.

Going on foot to the French countryside, Miller and his platoon walk on as some of the platoon have a bet on what Miller used to be before the war. Upham tries to communicate with his platoon on writing a novel about brotherhood but is often scoffed at even though he's a higher rank. Upon their destination, they walk into the middle of a battle as they meet Sgt. Hill (Paul Giamatti) who is currently in battle as Miller and his men help out. The battle becomes horrifying as they run across a stranded French family and later tragedy as one of Miller's men is killed. The battle ensues when Hill accidentally knocks a wall that reveals a group of German troops as Miller and his platoon are saved by another platoon led by Captain Hamill (Ted Danson). Hamill reveals that he has a man named Ryan as they ask a soldier by the name of Ryan (Nathan Fillion) about what happened but turned out to be the wrong man as this Ryan is from Minnesota and not James Francis Ryan.

Miller and his platoon soldier on, they run across a camp of American troops where they talked to a soldier who knows James Ryan is now in another town in France of Ramelle. Miller and his platoon continue on their journey when they run into a radio base where Miller makes a mistake in taking his platoon into battle as the inexperienced Upham is forced to watch in horror of the battle that cost the life of one of his own soldiers. With one German soldier surviving, the rest of the platoon wants vengeance over their fallen comrade as Upham tries to keep the peace talking to the prisoner in a conversation-like fashion. Realizing the mistake he's made, Miller decides to let the prisoner go in blindfold as Reiben has had enough where he and Horvath have a war of words. Miller finally kills the boiling tension among the platoon as he reveals what he was before the war to finish the platoon's booth.

After burying their comrade, the remaining platoon move on as they encounter a German tank that later gets attacked by a trio of soldiers where one of them is James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) of Iowa. Going to the town of Ramelle, Ryan is now part of a remaining number of soldiers trying to defend a bridge from the Germans as Miller tells Ryan that all of his brothers have been killed and he's been sent to go home. Ryan however, refuses to go home feeling that the troops he's with fought harder than him and deserves to go home as he chooses to stay with the only brothers he have left. Miller is still aware of his mission as him and his platoon decide to fight one more battle against an upcoming group of German tanks and troops in order to defend the bridge where Miller fights for his life to keep Ryan alive.

War films are often psychological on how decisions are made and what comes afterwards. Particularly in the middle of a battle where it's obvious that some men are going to die. In what Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat chose to do, they chose the themes of sacrifice and honor. Particularly in what Captain Miller and his platoon set out to do for one person who should go home which is the basis of the film's plot. Even though the platoon and Miller are flawed characters, it makes them more relatable to its audience where they're normal men with normal problems fighting for good in a conflict where evil is taken place. The flaws of those characters also revolves around sacrifice where Miller's mistakes surrounding his battle at the radio base will cause repercussions around his platoon along with the death of one of his soldiers. It's the sacrifice that even makes Private James Ryan question his own honor over what had happened as even in the end of the story, he still questions over what was sacrificed and fulfilling his own debt to those lost.

The story is handled wonderfully by Robert Rodat which includes a great structure that starts and ends with present time of the aging James Ryan walking around in Normandy and seeing the grave site. The first few minutes of the film shows James Ryan and his family walking around and then, it shifts from a peaceful yet melancholic tone to a far more chaotic atmosphere. The first act is the infamous battle in Normandy at Omaha Beach that sets the plot in motion of the death one of the Ryan brothers to the army press staff and George C. Marshall that then leads to Miller getting his mission. The second act is where the plot takes place of Miller and his platoon going onto a journey where they engage in battle, try to find dog tags that could be Ryan, and the engagement of another battle where they capture a German soldier. The third and final act is where the audience is formally introduced to James Ryan and a final battle and ends with the old Ryan looking at the grave site trying to fulfill a debt.

The script is also notable for its development of characters and how the men react to each other despite different background and personalities. Rodat's work in the script allows the character to have great dialogue with each other as Miller often turns to Horvath for some guidance about leadership despite that Miller is the higher rank. The script also gives the audience a real in-depth look of the chaos of war that can be described as anti-war where its from the perspective of Corporal Upham. Here is a character who is so inexperienced with war that the chaos he sees up close is very new to him and his fear into getting involved where he might get killed is something that audiences can relate to. Then there's the character of Ryan who is trying to understand why he has to go home while dealing with what his mother might feel as he's become a whole reason for men to sacrifice themselves for him. Overall, it's a great script from Rodat.

Then, we have Steven Spielberg who no doubt, is a fine craftsman when it comes to presentation and direction. With the script as his blueprint, the way he shifts from that first scene to a very harrowing sequence that lasts about 23-minutes that is by far the most graphic and horrifying sequence in any film, especially war films. The battle of Normandy scene is extremely violent that describing the violence is too obscene to tell that it's very hard to watch. If done in a conventional way, it would've lost impact on what really went on and since Spielberg chose to go for a style that is cinema verite. He brings realism that might end up being too real that it creates a very discomforting feel for the audience yet, that is his intention. The result is a very realistic, gritty, yet violent sequence that is handled with great care by Spielberg and his team, notably longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and longtime editor Michael Kahn. Kaminski's desaturated, scratchy, hand-held camera work and Kahn's rhythmic, intense editing really brings a first-point of view of what it's like in battle where it's very realistic.

After that harrowing sequence, Spielberg does continue to display the violence the way it is in the battle scenes along with the sense of death while he balances it with stories of the brotherhood between Miller and his platoons. Especially in how they seem to react with every situation and what they would do like the way Jackson would pray before every shot he does since he's their resident sniper. It's some of the little details of characters that Spielberg is very interested in where he presents every moment of failure, anxiety, and camaraderie whether its in battle or a moment where they're trying to sleep. Though Spielberg has been known for sentimentalism in his endings, he doesn't go into the sentimental route for this as he chooses to end the film in the right way that isn't a happy ending nor a sad one. Just one that feels right.

Helping Spielberg in his visual presentation is longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Using many styles of color schemes with a clear, colorful presentation in the film's opening and closing present-day scenes to the desaturated look of the battle of Normandy with tints of blue-green and gray with yellow only appearing as the sun. Other shots in day time exterior settings reveal wonderful shades of yellow and black along with wonderful colors of green in some of the battle and non-combat sequences to the final battle where it's a mix of tinted colors ranging from light to dark where it brings an atmosphere that is sometimes chaotic and peaceful depending on the situation. It's great work from the very talented Kaminski.

Spielberg's longtime editor Michael Kahn, who has edited every Spielberg film since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (except for E.T.) does some of the best editing in any film where the battle scenes have an intense rhythm to bring the chaos of war that is so discomforting to watch. Other sequences, notably non-combat or emotional scenes, Kahn's mastery in the editing reveal his timing on not to cut during an emotional moment while bringing out perspectives of characters to convey the action and tension. Still one of the last editors to use non-computer editing machines, Kahn's cutting style remains insatiable as it shows the art of editing.

Shot on location in Ireland for the Omaha Beach setting plus places in France and England, Production designer Tom Sanders and art director Daniel Dorrance do great work in creating the atmosphere and chaos of war to create crumbling, destroyed buildings and trenches for the Normandy Battle scene. Costume designer Joanna Johnston also does great work in designing the uniforms for all the men in the film as well as dresses for women from the war department. Sound designers Ronald Judkins and Gary Rydstrom do great work in creating the sound to bring the chaotic atmosphere of war to its firing of grenades and such. Longtime Spielberg collaborator and composer John Williams brings a wonderfully melancholic yet triumphant score that is filled with emotions and troubles of war where his music is used in very emotional scenes and sequences while doing a cadence number in a scene for the preparation of the final battle. While not as memorable as his work in other films, Williams does do great job in underplaying the atmosphere of the film that also includes a song from Edith Piaf.

Finally, there is the film's cast that includes some notable small yet minor performances from Leland Orser as Lt. DeWitt who Millers meet at a campsite, Dale Dye, David Wohl, and Bryan Cranston as war department authorities, Kathleen Byron as the old Mrs. Ryan, and Amanda Boxer as the mother Ryan. Other notable small roles are well-acted from Firefly/Serenity star Nathan Fillion as the Minnesota Ryan, Max Martini as Cp. Henderson in the bridge battle scene, German actor Joerg Stadler as the German POW the platoon wanted to kill, and Harve Presnell as General George C. Marshall. In roles that could be considered like cameos from Ted Danson as Cpt. Hamill and Dennis Farina as Lt. Col. Anderson are wonderful for their brief time in playing men who can relate to Miller's mission. Paul Giamatti is also great as Sgt. Hill who brings a bit of humor for a man with bad feet who is trying to dissuade the chaos that he's in.

Now we come to the nine main actors of the film who all do a great job in bringing different personalities to their characters while giving the audience something they can connect with. In the role of medical specialist Wade, Giovanni Ribisi is great as the medic who tries to help out every man whenever they're wounded or near death as he tries to help. Ribisi's best scene is in the church when he talks about his mother and how hard she worked which shows his haunting voice in how he recites dialogue that would come to greater fruition in Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. Known as a tough guy, Vin Diesel does great work as Caparzo in bringing that quality of being tough and funny while showing some sensitivity as a soldier who is loyal while knowing a lot on how not to get killed. Adam Goldberg is also great as the Jewish Mellish whose experience in fighting and what he's fighting for shows Goldberg's dramatic talents while giving the less experienced Upham pointers on fighting as Goldberg does fantastic work.

Barry Pepper is also great as the religious yet skilled sharpshooter Jackson whose morals and spiritual guidance brings a lot of spiritualism to a role as a guy who kisses his cross and prays before he shoots. Edward Burns is brilliant as the cynical yet smart Reiben whose often defiance of leadership and wit brings a lot of humor and realism to the role as someone who doesn't want to risk his own life over a mission. Burns does great work as he brings a lot of tension to the role. Tom Sizemore is fantastic as the veteran Horvath whose loyalty and experience show a man who's been through a lot while having a fondness for having a collection of dirt as he's the second-in-command who reminds his men on what they're fighting for.

Of the entire supporting cast, no one is better than Jeremy Davies as Cpl. Upham. Upham goes through the most of the development as a young man experiencing full combat for the first time as Davies brings all of the anxieties and fears of a young man unaware of its horror. His fear isn't cowardice but something that audiences can relate to as he's afraid of dying while more scared of doing wrong. It's truly the best thing Jeremy Davies has done while maintaining a great career in working with directors like David O. Russell, Roman Coppola, Lars von Trier, and Steven Soderbergh. Matt Damon, coming off the brilliant Good Will Hunting, proves his charisma as the title character of Ryan. Though he's in the third act, Damon proves to fruitful in how he's resented while dealing with loss and doing his duty. It's a great performance from Damon who over the years, has become an underrated actor despite his good looks and star power.

Finally, there's Tom Hanks who gives another of his finest performance as Captain Miller. While Hanks is considered an everyman among actors and is a big movie star. Hanks proves his worth by not acting like the star but rather a leader who is flawed and dealing with his own personal issues like his shaking hand and how his wife will see him. Since Hanks is acting with younger actors, he acts with them as he gives them a chance to shine where he proves to be a generous and a team player. Hanks brings all the emotions and anxieties of a man who often questions his own leadership while telling his platoon on what not to do. It's truly one of Hanks' better performances in a career that is filled with richness.

When the film was released in the summer of 1998 amidst another frenzy of huge blockbusters, the film stood out among the rest for not playing the blockbuster game or marketing as a big summer movie. Instead, Spielberg and his team chose to release a film that is more than just a typical war film as the result won Spielberg more critical acclaim and a warm reception, notably among war veterans. Despite the controversy over how Spielberg presented the violence, notably the Normandy battle scene that almost got a NC-17 rating. Spielberg managed to succeed as the film was a huge box office hit and received 11 Oscar nominations including Best Picture where he competed with another WWII film, an adaptation of The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick. While Spielberg won a Best Director Oscar along with Best Film Editing for Kahn, Cinematography for Kaminski, Best Sound, and Best Sound Editing. Unfortunately, the film didn't win Best Picture as it lost to romantic film Shakespeare in Love. Though Spielberg never managed to top himself with more recent films that are often marred by bad endings. Saving Private Ryan still however, makes Spielberg one of cinema's most successful and enduring directors.

In a film career that's already revered for its mix of blockbuster entertainment and cerebral, epic dramas, Saving Private Ryan is truly a raw, gripping masterpiece from Steven Spielberg. Thanks to his collaborators like Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, and John Williams and a superb all-star cast led by Tom Hanks. This film is truly a war classic though audiences should be extremely careful for the film's graphic violent content. While it's not the greatest war film of all-time, Spielberg does manage to capture the horrors of war while revealing good in the brotherhood between soldiers. In the end, for a great film about World War II that captures it realism and humanity, Saving Private Ryan succeeds in bringing all.

Related Reviews:
The Thin Red Line (3-hour cut) (1998):

Catch Me If You Can (2002):

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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