We could use a few more movies like this, to de-glorify violence. See, Saving Private Ryan tells us a tale of war and puts a human face on the target between the sniper's sights, reminding us that every one of the 40 million plus casualties in World War II. But this is Hollywood, after all, and Spielberg interjects enough schmaltz to guarantee a tearjerker.
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The basic plot follows as such: After the invasion at Normandy, three out four brothers lie dead on the beaches of France. The military brass wipe a tear from their eye and decide that brother number four has earned a free ticket home. Unfortunately, he parachuted deep into enemy territory a few days ago, so they send a squad of eight men to bring him back.
One of the brilliant points of this movie is the way that Spielberg conveys the utter visceral horror that soldiers face in battle. The opening sequence (the invasion of Normandy) is a noisy, chaotic trek across corpse-strewn sands between fifty caliber machine-gun fire and grenades. We, as the viewer, are placed directly in the action. The shaky camera effect is perfect for this moment - we, too, find ourselves stumbling amid the battle, a little unsure of where we are and a little scared. Spielberg paints the scene with a liberal red brush, delivering enough gore to compete with Dead Alive. But this gore isn't treated casually. I cringed when the poor soldier stumbled around to find the arm that would fit his ragged, mangled stump, or when one soldier lay screaming, trying to stuff his guts back in.
Saving Private Ryan touches all of the soldiers with humanity, thus making their loss all the more stark. There are a lot of non-combat scenes, where the squad is either walking to their next checkpoint, waiting for action, or just resting. In these moments, we get to see how the character act when they aren't forced to blow German brains out. They grow through the course of the movie, which is a rare feat these days, especially in a war movie. In a early scene, Private Upham says he is writing a book about the brotherhood that forms between soldiers during wartime. The others kid him rather self-consciously, but this statement rather nicely clues us in on the growing bonds between this rag-tag group of warriors.
At times, though, the character development is so obvious and forced that Spielberg all but flashes the words, "Character Development" across the screen. In a quiet moment is an abandon church, the medic takes his cue to deliver a scripted monologue about his relationship with his mother, so advancing his character. It's a fairly jarring moment, where we are reminded that we are watching a movie, not playing fly-on-the-wall with this platoon. And who could forget Tom Hanks's rightfully criticized shaky-hand plot device. What could have been a nice, subtle character detail is far too often thrust into the limelight to become the star of the scene.
I could have done without the cheesy bookend scenes with the now aged survivor looking back on his past while his hot grandkids cavort in the background. It was way too schmaltzy, too much of a blatant ploy to gain sympathy to an already sympathetic story.
Great performances all around, even by the generally toe-headed Matt Damon. What could have been meaningless supporting characters are given life and depth through superb acting. Special kudos (with peanut butter chips, naturally) to Giovanni Ribisi, Edward Burns, and Barry Pepper. These performances lend an air of believability and truth to the soldiers.
Overall, this is a pretty rough movie to watch, albeit for all the right reasons. It gives us an emotionally engaging, human portrait of World War II, and is well worth the almost three hours you'll spend watching it.
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