Film Thoughts: Saving Private Ryan

Hi!  Welcome!  This is the part of the show where Larry sings a silly … wait, sorry, no.  Wrong thing.  This is the part of the blog where I discuss movies new and old, good, bad, and mediocre.

So I’ve been on a kind of WWII kick since I read Atonement recently and it was one of those where I didn’t want to leave the world of the book just yet.  Saving Private Ryan (as well as Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List) are on my Required Film Viewing catch up list anyway, so I figured we’d start out with what sounds like the least heart-wrenching of the three.

Some context: Saving Private Ryan came out in 1998, one of the first movies that Stephen Spielberg had not developed on his own, but was inspired to direct due to his father’s service in the Second World War.  It has a pretty great rating across the board, with an 8.6 on IMDB, a 92% for critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 95% for us average audience folks.

All that being said, the first two minutes made me think this was a 90s sports movie.  The inspirational horns in the background, the plain black placard with the title… As the family approaches the cemetery,  I almost expected the classic 90s voiceover to come in,a la Stand By Me, like, “When I was a young man, I was called away to serve my country in one of the most horrible wars humanity has ever seen….” Etc, etc.

I was wrong.  Soooooo wrong.  Maybe the first shot has aged, but the rest is brutal.

But Saving Private Ryan doesn’t waste any more time as we flash back to the beach at Normandy.  In a $70 million budget, this sequence alone cost $12 million.  The realism, rather than the exploitation, of war caused the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to set up a hotline for veterans who found the battle scenes too painful to watch.  Soldiers are suddenly, literally, exploding, they can’t even move fast enough to defend themselves, and even when they make it into the water, they’re not safe.  We see Tom Hanks delivered into the chaos, wondering how he’s supposed to carry any kind of strategy out when just staying alive is nearly impossible.  He attempts to drag a wounded soldier with him up the beach, but looks back only to discover he’s holding on to exactly half a body.  (Why am I trying to eat something right now??)

And that’s only 15 minutes in.  Did I mention this is really f*cking brutal?

In a lot of ways, this could have very easily been your run-of-the-mill war movie, and sometimes it falls back on those tropes: the soundtrack (once again, sorry), the hyper-masculine talk between the soldiers deployed to find James Ryan, but most of the time, it transcends the places where it might have gotten cliched and faltered.

The scene where the group arrives in Neuville comes to mind: the sequence involving the little French girl is heartbreaking.  A slight reprieve, and then a wall gets knocked over to reveal a group of German soldiers.  Part of the power here is in the way that the scenes follow one another, absolutely relentless.  Like Miller and Caparzo and Reiben and all of the others, we struggle to find coherence, to take ‘reasonable’ actions when the shouting and misunderstandings and danger are continuous.  Frankly, it’s immersive.

I will probably never be closer to being a soldier in World War II.  Unless something really weird happens, that’s probably true.

The question of the movie: Is it really worth it to save Ryan?  I mean, it’s a war after all.  People die.  And it sucks that all four of his brothers have died, but can you imagine being the one brother who makes it back?  The pressure of being the only son to return?  What that would do to your relationship to your mother?

Is it worth it when they lose Caprazo and Wade?

And then, how do you reconcile yourself to getting out of the war early just because somebody in the war department noticed your name?  Matt Damon plays Ryan beautifully, given that he only shows up in the last quarter of the movie.  He gives us the heroic refusal to leave his ‘only remaining brothers’, his small squadron with its suicide mission.  You don’t hate him for being the guy who gets to go home.

But when the Germans show up and try to take the bridge the Americans are protecting, it seems that everything is validated.  In the brutality and the chaos of this final battle scene 90% of the characters don’t make it out.  It changes the dynamic of the mission, so that Ryan’s survival no longer seems so contrived – everyone is just trying to survive.

The greatness and the durability of Saving Private Ryan are in its battle scenes above everything else.  Spielberg treads the line between melodrama and exploitation,  which results in moments of profound humanity for the soldiers (think Upham’s cowardice, Miller’s sacrifice) as well as a realistic taste of warfare.  I kept wondering how you could possibly know who to target with so much going on and everybody in similar uniforms.  That alone would stress me out.  There, in the dirt and the mud, between the concussive blasts and the sheer luck of avoiding bullets.  The bittersweet phyrric battle.  This movie, unlike many others, engages with the humanity of its soldiers, and for me, that makes all the difference.

Random Things of Note:

  • Is that a young Nathan Fillion sighting?
  • Is Wade Frank Jr. from Friends?  (The answer to both of this is yes!)
  • Title drop at 1:53
  • Matt Damon…. come on, man.  You’re cute and all, but you have to stop needing rescue.  It’s kind of a weird way to be typecast.

3 thoughts on “Film Thoughts: Saving Private Ryan

  1. I took a class called WWII Goes to the Movies and the whole focus was how the portrayal of the war fits in with the actual events. If you’d like any recommendations, I’d suggest that you watch the following:
    Red Tails (2012) – focuses on the black fighter pilot group, the 332nd
    Lifeboat (1944) – Hitchcock film that really acts as a commentary on race relations and such
    The Railway Man (2013) – based on a true story and starring Colin Firth as a WWII veteran who suffers PTSD from his time at a Japanese death camp
    Hell in the Pacific (1968) – an American and a Japanese man are marooned on an island together and have to try to survive together, despite their facial biases


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