I gotta be honest with you. In terms of films, war films do not receive the highest exaltation in my book. Now, I’m not saying war films are bad, quite the contrary. What I am saying is that I feel that we have, basically, exhausted every possible way to do a war film. A film describing the horrors of war? Seen it. A film describing the psychological toll of war? Seen it. A war film bathing itself in shallow heroism? Seen it. A film that takes war to task on a philosophical level? Seen it.
In my opinion, many war films boil down the same way: A series of one-dimensional cardboard cut-out archetypes act like testosterone-infused punks, say quasi-funny and occasionally perverse dialogue, give their background via routine, sapless conversations or images, such as the man who just wants to be back with his family, have a majority of overly portentous speeches, and a majority of them get killed and everyone finds it more horrifying and byzantine than expected. Done.
At this point, all of it feels so premeditated and distant. While some war films may have been the best thing ever back then, watching some of them now just reinforces my complaint with them. Now, to be fair, I’ve only seen a few war films. The information I am gathering is coming from personal observations and possible assumptions. Of the war films I have seen, I do, however, think they are, despite my issues with them, really good. Really, really good. And how can Saving Private Ryan not be really, really good, seeing how it’s made by the really, really good director, Steven Spielberg? The answer is: It can’t not be really, really good, because it is really, really good. #tonguetwister
Now that I’ve soiled the word, “really,” let me discuss the plot of the film. The film opens with a shot of an elderly man in a cemetery, which has the fallen soldiers of World War II. He sees the surfeit of tombstones and breaks down. Through his eyes, the film takes us back to the Omaha Beach assault in 1944 with the U.S. army squad at battle led by Captain John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks. After the assault, which I will discuss later, it is revealed that there are four brothers of the Ryan family fighting in the war. In a plaintive and haunting scene, we learn that three of them have died in action. However, the fourth brother, James, is missing and Miller and his squad are ordered to find him and bring him back home.
Now, some of the issues I have with other war films are here, mostly the inadequate, plastic character development. The almost cartoonish testosterone is still there. The dissonant, forced humor, albeit there is one scene referencing an EE-breasted girl trying to fit into a 42 D bra that is consistently and fluidly funny, is there. The sluggish, threadbare conversations are still there. The rote dialogue involving the honor and dignity of fighting is there. There is even one character, a klutzy, tender soldier, who isn’t funny, interesting, or very likable, and basically only serves as the inevitable, philosophical backbone. The characters are so wafer-thin that you pretty much immediately forget their names. Plus, not only are the actors portraying the soldiers subpar, but some supporting cast revelations seem out of blue, like, “Hey, there’s Vin Diesel! Look, it’s Paul Giamatti! Hey, it’s Phoebe’s brother from Friends!” And there is a final shot of the American flag that is a little nationalistic and severely pandering that it’s cringe inducing.
However, there are two characters that are thoroughly realized. One of which is Captain John Miller. Every beat with him is enthralling. Thanks must also go to the actor portraying him. Tom Hanks shows us his versatility as usual as he plunges into his role with assurance, virility, and authority. His performance is also very nuanced in a bold way. When you’re dealing with a character that, after commencing his men to shoot a German man, sobs intensely, this is a very complex role and Tom Hanks handles it exceptionally. The other character that is made out of meat, not cardboard, is Private James Ryan. While the reaction to the discovery of him is profoundly under whelming, Will Hunting himself, Matt Damon, who plays Ryan with a muscular magnificence, briskly rescues the scene. Like Hanks, Damon delves headfirst into Ryan’s perplexity and deep internal duty. The ideal that Damon would rather sacrifice his own life than save it is really revealing.
In terms of the technical aspect of the film, do I even have to comment? It’s freaking Spielberg. One aspect of the film that everyone talks about is the opening Omaha Beach battle. I’ve heard so many cinephiles raving about how it’s one of the best moments in film, one of the best battles filmed. Pretty much if you review this film and refuse to mention it, one might get hanged by their thumbs. All I can say is…damn!
This is one of Spielberg’s most ambitious film moments. I mean, this scene is talked about for good reason. Spielberg uses every technical gimmick imaginable: explosions, constant dialogue, absence of audibility, lurid moments, booming audio, slow-mo, Dutch tilts, close-ups, shaky cam (which ranges from richly abrasive to overkill), great POV shots, squirting blood on the camera, etc. It’s overwhelming yet remarkable. It is gritty, extremely graphic, realistic and palpable and the longer the scene progresses, the tension, anxiety, and desperation progresses further. All of the battle scenes are immaculately choreographed, despite the overuse of the shaky cam. Seriously, was the cinematographer having a seizure?
As predicted for a Spielberg production, the cinematography is massive, adopting a grave color palette of grays and muted blues, which really encapsulates how lugubrious and dangerous the environment was around them. There’s even a shot of the soldiers’ silhouettes coming over a hill that is almost an oblique homage to E.T. The camerawork can also adjust its speed and yet still retain its primary motive: to show the brutality of war. When the camera is spry or slow, it compliments the ugliness of war. However, while the film describes the horrors of war, it is not about the horrors of war. It is more about the ferocious determination and intense complexities present in this certain situation. The progression of the journey is absolutely beguiling, despite its unnecessary beats.
I seem to keep falling back on my opinion that there are a lot of trivial, expected moments in the film. This should affect the emotional level of the film, but not really. While there are a lot of labored emotional moments, the genuine occurrences of emotion are actually spot-on. The revelation of the identity of the old man from the beginning is surprisingly unpredictable and it leads to a shot before the final, pedantic shot that is actually really inspiring and sad. Also, when Spielberg allows the voiceovers of letters to the families of fallen soldiers to overlap while the writers incessantly compose them, it’s one of the most heartbreaking, gut-punching, and puissant moments in film history.
To be honest, Saving Private Ryan doesn’t totally work as a war film in itself, per se. The battle scenes are magnificent, but there are too many shopworn clichés and a banal supporting cast.. However, the film is more centered on the mission to bring Private Ryan home. Take that plus the battle scenes, the incredible performances by Hanks and Damon, and Spielberg’s usual brand of crafty filmmaking, and the film really works.