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Today marks the exact 70th anniversary of June 6, 1944, the most famous D-Day in history. The Allies landed at Normandy to save France in what is considered the turning point of the European theater of World War II. While filmmakers had tried before to capture the event, it has never been done as well as director Steven Spielberg did it in Saving Private Ryan. But, while D-Day is where the film begins, it's important to remember that the movie is much more than its first 27 minutes.
Saving Private Ryan was written by Roger Rodat and uses D-Day as the launching point. During the landings at Omaha Beach, Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) leads one of the many groups of soldiers to take the beach from the Germans. The landing sequence is what has kept Saving Private Ryan among the great films of all time and is quite possibly the best-directed sequence put together in the past 20 years or so. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who also shot Schindler's List) embeds the camera right in the action, as we see soldiers in their boats to the shore to going face-to-face with Germans. There is no glory here, just death, blood and bullets. Miller is our guide through this hell and we slowly meet the other soldiers we spend the remaining two and a half hours with.
If you do focus on the opening though, you miss so much that the film has to offer. This is like looking at On The Waterfront and only examining the “I coulda been a contender” speech or ignoring everything else in Psycho but the shower scene. All great films have moments that transcend the medium, but that's ignoring why they are great. Saving Private Ryan, like the previously mentioned films, is great because the whole product is perfect. The actual mission of finding Private Ryan (Matt Damon) is as enthralling as those 27 minutes.
Captain Miller and his men are ordered to find Ryan after the higher-ups learn that his three other brothers have all died. Miller then leads his men through a journey of the French countryside as the war explodes behind them. Along the way, their faith in the mission, the military and the war itself are tested as members of the group die.
The rest of the film is as great as it is because Spielberg is able to tread the line between pure reverence for the men that fought World War II while still showing the horrors of war. Previous World War II movies about the actual fighting never explored the cost of it like Saving Private Ryan. But unlike Vietnam movies like The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now, there is no question that the overall goal of the war is right. It's really how one reaches that goal that is up for criticism in Saving Private Ryan.
One of the most important scenes in the film comes at the midway point, when the group captures a German. Is it right to kill him or follow the “rules” of war? Miller's men – particularly Private First Class Richard Reiben (Edward Burns) – think that the man should be shot, but Miller is conflicted. He instead decides to let him go blindfolded. Reiben is angered and ready to leave the mission, but the men must realize that it's not an easy decision even for Miller. Here's a man we later learn was a schoolteacher before the war and now he's playing God. The choices these men have to make a much bigger than they had ever had to face before even at the basic level. It's not just the generals, but the soldiers, too.
Ryan works on every level thanks to the incredible performances from Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns and the rest of Miller's squad. Hanks gives one of his best performances here, playing a role that makes the film accessible to average viewers. We can feel the weight of every tough decision he has to make, all thanks to Hanks. While we may get lost in the beauty of Spielberg's technical achievements, it's important to note how good Hanks is here. Of course, Matt Damon doesn't disappoint when he comes in during the film's third act.
While writer Rodat may seem like the top collaborator for Spielberg, Kaminski is really the other master at work behind the camera. After his stark black and white cinematography for Schindler's List, Kaminski again ensures that Spielberg's subject is never glorified. This film looks like it was made with the same cameras used to make newsreels during the real war. It is grainy, gritty and has a muted tone throughout.
This is in stark contrast to John Toll's cinematography on Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, which also came out in 1998, but focuses on the Pacific Theater. That movie is more of a philosophical view of war with awe-inspiring camerawork to go with it. Spielberg gave a very different view of war, putting us in the action with a soldier, rather than within the mind of one.
On Home Video: Spielberg doesn't do commentaries, but he does allow really in-depth behind-the-scenes documentaries for his films. Saving Private Ryan gets that treatment on Blu-ray. This is one release that belongs in every film library.
Many say that Saving Private Ryan is the greatest war film of all time, and, while I'm hard pressed to say that, I will say it is among the Top 5 greatest. There are plenty of older war movies that really are as enthralling as Ryan, but there haven't been any since and there really will not be. Spielberg made the definitive “traditional” war movie. There's still room for thrillers like Kathryn Bigelow's recent work, but Ryan really is the culmination of the classical war movie that began back with All Quiet on the Western Front.
image courtesy of ACE/INFphoto.com