AFInity: Saving Private Ryan
By Kim Hollis
July 10, 2009

He's right to hate those Battlefield Earth people.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#71) Saving Private Ryan

There was a time - specifically, the years 1993-1998 - that my life had a big black hole in it where movies were concerned. Sure, I got out to see the occasional film, but because I worked odd hours in retail and hadn't yet decided that it was okay to go to the theater by myself, I pretty much missed every big release. That includes stuff like The Lost World, Armageddon, Godzilla, True Lies, Apollo 13, The Rock, Liar Liar and Speed. Also on the list - until this week - was a movie that received countless accolades, including five Academy Award wins (out of 11 nominations - its Best Picture loss to Shakespeare in Love remains the subject of much debate). Since I already gave it away, you know that the title in question is Saving Private Ryan. One of only 11 films released after 1990 to appear on the 100 Years... 100 Movies list, the Steven Spielberg title is regarded as one of the greatest war films ever. It's more than a decade old. Would it have the same impact on me that it might have if I had seen it when it was originally in theaters?

I should probably state right at the outset of my comments that I'm generally not a big fan of war movies. While I remember watching Platoon and liking the symbolism and performances, I've typically either avoided the genre or had trouble sitting through movies that have war as their primary subject matter. The gritty realism can be troubling, particularly in a day and age where we can turn on CNN and see these types of scenes played out in real-time. I don't necessarily need to watch a movie to be appalled by the senselessness of it all.

Given what I'd heard about Saving Private Ryan, I had reason for trepidation. Whenever I heard friends discuss the movie, the conversation always turned to the intensity of the opening segment. I understood that it was exceptionally graphic and disturbing. Thus, I was well prepared for what I was about to see in the first 24 minutes.

Perhaps I was ready for the worst, because while I'll certainly agree that the Omaha beachhead assault scene was depressing, overly realistic and a grim reminder that war truly is hell, it wasn't as devastating as I feared it would be. I don't know what I was expecting instead, but I imagine that trends like torture porn in horror movies and the emergence of police procedurals as a genre on television have desensitized me to the violence to some degree. What a difference ten years makes.

Of course, this opening scene is effectively just setting the stage for what happens in the rest of the movie, and it succeeds in this regard. The scenes of combat are merciless in their assault on the senses, and we feel real pain for the individuals who were involved in the real-life battle. It also serves to remind the viewer that war means injury, and war brings death. We see the staggering number of casualties and realize that in some cases, the men sent on this mission never stood a chance at surviving.

The transition to the story's set-up, then, is fairly natural. We learn that three brothers have been killed within a few days of each other, and their mother will receive her notification about all of them on the same day. She has only one son still alive - the titular Private Ryan - and General George C. Marshall places orders that the young man be found and sent home immediately. There's some argument amongst the officers as to whether this is the wisest course of action, but in the end, it is determined that losing four sons is too much for one family to bear.

This question is raised again and again throughout the film, albeit in different ways. In addition to the exposition from the officers making the decision about Ryan's future, it's also subtly ingrained in us from the movie's beginning. After all, we see the death of thousands of men at Saving Private Ryan's opening. Why is their sacrifice less significant than that of the Ryan family?

In addition to establishing the movie's moral middle, that Omaha Beach opening is also critical in that it shows us the tactical and personnel-relations capabilities of Captain John H. Miller, portrayed by Tom Hanks. He manages to survive the initial onslaught, and cobbles together some remaining soldiers to break through the German defenses, allowing them to escape the beach. His competence and strategic aptitude are evident in this first scene, and will carry on throughout the film.

It's important to establish this element of Captain Miller's character right away, because he is the heart of Saving Private Ryan. It is Captain Miller who receives the orders to organize a group of elite men to go rescue Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) and bring him back to headquarters so he can be sent home. Even if the captain doesn't agree with the notion that one man might be more deserving of going home than another, he feels that completing the mission brings him one step closer to going home himself, and that is the reason to keep pressing forward.

Hanks is marvelous in the role, and was justifiably nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor (he would ultimately lose to La vita รจ bella's Roberto "I used up all my English" Benigni - apparently Nazi death camp horrors overrule other WWII horrors). You believe that his men would do anything for him, and even though early in the film he appears desensitized to the death happening all around him, we realize as we get closer to the movie's conclusion that he feels each loss intensely. When Captain Miller's "secret" is revealed, it all makes perfect sense, because his performance up to that point has helped to make all the pieces fit together.

And yet, Saving Private Ryan is much more of an ensemble piece than any sort of character study. Captain Miller is tasked with gathering the cream of the crop to aid him in Ryan's rescue, and it's a diverse bunch indeed. Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg and Jeremy Davies make up the group of young men who take on the mission, and each one has something important to bring to the film. The most memorable performances come from Sizemore, Burns, Pepper and Davies, though. Sizemore is solid in these military-type roles (he's great in Black Hawk Down as well), and as the Sergeant who is Captain Miller's right-hand man, he provides full support while also being the "muscle" in disciplinary situations. He's an imposing presence onscreen, and it works well for the character. Burns is tasked with portraying the hardcore cynic, and given that he frequently plays more bland roles these days, it's nice to see him embrace this embittered soul while still imbuing him with a sense of loyalty and dedication. Pepper, whose career has really gone into a tailspin since co-starring in Battlefield Earth, is just amazing as the avenging angel and the best of the best.

Still, as I reflect on the movie, the actor my mind keeps returning to is Davies. His character, Corporal Upham, is not a regular soldier (or even a field medic) like the rest of the team. He's plucked up at the last moment because Captain Miller needs a new translator to replace the one who just died in battle. Upham protests that he hasn't carried a gun since basic - and tries to bring his typewriter along. He is definitely on the outside looking in. As such, he serves as the audience's eyes and ears, giving us the everyman's perspective and infusing the film with key moments of humanity. I like him on Lost and thought he was memorable in Solaris, but this is the performance of a career, all the more impressive because he upstages so many other actors who turned in admirable work themselves.

It's a credit to Spielberg that he's able to elicit such amazing work from a diverse group. I'm also impressed with a number of the techniques used to give the movie a more gritty, realistic feel. From the underwater shots in the opening scene (for some reason, seeing gunshots hit from underwater is incredibly gut-wrenching) to the muted, muddy colors to a point-of-view shot that emphasizes the hectic, overwhelming environment, everything is carefully and credibly constructed to convince the viewer that these are events taking place in the 1940s. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has also worked with Spielberg on films like Schindler's List, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report and Munich, gives the movie an authentic feel - it has a bit more color and crispness than one of the old newsreels of the day, but they are clearly an element of his inspiration.

Given the movie's 170 minute run time, the story is surprisingly simple. There's effectively nothing more to it than the search and rescue mission. Where it achieves its complexity is in the constant reminder of the moral dilemma at hand. The movie never tells the viewer how to feel about whether one man's life is worth risking so many, which is admirable. Such ambiguity is rare in Spielberg's work. Saving Private Ryan never pulls any punches, either. For all that I was prepared to be shocked and disturbed by the Omaha Beach scene, I was completely taken aback by how devastating the later scenes of the movie were. I won't give anything away - in case there are some who have missed the film up to now - but there is a death that I found so impacting and heart-rending that I felt a need to get up and walk away for a bit. Fortunately, since I was watching the movie from the comfort of my own living room, I was able to do just that.

I've been heaping tons of praise on Saving Private Ryan, and yet the honest evaluation is that it left me just a bit cold in the end. This is odd, because my complaints are fairly minor. Primary amongst these is my belief that the bookending opening/closing scene, featuring an elderly man who has returned to the scene of the battle, feels unnecessary and tacked on to appease test audiences. That willingness to allow the film to be ambiguous I spoke of before is compromised somewhat. Additionally, I found John Williams' score to be inappropriately light at times. It was oddly incongruous and would take me right out of the movie.

Perhaps my biggest issue is my feeling that the movie may have tried to pack too many characters into the mix, never allowing us to fully identify with any one of them. Even Upham, who serves as a surrogate for the viewer, is not someone whose motivations (and lack thereof) we completely understand. Thus, the impact is lessened when characters experience loss, or when they are injured or killed. I'm sure that Spielberg was playing with archetypes here, but I think this device plays out better in novels than it does in film.

Nonetheless, I understand and agree that Saving Private Ryan is an important American movie, one worthy of being on the AFI list. Spielberg's willingness to tackle the truths of war is not unprecedented, but it takes things many degrees further than most had been willing to go in the past. The film's moral issues stand apart, too. In most cases, I could see the producers/creators of a movie like this one making Private Ryan a heroic character, keeping us on pins and needles with concern for his welfare. Instead, we worry far more about the men tasked with saving him, to the point that we truly do wonder whether the sacrifices they make are worth sending him home to his family. These are the kind of issues that are worth pondering. And they're the sort of moral dilemmas that make war so unsavory.

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