AFInity: Saving Private Ryan

By Kim Hollis

July 10, 2009

He's right to hate those Battlefield Earth people.

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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.

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