Saving Private Ryan (1998) – Review

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Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Robert Rodat

Cast: Matt Damon, Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Jeremy Davies, and Amanda Boxer

Length: 2 hours and 49 minutes

Genre: Drama, war

MPAA Rating: R

Description from IMDB:
“Following the Normandy Landings, a group of U. S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action.”

During the Normandy landing on D-Day, the three brothers of Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) have all died and high command decides to dispatch a group of soldiers to bring him home so as to assuage his mother’s grief. This group is under the command of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), two veterans of the earlier conflicts in the war. They are accompanied by a sniper (Barry Pepper), a medic (Giovanni Ribisi), three riflemen (Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, and Vin Diesel), and a translator (Jeremy Davies). As the group makes their way through Nazi-occupied France, they encounter other pockets of soldiers fighting the war and debate the logic of sending the eight of them to find one soldier.

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The squad is made up of distinct personalities. Captain Miller is reserved and calm, allowing his men to make bets as to where he is from and what he did before the war. His second-in-command, Sergeant Horvath, is a loyal soldier who gives him council and watches the men in their group. The sniper, Private Jackson, is devoutly religious and the medic, Wade, struggles with the futility of trying to save people during a pitched battle. They are joined by the boisterous and authority-questioning Private Reiben and pals Private Mellish and Private Caparzo. The outsider of the group is Corporal Upham, a translator with zero combat experience who finds himself having a difficult time creating relationships with the other soldiers. As they bond through the fires of war, discussions of morality arise as they wonder at the logic of their mission, and when they must decide whether to kill a German POW or set him free.

The brotherhood between soldiers is what makes Ryan wish to stay when he is finally found, and we see a glimpse of what he will return to. The camera’s framing during a sequence when Mrs. Ryan (Amanda Boxer) sees the military car driving up to her farm shows the pride in the family of having all four boys in the military. As she sinks to her knees when a soldier and priest leave the car, the scene is framed with photographs of her boys in uniform and a flag. This forced perspective shows how difficult hearing of her lost sons must be and drive home the importance of the mission.

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Possibly the most intense sequence in the film is the battle at Normandy beach. The cinematography uses close-ups of the main characters while they wait to disembark from the boats onto the beach. The camera dips in and out of the water along with the soldiers, creating an effect of being in the action with them. A tilted perspective is used to disorient, as are close-ups of the action with soldiers running into and out of frame. The camera is shaky, rather than fluid, and point-of-view shots from the Nazi’s perspective leaves them as shadowy silhouettes; this reinforces the idea of charging into the unknown with gunfire punching toward the viewer.

There is so much put into the visuals of this film that creates another level of appreciation upon subsequent viewings. The film is bookended with Ryan standing in the cemetery and the first and last images we see are of a back-lit American flag billowing in the wind, creating a sense of pride in the sacrifice witnessed throughout the film. The sound also plays a large part in creating the mood of the movie. There is a sequence where rain begins to fall on a leaf, and as the drops become more frequent, they are dispelled by intermittent bursts of gunfire until a torrent falls from the heavens amid the sound of machine gun fire. This brings an artistic flourish to a sequence that could otherwise have been far more mundane.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) is one of the most famous war movies in America for good reason. The film seeks to glorify the sacrifice that soldiers made, rather than the violence of war. There is gore, and brutal violence in this film; characters die and it is not in their sleep, but it is seeing these men go to such great lengths to protect one another that heightens the effect of the film. The film won 5 Academy Awards in 1998 and it is no surprise that it did so. The characters are well-written and portrayed, the action sequences are intense, and the film is more than a pro-America propaganda piece. This is a film about men whose sacrifice came as part of their decision to volunteer, and it is a fitting tribute to their contribution toward fighting evil and tyranny during World War II.

Verdict: 5 sacrifices on the altar of freedom out of  5

Recommended for: Adults, fans of Band of Brothers, fans of Steven Spielberg, World War II nuts, people who like noticing now-famous actors in minor roles, those without an aversion to gory movies, and you!

Not recommended for: Children, people who dislike Matt Damon, children who dislike Matt Damon, those who don’t like shaky-cam in action sequences, fans of short movies, those who dislike Tom Hanks (a.k.a. liars), or those with an aversion to gory movies.

The images featured in this post can be found through the hyperlinks below.
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9 thoughts on “Saving Private Ryan (1998) – Review

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