Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan was a film that garnered a lot of attention on release, largely due to the innovative use of "shaky-cam" or hand-held camera work and the sheer effort that went in to creating some of these scenes. Clearly taking inspiration from earlier films such as "The Longest Day" (1962) but with the advances of modern film techniques and a vastly expanded budget, this is an epic war film unlike anything people had seen before. I never saw the film when it came out and only recently watched it on DVD, so I decided to share my thoughts on this film that has become a classic of the genre.

The film starts off in a present day military cemetery where we see an elderly man, flanked by his family approaching one of the hundreds of white crosses that mark the graves of fallen soldiers of WWII. We then cut to the D-Day landings in what is the film's most memorable and talked about scene. For the next half hour we are given a masterclass in filming a large scale action sequence, as we land with the soldiers, they slog their way up the beach avoiding razor-wire, gunfire and mines, many being cut down and having limbs blown off. It is chaotic, horrific, and the camera brings you right down to the level of the troops. You really feel each foot of ground that they gain towards the gun emplacements. When they finally reach their objective, our protagonist Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) re-orders his troops and we sigh along with him that they managed to survive that hellish experience. We are then taken to the Chief of Staff's office in the United States where a woman in the typing pool sending condolence letters to parents of men killed in action realises that three brothers have been killed, with a fourth surviving. Not wishing this woman to lose all her sons, the army send orders that Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) is to be found and brought home. However, Private Ryan parachuted into France with the 101st Airborne and they do not know where he is. Captain Miller is given the task of searching for him.

This is undoubtedly a great movie, with a scale that is incredible to look at. Every aspect of direction, set and costume design and cinematography shows that these are people working at a very high level indeed. From the opening scene with landing craft arriving on the beach you are completely immersed in the world. And as they move through bombed out villages, the sets are so believable that you almost forget that they were created for the film. The Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski used a technique to give the film a grainy quality, further enhancing the period feel while not being distracting. There are a few nice touches in the direction that I would mention. I liked the shot early on during the landing sequence when they look up at the towering wall of the gun emplacement, emphasising what a task is ahead of them. This particularly resonates when they finally reach it and you can think back to that intimidating sight. In one scene a soldier is shot down and falls on a piano, sending a discordant note through the village, in another a sniper is reciting scripture while looking down on the enemy from a belltower. All of these little touches add an element of interest to things. I also enjoyed the brief flashes of humour, albeit dark at times, such as the soldier deafened by a grenade who they ask for help, their teasing of the translator assigned to their crew, and some of the amusing anecdotes told by the men. These all serve to lighten the mood and show that the situation they are in is far from normal, and that most would far rather be home.

Tom Hanks gives a great performance as the Captain, caring but always in command of the situation. He is just a regular guy, we learn that he was a teacher back home, who is trying to get through the war and return to his wife. He also has a condition that causes his hand to shake, that further adds pathos to his character. Matt Damon delivers a great performance in one of his first big movie roles, and you can feel his frustration at being told to go, his pain at learning of his brothers' deaths, and every emotion he goes through.

I cannot say that the film is not without flaws, some of which are personal bug-bears of mine. I have never been a big fan of bookending historical movies with modern scenes, it takes you out of the action, and while the film does its best to build tension I feel as though it would benefit from starting on the beach at Normandy, throwing you straight into the action, and then ending with the story of Miller and Ryan. The "present day" scene really adds nothing for me. The other issue I had with the film was its length. The film is a fairly straightforward story, but they show you every fire-fight they go through shot by shot. Admittedly, this does help you feel the emotions of the soldiers, tired, drained, fearful, but you also start to drift a little and I felt like you could just check back later to see who was left standing. I am a big fan of the television show "Band of Brothers" that Spielberg and Hanks worked on together after finishing "Saving Private Ryan" and that show is done in much the same style, with lengthy battles shot in detail. The difference is that the show is split into one hour episodes, manageable pieces, whereas this film gives it to you all in one sitting. Of course, some people will have less of a problem than me with this, particularly if you are a military buff.

The film is an incredible spectacle and lets you experience a little of what it was like to fight through France with these men. Fantastic action sequences, great actors, and all around amazing production design make it worth seeing.