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.
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.