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With: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina
Written by: Robert Rodat
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language
Running Time: 170
Date: 07/24/1998

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

War! What Is It Good For?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I heard Steven Spielberg was directing a World War II movie called Saving Private Ryan starring Tom Hanks, I could picture exactly what it would look like in my head; majestically rising crane shots, trumpeting heroic music, slow motion, shouts of passion and glory -- the same old stuff. But I was surprised, and impressed. I think we can safely add Saving Private Ryan to the list of Spielberg's masterworks; Schindler's List, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The premise of the movie is one that even the most cold-hearted critics can't dismiss. Near the end of World War II, it is discovered that three of Mrs. Ryan's boys have been killed in battle, and she will be receiving all three telegrams on the same day. The military decides that her fourth son, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) should be sent home to her. Everyone has a mother, and can imagine the astounding loss she would feel in Mrs. Ryan's place. At one point a letter from Abraham Lincoln is read, which apologizes to a mother of six sons, all of whom were killed in action in the Civil War. Not a dry eye in the house.

The movie opens with a strange, translucent-looking American flag, and right away we know that patriotism itself is in question. We flash back to Captain John Miller (Hanks), and his unit as they try to storm a beach in France. Immediately we are treated to a barrage of gore, blood, and violence. This movie should win the Academy Award for sound, hands down. I've seen hundreds of movies where people get shot, but never like this. The bullets sound different here. They sound more menacing, more metallic. Blood sprays out of open wounds. We see raw flesh, guts of all kinds, and rivers of blood mixed and flowing with sea water. Explosions send dust and rocks hurtling down upon us. And people really seem to die. It's overwhelming.

But, this sequence is just to get us acquainted with the kind of war and the kind of characters we're going to be dealing with. Against impossible odds, Miller takes the beach, losing 35 men in the process. At the end, some soldiers weep, and others make jokes. Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) adds a tin of French soil to his collection of soil from around the world. Following this "triumph," Miller gets assigned to find Ryan somewhere in the French countryside.

His unit includes Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen), Jeremy Davies (Spanking the Monkey), Adam Goldberg (Mr. Saturday Night), Giovanni Ribisi (Lost Highway), and newcomers Vin Diesel and Barry Pepper. Ted Danson and Dennis Farina also appear along the way.

They Were Expendable (1945) and The Big Red One (1980) are among the best World War II movies ever made, and were directed by men who actually served in the war (John Ford and Samuel Fuller, respectively). Steven Spielberg can only imagine what war is like, but as we well know, his imagination is powerful. This war is something truly frightening, like nothing we've seen before in movies. In Spielberg's war, there's no time for theatrics or melodrama, but there is time to save one life, just as his Oskar Schindler saved a handful of lives from the Holocaust.

The cinematography is by Janusz Kaminski, who also shot Schindler's List. His battle scenes are shot in a shaky-cam method along with what looks like a skip-frame technique (every other frame of film is cut out). The scenes were not storyboarded, so Kaminski was in the thick of battle, shooting the scenes up close. They're dreamlike, but terrifyingly real.

I've grown exceedingly weary of Tom Hanks' gung-ho characters, his flag-wavers like Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, and Forrest Gump; a one-note character in an irreparably bad movie. But in Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks is miraculous. He looks tired, lost, and sad, but still stoic and resourceful. Sure, he's no Lee Marvin in The Big Red One or John Wayne in They Were Expendable, but he feels like a leader, and you put your trust in him.

Matt Damon's part is small and, actually, he's here as more of a symbol than as a character, but he has one moment where he tells Hanks a story about his brothers that is pure wonder. He giggles through his tears and he makes you do the same. You know who he is from this one scene.

Although he excels at directing actors, Spielberg, as a rule, always goes overboard with music, here by John Williams. Just when the acting and dialogue is powerful enough on its own, he raises the music and drowns it out. There were far too many examples of this in Amistad. He is guilty of this here too, but, thankfully, in remarkably few scenes.

Spielberg seems to be saying with his film that war and nostalgia are a dangerous combination. Saving Private Ryan is an incredible movie, a near-masterpiece, I think. Be prepared for horrors beyond imagining, but also be prepared to be moved, saddened, and changed.

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