Considered by many to be the greatest war movie ever made, Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" is every bit worth it's reputation, from the emotionally crushing opening scene to it's heart felt finale.
"Saving Private Ryan" is not for the squeamish, I'll tell you that right up front. The first twenty-five minutes of the film are now legendary, and for good reason. I'm a fan of horror movies, and I've seen it all from cheap, buckets of blood slashers to weird, art house euro-trash. Nothing I'd ever seen before prepared me for the opening of this film. By all accounts, there is no more realistic portrayal of either war or this particular assault as the one committed to celluloid here. The D-Day landing depicted here was as close to hell as human beings can ever get while they are still alive, and it's grueling to watch. Spielberg doesn't pull any punches, nor does he save us any of the gory details, and the shaky, grainy, documentary style camera work just makes it seem all the more real. It's brutal, and that's really all there is to it. If you haven't seen "Saving Private Ryan" yet, be warned, this is not your fathers war movie. This is no John Wayne flick, this is dirty, nasty, mean, cruel and unforgiving, all glorification of war is left out of this one. It's not the warfare that's glorified in this film in any way. It's depicted as totally dehumanizing, and it's not only more courageous for it, it's more effective.
Glorification is saved for the regular, everyday, average people that were the soldiers in America's last good war. It portrays them as men doing extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. What it doesn't do is portray them as having done anything for extraordinary reasons, they were all just trying to make it through and get home, and also trying to make sure the guys with them had a chance to do the same. They weren't out there fighting for some high ideals, they were doing it because they thought what the Germans were doing was wrong, they wanted to win, and they wanted to come home. The heroes here are the men who brought their everyday values to situations most people never face in a lifetime, and those values held them together and took them to levels of courage that haven't actually existed on film before. Precisely because they weren't looking to be heroes at all, they were.
When the initial assault of the first twenty-five minutes of the film is over, we begin to get into what the story is all about. Captain John T. Miller (portrayed by Tom Hanks in a performance which proves he is every bit the greatest actor of his generation) is given a mission in which he and a small unit must travel behind enemy lines to find one Private James F. Ryan and ensure his safe return home. Ryan is one of four children, and by the time D-Day is over, he's the last survivor. The problem is that Ryan is a paratrooper and the German anti-aircraft defense was so strong during the D-Day invasion that almost none of the paratroopers sent out were able to jump to their objectives. Historically, this is accurate. D-Day was relatively poorly planned, and had it not been for the training of the soldiers executing the mission, it would have been a mess. So, Miller and his small squad of seven other men have to go and find one man, somewhere in Southern France who may not even be alive anymore. And so begins a journey through territory infested with Germans, and the story of these seven men and their trials in trying to find someone they don't know, aren't sure they care much about, and don't fully beleive they should have to go rescue.
"Saving Private Ryan" is as good as movies get. Steven Spielberg has released his fare share of Hollywood clap trap crap, but this is not it. No matter what your feelings are on Spielberg, you can't deny that this film, along with "Schindler's List", is proof that although he may not always best use his talent, he may possibly be the greatest director to ever step behind the cameras. This film has more heart than most films released in a year combined. Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, and Jeremy Davies are superb as the squad of men sent out on a mission which does actually seem impossible. The film is peppered with the appearance of familiar faces like Dennis Farina, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti and Dale Dye (a retired military man and one of the films technical advisors whose also made a second career advising film makers and working as an actor in small parts like this one), and they're all great, and maybe purposely placed to give us the same sense of comfort at seeing familiar faces as the soldiers would have for finding other Americans.
"Saving Private Ryan" may be the first anti-war film which doesn't at all preach. In the long run, though the soldiers believe in the war they are fighting, and today most people feel WWII was the last "good" war America was involved in, it still leaves the audience and in fact and an elderly Private Ryan wondering whether such loss of life can ever be accounted for, is it ever worth it, can we ever live up to the sacrifice others make in war? It's a hauntingly effective film, and in it's own way a meditation of the dehumanizing effects of war, not in some big dramatic way, but in the small ways which make day to day life harder having lived through something like that.
"Saving Private Ryan" is probably the greatest war movie ever made. It immediately took it's place among the "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket" contingent of films and even those films may not match it in raw emotional power and pure sensory assault. "Saving Private Ryan" is the kind of film which only rarely comes along, and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to see it in theaters. Probably the most effecting thing about "Saving Private Ryan" for me wasn't anything which happened in the film itself, but on that opening weekend, coming out of the theater when it was over, seeing how many men of that generation were wiping tears from their eyes in public. I have a grandfather who is a part of the WWII generation, had two of them for a long time, and men of that generation do not cry in public, they may not cry at all, but definitely not in public. But coming out of "Saving Private Ryan" there were many crying, wiping their eyes and holding the hands of their loved ones, who maybe for the first time understood what kind of hell they survived. For that alone, "Saving Private Ryan" deserves to be called the greatest war film of all time.