FILM REVIEW: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (USA, 1998)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon


It's a total lie that directors who seek primarily to entertain cannot be considered great filmmakers. But it's a lie that Steven Spielberg has bought for quite some time, and his career has suffered for it. Spielberg at a heart an entertainer, a circus ringmaster who excels at making light-hearted popcorn films with a rich and subtle heart. When he attempts to be 'serious', he just gets bogged down and loses his way, resulting in a number of admirable failures like Saving Private Ryan.There can be no doubt that Saving Private Ryan was made with the very best intentions. In his earlier films about WWII, the conflict had served as the backdrop to light-hearted character drama complimented by action sequences, something especially true of Indiana Jones. In making this film, Spielberg was seeking to move the war film away from the action genre, to tackle the heat of battle head on and capture the fear and bravery of the men involved.This intention is clearly evident in the great opening section involving the D-Day invasion of the Normandy beaches. Spielberg shot these 20 minutes without storyboards and completely in sequence: in a feat not attempted since Full Metal Jacket, his camera crew took the beach with the soldiers a few yards at a time over the course of two months. Most of the scene is shot in intense close-up with shaky camera, putting you right next to the soldiers. You get not only the adrenaline but the incoherence of being in a battle, and when people around you are getting killed or wounded, it feels terrifyingly real.This realistic, documentary approach is reinforced by the grainy cinematography. Janusz Kaminski, who also shot Schindler's List, shoots the battle sequences in very pale colours, giving the impression that we are watching black-and-white footage which has been artificially colourised. This, together with the positioning of Spielberg's camera, blurs the boundary between reality and fiction, so that if you came in after the opening credits, you would swear you were watching The World at War.A related strength of Saving Private Ryan is its cast. In the past war films have avoided going down the Rambo root of being ultra-violent star vehicles by casting little-known actors in lead roles - for instance, Matthew Modine in Full Metal Jacket. Spielberg, on the other hand, has both the star power to sell the film and the conviction (in his casting at last) not to let the stars take over the story. Tom Hanks is there in a good performance, but the other members of his company are unrecognisable in the best possible way. And that's before we've got to the well-blended cameos by Paul Giamatti and Ted Danson.Up until the twenty-five minute mark then, everything is so far, so good. But like Schindler's List and The Colour Purple before it, there comes a point in Saving Private Ryan when Spielberg loses his nerve. He drops the ball momentarily, in a plot device or a particular image which undercuts the dark, weighty tone he had been going for, and after that the film never recovers its initial intensity. In Schindler's List, it's the girl in the red dress; in The Colour Purple, it's Celie finding her sisters' letters; and in this film, it's the moment when the Chief-of-Staff personally orders Captain Miller to bring Private James Ryan home.This might seem an odd objection, considering that this order and the subsequent mission are the centrepiece of the whole film. But the objection is justified because it completely changes the tone and intentions of Saving Private Ryan, in a way which ultimately detrimental to the power and message of the film. Having started so confidently, this scene makes everything that follows seem contrived, imposing a generic Hollywood rescue movie onto something so resiliently un-Hollywood.

What results for the best part of two hours is a film pulling in two different directions. On the one hand, it wants to continue to be bleak and unsentimental in its depiction of war and death, trying to keep up the realism and put the audience through the mill. On the other hand, it wants to bring in the mainstream, giving us not just spectacle but sentimentality to take off the rough edges - the very rough edges that would have made the film more convincing. In the end, Spielberg never quite decides which one of these directions he would prefer: he tries to have it both ways, and gets nowhere.The comparisons with Schindler's List are not only structural. There is a direct through-line between the films in the scene in the French village, in which a family ask Vin Diesel to take their young daughter away so that she will not be killed by the Germans - think Sophie's Choice, with the roles reversed. This could be a powerful image or scene, counterpointing the soldiers' refusal to take the child with their orders to liberate France. But as with the girl in the red dress, it feels instead like a clunky shorthand for the cost of war, a melodramatic insert designed to spoon-feed its audience instead of letting them soak up the horror for themselves.That's not to say that Saving Private Ryan doesn't attempt to tackle a number of interesting issues, albeit ones which are familiar within the war film genre. The film tries to understand the mentality of the soldiers in Miller's company, from Upham, the nervous but intelligent fish-out-of-water, to Miller himself, seasoned and battle-hardened but plagued by the shakes. And in the final battle involving Miller and Private Ryan (a good performance by Matt Damon), there is an interesting discussion about confusing orders and the role of duty. The characters torn are between doing what was ordered (leaving with Ryan, thereby letting the bridge fall) and what is right (staying and fighting, at the risk of killing Ryan and failing their mission).But again, there's a conflict in such scenes between Spielberg's intentions and the possibilities afforded by his directorial technique. Whether because of the shooting style or the frenetic pace of the dialogue, we never bond with the characters as much as we might like. We can only name half of them at any one time, and the speed at which people are killed leads us to feel that, dramatically speaking, it may not be worth our while bonding with any of them. This makes the quieter conversations interesting interludes but not something which is narratively cohesive.A further problem with Saving Private Ryan is the goofiness of certain scenes which jar completely with the film's serious intentions. In the midst of trying to play things straight and grim, Spielberg leaves in certain moments which would be great in his lighter works but have no real right to be here. The sequence where Paul Giamatti pushes a plank of wood which knocks down an entire wall - the very one the Germans just happen to be hiding behind - is every bit as out of place as the man treading on the piano keys in Schindler's List. And then there's the epilogue, in which the elderly Private Ryan turns to his wife and says "Tell me I'm a good man" - a saccharine cop-out which makes that scene seem a lot less honest.Like The Colour Purple and Schindler's List before it, Saving Private Ryan is an admirable failure. It is made with the very best intentions, and in both its visuals and its battle choreography, it is technically brilliant. But it never manages to live up to its opening section, settling for convention over character, sentimentality over sheer terror, and - worst of all - length over depth. One hopes that War Horse will be the moment in Spielberg's career when he finally manages to get the balance right.

Rating:
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Verdict: Begins brilliantly but ultimately disappoints

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