3. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
This is the second Steven Spielberg movie on my list. No wonder why everybody calls him the best director of all time. The 1990s was a turning point for Spielberg. He did make the super entertaining Jurassic Park but then all of a sudden converted to extremely serious and dark historical dramas, such as Schindler’s List and Amistad. Saving Private Ryan in my opinion is Spielberg’s strongest effort during this transition. While Schindler’s List and Grave of the Fireflies shows the horrifying effect of war on people, Saving Private Ryan shows war’s effect on the soldiers’ themselves.
Eight soldiers led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) are tasked with finding Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) after the Chief of Staff learns that Ryan’s three brothers have all been killed in combat. The problem is, they don’t know where Private Ryan is. This puts Miller’s squad on a painful journey to find Private Ryan and bring him back home. “This Ryan better be worth it,” one of the soldiers grumbles.
The film’s opening sequence on Omaha beach is often considered as one of the most thrilling battle sequences of all time and rightfully so. I see it as way more epic in scope than any battle from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is as graphic as any piece of war footage I have seen. The violence is not glorified. Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kamiński made the correct decision of de-saturating the color of the blood so that we are more focused on what is going on rather than just the pure violence. This opening sequence is not only important for establishing the brutality of war but establishes the distance between the soldiers and the high-ranking officials. The high-ranking officials give difficult tasks to soldiers without necessarily knowing how high the stakes are and how painful the process might be.
The film has almost a newsreel sense to it, mostly because of Spielberg’s decision to use a low quality handheld camera. Another great aspect of the cinematography is that the camera feels confused like the soldiers during battle sequences. The camera moves shakily with the soldiers and ducks in tight angles to give a sense of claustrophobia and fear. With all of these choices it may seem that the film would look like a mess but it doesn’t. That is Kamiński’s largest achievement with the cinematography in the film. Making all of the visual information comprehendible for a normal audience member. We don’t just see a huge blob of gunfire, mud, blood and dead bodies, we can understand who is fighting who and the weight of each action that happens. There are a lot of close ups of Captain Miller’s face. Sometimes, the film utilizes a unique editing technique of removing certain frames to give a distorted feel. This is used when Captain Miller is taking in what is going on and when he has accepted the possibility of dying.
I found the final act especially touching. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the film adds philosophical depth to war through just the action. Saving Private Ryan manages to express sophisticated ideas and emotions of war through the simplest actions and feelings, strong imagery, swearing and brotherhood. These forms of expression make the communication of these ideas far more effective. Spielberg is the wealthiest and one of the most critically acclaimed directors of all time. This gives him enough power to reach any tool he needs to make a film. But unlike many other directors (*cough* Michael Bay *cough*), Spielberg uses his resources wisely to make an excellent final product.
Saving Private Ryan also has a very strong human element. Spielberg is famous for the sentimental tone in his films and sometimes can get a little too carried away with it. That does not happen at all in Saving Private Ryan. Tom Hanks is the perfect choice to place Captain Miller because he has the natural likable and compassionate look as we’ve seen from Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Captain Miller’s hand shakes throughout the entire film and he is on the brink of breaking down. There is a scene in the film where he has lost one man under his command and ducks away from the rest of his squad, and just starts crying. We all look up to him as the knight in shining armor but deep down he is still a human being. The rest of the cast also does a spectacular job at playing their characters. None of the characters are stereotyped like many other World War II film characters. They are all deliberately portrayed as normal people who have been unfortunate enough to experience such terror. The one character that we all identify with is Upham (Jeremy Davies), a cartographer and interpreter. He has never been in a true battle and is unexpectedly reassigned to Captain Miller’s squad because they need someone who can speak fluent French and German. He is a fish out of water and has no idea what to do in a war, just like us. Matt Damon’s Private Ryan has a bit of a different view compared to the rest of the characters. He isn’t as afraid of fighting because he hasn’t experienced the blazing inferno of Omaha beach.
Saving Private Ryan is a powerful experience and it has never left my mind. This was the first time I had seen such graphic violence in a film and it was the first time I realized how freaking shitty war is (sorry for swearing). I won’t be surprised if anybody tears up during this movie, I certainly did. But that isn’t the full response I got from the film. Too many tearjerkers, such as The Fault in Our Stars and The Notebook only give you the immediate response but don’t stick with you. Saving Private Ryan does. After the film finishes, the imagery and the ideas begin to grow on you, and then you realize how genuinely heartbreaking the film is.
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