Saving Private Ryan – 1998

Director Steven Spielberg
Screenplay Robert Rodat
Starring Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Dennis Farina, Nathan Fillion, Bryan Cranston

It’s been over 20 years and Saving Private Ryan is often considered one of the best war films of all time. Now as upon it’s release, I found the opening to be incredibly honest in its brutal portrayal of the landing of Normandy on Omaha beach. There are few gimmicky moments, and little time devoted to sentiment. What we see is a brutal exposition of young men as cannon fodder. It’s breathtaking , solemn and exhilarating at once. Captain Miller (Hanks) is given the same trauma we all are in the rush to find cover and overcome. There is no time for preaching; a good thing for Spielberg.

From the moment they are off the beach, the film becomes a literal walking cliche. Hawkish, preaching sentimentalism and righteously indignant political stances make most of the last 2/3 of the film a slog to get through.

There are good performances in total. Hanks, Giamatti and Davies in particular do some very humble work. Many of the other actors are doing their best to fill slots, without feeling entirely genuine.

One gets the feeling that they they could have found any of a dozen actors to fill in Sizemore’s Sarge, Pepper’s Christ-loving sharpshooter or Goldberg’s atrociously defiant Jewish Private. They hit all of the notes with a thud as we travel through the France countryside.

Goldberg, in particular, runs his angry character with all of his resentment into the ground. In one of the films biggest inaccuracies, they show him bawling when he is handed a Hitler Youth knife, then viciously shoving his Star of David in the face of surrendered German soldiers.

Goldberg is ACTING

Though it is conceivable that some word about the persecution of the Jews could have reached an American G.I. prior to Normandy, it’s highly irregular for any American soldier of the time to be that ensconced in personal vitriol with a country beyond just knowing they’re “they bad guys.” This wasn’t a child that had been killed, it was a young man who carried his knife with him to Normandy. Mellish didn’t even kill the guy either. He is just handed the knife.

Then, when he announces his race, it seems the actions of one who is fully aware that his relatives where being held in concentration camps and killed. Unless he got some classified intel, he would not know anything more than some relatives fled the country, some are missing. Large swaths of people flee and go missing in war. That is a lot of specific anger to direct for him to wage, with the limit of what he likely knows at the time.

The result just feels like preaching ex post facto.

Spielberg treats his benefit of hindsight as a lesson for the future. Given his background I can’t say that I blame him. His family and the Jewish people suffered badly. There is a delicate balance between showing and shouting. When it is shouted, it loses its power.

There are other times throughout the last two acts that have Spielberg suffering from the James Fenimore Cooper “broken stick” method of storytelling. We know when we see Captain Miller shoving his shaking hand right out into the open several times, we’re going to hear about it later. Once is enough. Forcing a skillful actor like Hanks to play obvious is beneath his ability. He shows many more subtle gestures throughout, they should err on the side of not being obvious.

Barry Pepper’s sharpshooter Private Jackson is a noble effort undone in the routine showing of his religiosity. One can pray silently most of the time, have maybe one conversation about their belief, then maybe limit the cross kissing until somewhere near a climactic moment. By the time he’s done it twice, I am over his character.

I feel like I should have enjoyed Sizemore’s Sergeant Mike more than I do. His performance is heavy on the pal factor. He’s whatever Hanks needs him to be, which is great. Something feels a little like an NPC when it comes to him and several actors who might have seen this film as a launching point for several careers.

We get the mouthy malcontent who’s not insubordinate, but pushy with Burns’ Private Reiben. Burns has done this so many times I stopped noticing films he was in right around 15 Minutes.

Giovanni Ribisi puts everything he’s got into his medic Irwin Wade. By the last act, I have seen enough ACTING to cover the rest of his career. I don’t know if he ever recovered from overdoing it for Spielberg.

Matt Damon gives it his best shot. He even seems to ad lib a nice conversational story about one of his brothers and a misbegotten girlfriend. The moment feels like acting school, just a bit too much laughing. It’s not unforgivable, but it feels like a young actor trying to impress a respected director. His career and skill took off after this. I don’t think he’s worked with Spielberg since.

Back to Hanks. He’s a sure thing, even in this film. He is the image of every man we want leading our men into battle. Chummy, but never losing his position of authority. Honest, but not forthcoming. Never doing anything less than we’d hope a soldier would do for his country. He pulls this movie from good to almost great. He’s always worth watching.

Iconography in the making

As a director, Spielberg is a mixed bag for me. Jurassic Park is one of the greats. The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2 is as bad as it gets. Raiders of the Lost Ark: fantastic. Every film that followed it, not so much.

I know what you’re thinking. Just take Sean Connery out of The Last Crusade. Still a good film? Not quite.

One might even go so far as to say he’s overrated. Even his good films I never think of rewatching outside of the two mentioned above. For every one of those good films, there’s about 4 average to below average films. He’s not the event director he’s made out to be, but it’s obvious he loves his craft.

For me, there are too many tropes in the last two acts of Saving Private Ryan to feel anything more than manipulated. If it’s the first time you’d seen them, my guess is they would stand out less. For that horrible, magnificent first act, Spielberg forgets to throw softballs at the crowd. Nothing but hard stuff right down the middle. It’s a tragic reminder of what life can be when the best and worst are simultaneous.

A better filmmaker would not have had Diesel’s Private Caparzo pick up the kid. There is no way a soldier would disobey their commander at that moment. Instead, we get man down and chance 2 of 3 to see Jackson kiss the cross before taking another sharpshooter out.

The whole “one last mission” segment of the film is where it really falls of the rails. I get it if someone overrides a command for one shining moment for a film. By the time Damon’s Private Ryan convinces Miller to stay on, it feels like his orders are merely suggestions, to be overruled whenever the plot decides it is necessary. When the plot dictates the events, it moves from historical to fiction fast.

So no, I don’t hate this film. I find it difficult to find a kinship beyond that first act. Band of Brothers and The Pacific carries that feeling over 20 hours of film. The difference is Spielberg only produced those two series. What I want to feel from the sacrifice of these men goes from genuine, to feeling like I am being placated. It missed for me then. It still does to this day.

If you want to feel like you were there, try the HBO series. The soldiers deserve the knowledge that we cannot or will not forget their sacrifice. Then we can work to earn the living freedom they gave to us, like Captain Miller wanted. This film only starts to earn that freedom.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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