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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Saving Private Ryan (1998)



Reviews and Comments

Four years after making the definitive World War II movie, director Steven Spielberg makes Saving Private Ryan, a masterful work that rivals Schindler's List. Both films belong on the list of the ten or twenty greatest films ever made. Schindler's List is probably the better of the two, but I'm reluctant to say so definitively because the films are so different. They are best taken together as a dual-perspective study of World War II.

Schindler's List focused on what was happening to the Jews in Germany prior to and during the war. Saving Private Ryan takes place right on the front lines, depicting D-Day and other battles with brutal intensity and frank realism. This is a bloody, violent movie -- perhaps the most gruesome I've ever seen -- and yet I read in interviews that Spielberg "held back" -- that the war stories he was told by his father (a veteran of the war) and others are still more upsetting. For those who can stomach the movie at all, however, it's an important film to see. More than any other, it made me appreciate what the soldiers in that war did for us and our freedom.

I hesitate to say too much about the movie's style, because its heart is the honor it pays to the veterans of the war. But its style is an integral part in achieving this goal. It is flawlessly photographed. The battle scenes are chaotic and frenetic. The camera doesn't quite seem like it knows where to turn. Hand-held shots are used, and most are low to the ground -- it looks as if we are one of the many soldiers fighting for our lives and our country on the battlefield. Ingenious uses of sound are employed, too. A near explosion goes off, temporarily deafening us to the furor of the battle. Slowly our hearing comes back.

More important than the film's technical artistry is the portrayal of its characters. The acting is also flawless, and what's refreshing is that the characters are real people, no more no less. There aren't any kooky caricatures or comic relief stooges. The men are real and tangible, and the movie shows how the pressure of a war can change them. Their dialogue is smart, contributing not just to the definition of their characters but introducing complex moral questions, as well.

The premise for the plot is this: there are four Ryan brothers in the war. Three of them died in combat, and it is discovered that the mother will receive this news -- all three telegrams -- on the same day. The officials back home decide to send a band of men behind enemy lines, locate the fourth brother, and ship him home. The moral questions are obvious -- does it make sense to risk the lives of several men to save one? They all have mothers, too. The movie explores this question (but thankfully does not attempt to answer it) and others through its characters. Tom Hanks stars as the leader of the mission; his speech about it, and why he will pursue it wholeheartedly, is a brilliant scene.

Here's another question. How does common human decency apply in a war? A Nazi is captured; the men can't keep him as a prisoner. Should he be released, possibly killing others later on, or should he be summarily executed on the spot? Again, not an easy question -- it's a lose-lose situation either way.

I say no more. A thorough analysis of Saving Private Ryan and its greatness would take too long. I close merely by repeating that this is a tremendously important film to see and brilliant filmmaking besides.