Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)

Notable Festivals: Venice (Out of Competition)

Academy Award wins: Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Sound

Inducted into the National Film Registry: 2014

The DVD format is significant within the world of cinema, because it really established the idea of a home video “library”—even more so than VHS or Laserdisc before it.  DVDs were (relatively) cheap, so the cost of entry was low, and the inclusion of special features enhanced the sense of value and ownership while creating an unheard-of level of public appreciation for films and the art of making them.  The purchase of our first DVD player was a momentous occasion in the Beyl household.  We bought it as a gift for my dad on Father’s Day, and of course we needed an appropriate DVD to go along with it.  Judging by the hours spent watching old documentaries on the History Channel, my dad was fascinated by World War 2, so SAVING PRIVATE RYAN– a well-respected WW2 film from director Steven Spielberg– was a no-brainer.

I was about thirteen years old at the time, and I had never really been exposed to R-rated films.  As such, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN became my introduction to the R-rated, adult world of cinema, much like how 1982’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL was my introduction to cinema altogether.  Watching SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was a powerful experience—my young mind was unaccustomed to the brutal violence on display.  It was shocking, to say the least.  Yet, it wasn’t disgust, or horror, or even titillation at the sight of the festival of gore that was the film’s opening D-Day sequence.  Rather, the unflinching violence hammered home the horrors of war and provided illumination on the absolute hell confronted by The Greatest Generation.

The trials faced by The Greatest Generation in World War 2 had always shaped director Steven Spielberg’s sensibilities in a profound way.  He has stated in interviews that he considers the war to be the single most important event of the last 100 years; a moment where the fate of the world hinged on the efforts of brave men and women standing up to combat unfathomable evil.  His father, Arnold Spielberg, served in the war, and would regale his children stories of his experiences.  Young Steven was fascinated by these stories, so when he managed to get his hands on a film camera, he made several amateur war films like ESCAPE TO NOWHERE and FIGHTER SQUAD (1961).  These productions, filmed with the help of his friends, enjoyed Arnold’s access to authentic military props, uniforms, and even grounded fighter planes.  Ever since then, the defining conflict of the Twentieth Century has played some role in most of Spielberg’s films, with his very best works taking place directly inside it.

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Despite World War 2 being such a prominent fixation in his work, Spielberg had yet to actually make a film that addressed the conflict directly.  In other words, he had yet to make a “war movie”.  When he was presented writer Robert Rodat’s script about a band of brothers risking their lives behind enemy lines to rescue one man, Spielberg was immediately drawn to the concept.  Having been artistically reinvigorated after the production of SCHINDLER’S LIST in 1993, Spielberg started shooting SAVING PRIVATE RYAN almost immediately after production on 1997’s AMISTAD wrapped.  The finished film became a perfect meld of story and Spielberg’s sensibilities, and has come to be regarded as an important masterpiece to rival even SCHINDLER’S LIST.  Additionally, it led directly to Spielberg’s second Directing Oscar, further cementing his legacy as not just one of our greatest directors, but also as a national treasure.

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SAVING PRIVATE RYAN takes place in 1944, near the end of the European theatre of World War 2.  It begins on D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, that began with one of the most horrific singular slaughters in human history.  Amidst this chaos, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) plays a pivotal role in securing the beach, and for his efforts is rewarded with a mission that comes “straight from the top”.  There is a family of four brothers—the Ryans—and the military has just learned that three of the four have died in battle, with the mother set to receive all three death notifications on the same day.  They have arranged for the surviving brother, Private James Francis Ryan, to be sent home—but the only trouble is he’s gone missing after the botched air assault and parachuting-in of troops that preceded D-Day.  Captain Miller and a ragtag team of soldiers must now traverse the Nazi-occupied French countryside, dodging death and their own misgivings about the mission at every turn.

Spielberg and Tom Hanks go together like peanut butter and jelly—Hanks’ everyman qualities lend themselves quite well to Spielberg’s Frank Capra-influenced sensibilities.  As Captain Miller, Hanks is an unheroic, conflicted protagonist with a form of PTSD that manifests itself in a constantly-trembling hand.  Hanks turns in a great performance, despite not being the type of guy you think of when casting a war film.  He’s a humanized avatar for the Greatest Generation—we think of them as this heroic set of people, full of confidence and valor.  But the truth is they were scared and uncertain, battling their own personal demons and the burden they carried.  It’s at once both a realistic and honest portrayal, as well as a reverential tribute to their sacrifice.  Matt Damon plays the titular Private Ryan, a stubborn, All-American farm boy from Iowa.  When SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was made, Damon was enjoying a mainstream breakout in the midst of winning an Oscar for Gus Van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997).  Appearing in a Spielberg film raised his profile significantly, and positioned him to work with some of the very best directors to ever grace the screen.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s supporting cast is just as fleshed out as its leads, a crucial necessity if we are to care for the wellbeing of this platoon of soldiers.  Tom Sizemore, who apparently is in every war film ever made, plays the gruff, blue-collar Sergeant Horvath.  Fellow director Edward Burns plays Private Reiben, a cynical, hot-tempered Brooklynite and the main voice of rebellion against the mission.  Barry Pepper turns in a memorable performance as Private Jackson, a religious sniper with a southern drawl.  Comedian Adam Goldberg plays Private Mellish, the Jewish member of the squad who is overwhelmed by the Nazis’ slaughter of the Jews and fights to avenge his people.  Vin Diesel finds in the role of Italian brute Private Caparzo his mainstream breakout.  Before SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, he was a little-known actor and indie director in his own right, and was cast after Spielberg saw his feature debut and wrote in a role specifically for him.  Giovanni Ribisi rounds out the supporting cast as the stubborn and determined medic, Wade, who is constantly risking his life to save others who have fallen in the line of fire.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN also contains a number of fascinating cameos.  Ted Danson plays the Allied commander in Neuville.  Paul Giamatti plays Danson’s neurotic sergeant, who acts as a guide when Miller’s squad arrives.  A young-looking Bryan Cranston shows up as a one-armed desk jockey Officer who brings the Ryan brothers to the attention of his superiors.  And the late, great Dennis Farina plays Lt. Col. Anderson, the field commander on Utah Beach who gives Miller his fateful assignment.

Spielberg re-teams with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, their second collaboration to net an Oscar for the cameraman.  The first thing to notice about SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s look is the use of the gritty, verite handheld aesthetic during the combat sequences, similar to the style that made SCHINDLER’S LIST so powerful.  This look is employed to great effect, amplified by a 45 degree shutter that makes the action faster and more frenetic, while exaggerating the sense of chaos and disorientation.  It’s almost hyper-real.  The quieter scenes are supplanted by the traditional, sweeping Spielberg style created through the extensive use of crane shots and dolly track moves.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is easily one of Spielberg’s most visually-stylized films, exaggerating the now-trademark Kaminski/Spielberg look (crushed blacks, diffused blooming highlights) with a high contrast, cross-processed look that washes out all the colors and skews the palette towards drab earth tones while increasing the grain structure.  The effect is intended to emulate old color newsreel footage from the period, which wasn’t as glamorous as Technicolor.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s award-winning cinematography proved highly influential.  In embracing chaos and employing a documentary style of filmmaking, Spielberg and Kaminski redefined the cinematic language of the ware genre.  Most, if not all, of the war films that followed in the wake of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s success—BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), THE HURT LOCKER (2008), to name a few—mimicked this shaky, disorienting style to communicate the horror and confusion of modern war.

Michael Kahn’s editing deserves singular praise for stringing together the massive amount of footage in a compelling, visceral manner while keeping our sense of geography and character amidst the cacophonous chaos.  It’s insanely immersive, throwing us headlong into the maelstrom from Frame 1.  Of further note, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was one of the last major motion pictures to be edited during the days of linear flatbed editing’s dominance.   The film’s release coincided with the rise of digital nonlinear editing systems like Avid and Final Cut Pro, one of the quickest adoptions of a new technology the film industry had ever seen.

Spielberg’s maestro John Williams turns in an elegiac, somber, and reverent score that pays a moving tribute to the heroes of World War 2.  One of Williams’ most accomplished works, the theme evokes the honor of sacrifice with a militaristic sound comprised of horns and snare drums.  Spielberg also uses period music from Edith Piaf during an effective sequence, which has her ghostly voice bouncing off the crumbling ruins of the city where Miller’s squad prepares the last stand against the Germans.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is unmistakably a Spielberg film, through and through.  His direction is in top form here, inferior only to the quality of SCHINDLER’S LIST.  Spielberg is constantly criticized for his tendency to over-sentimentalize, a valid claim judging by his incorporation of a present-day bookend that finds an elderly James Ryan paying a visit to Miller’s tombstone while a gigantic American flag flaps in the background.  However, while it can be construed as a misstep on Spielberg’s part, the jingoistic sequence’s inclusion is necessary to get to the core of Spielberg’s message and intent.

The film begins and ends with a pair of brutally realistic battle sequences.  The first bravura set piece (the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day) is one of Spielberg’s finest moments as a filmmaker.  However, it is lacking in characterization—the battling hordes are faceless soldiers. Meat for the grinder.  A few faces begin to materialize out of the bloody ether—Hanks, Pepper, Sizmore—but we don’t really know them yet.  We only see their primal reaction in the face of open slaughter.  This dynamic is repeated again in the closing battle, only now Spielberg’s focus is squarely on characterization.  We’ve marched alongside these troops for nearly three hours now, and have come to know them as closely as we would brothers.  As such, each squad member’s fate is meaningful and tragic, and the stakes are so much higher.

Due to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN being a war film, there’s a distinct lack of a child-like perspective, the likes of which have populated many a Spielberg film.  Instead, we get an appropriate variation on that theme, like the fatally wounded soldiers who regress into childhood and scream out for their mothers as they lay dying on the battlefield.  Likewise, Spielberg’s tendency to explore father/son dynamics is subverted, both in the form of Hanks acting as a father towards the men under his command, or the scene with a dying Carpazo pleading to have a letter delivered to his father.

The mildly jingoistic nature of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s story allows him to indulge in several of his favorite visual conceits- silhouettes, Americana settings (in the form of idyllic rural landscapes), lens flares, and aviation.  The presence of planes in the film also corresponds to Spielberg’s (personally speaking) most frustrating story conceit: The Deus Ex Machina.  Deux Ex Machina refers to a miraculous, random occurrence that saves our heroes right at the last moment.  It’s present in several of Spielberg’s works as a way to quickly wrap up his stories (as if he painted his story into a corner), and in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the Deux Ex Machine arrives in the form of a fighter plane descending on the battle and blasting the German tanks away.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was well-received upon its premiere, becoming Dreamworks Studios’ first verifiable hit, and was widely considered to be the best film of 1998.  Many praised Spielberg’s sensitive direction, likening it to his accomplishments on SCHINDLER’S LIST.  It was nominated for several Oscars, resulting in Spielberg’s second win for Best Director, and was the odds-on favorite for Best Picture.  Shockingly, that award went to SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998) in an upset, but even to this day SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is still considered the superior film. (I also can’t get over how the Academy shows the reclusive fellow nominee Terrence Malick when they announce his nomination for THE THIN RED LINE in the Oscar telecast).

While SAVING PRIVATE RYAN represents another career high for Spielberg, it also marks him going back to his roots for inspiration.  He called upon his father’s stories from the war, as well as the memories of making his own WW2 films in childhood, and channeled them both into an experience that was at once both realistic and reverential.  SAVING PRIVATE RYAN established Spielberg as one of our pre-eminent cinematic chroniclers of American history, much like John Ford before him.  The film leaves behind a beautiful legacy for WW2 veterans, coming at a time when many of them are quickly dying out before their stories can be told.

In 2012, the very last veteran of World War 1 died.  Now that WW2 is already almost 80 years in our rearview, we’ll shortly be upon a time where there are no WW2 veterans remaining.  Fortunately, their courage and sacrifice will continue to live on in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN—a moving tribute to those who paid the ultimate price for freedom.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Dreamworks.

Credits:

Produced by: Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohm, Steven Spielberg

Written by: Robert Rodat

Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski

Production Designer: Thomas E. Sanders

Editor: Michael Kahn

Music: John Williams