movie film review | chris tookey

Saving Private Ryan

1998 - DreamWorks SKG - all rights reserved
  Saving Private Ryan Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
9.03 /10
Captain Miller .............. Tom Hanks , Sergeant Horvath ............ Tom Sizemore , Private Reiben .............. Edward Burns
Full Cast >

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Robert Rodat

Released: 1998
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 170

American soldiers are sent behind enemy lines in World War II to retrieve a young man (Matt Damon) who is the sole survivor of four brothers, three of them killed on the same day in different theatres of war.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Steven Spielberg's film begins with an old man visiting a war cemetery with his wife and children. It sets up the question that will be in the back of our minds for the next two and a half hours: who is he?

Even by the end of this prologue - which is virtually silent - Spielberg is making the audience's eyes prick with tears.

Within seconds, our eyes are widening with horror, as we are catapulted into what must be the most savage, and probably also the greatest, battle scene in movie history.

The first half-hour alone, a sickening re-enactment of the Normandy landings in all their deafening confusion and brutal carnage, should be enough to convert anyone with lingering doubts about Spielberg's genius as a director.

As in Oliver Stone's Vietnam Oscar-winner, Platoon, there is a visceral sense of being in the thick of the action. It is exciting, suspenseful and horrific, all at the same time - even though Spielberg breaks one of the cardinal conventions of "serious" cinema, presenting heart-stopping action before we have a chance to know any of the people involved.

It is a brilliant piece of story-telling through visual montage. We hardly hear any words in the heat of battle, and scarcely any of the faces except Tom Hanks's, is familiar. The effect is disorientating.

As the camera alights on some new face, we think: could this be one of the stars? But no, a bullet penetrates his skull. Unforgettable images burn themselves into the memory: of a man searching for his own arm, of entrails pouring from a stomach, of half a man being dragged across the field of battle.

In the story which follows, Tom Hanks is the team's captain, Tom Sizemore his second-in-command. Both they and their men know that they are on at best an errand of mercy, at worst a public relations exercise. All would prefer to be back home - or, failing that, prosecuting the war to the best of their abilities.

Superficially, Robert Rodat's script is nothing special, with dialogue that rarely rises above the commonplace.

It relies heavily for its impact on three fine performances: from Jeremy Davies as an idealistic but nervous interpreter who has never seen action, from Tom Sizemore as Hanks' loyal second-in-command, and - crucially - from Hanks as a former English teacher whom war has changed into a tough leader under whose command 94 young men have died.

Like Gary Cooper of old, Hanks stands out as a beacon of decency in the film; yet he never seems too good to be true, or too perfect to be incapable of making a horrible mistake. Hanks is a great screen actor, and never more authoritative than here.

Damon has less time to impress as Private Ryan, but his callowness as an actor suits a character who has not yet undergone the tortures experienced by Hanks and Sizemore.

Less likeable is Edward Burns,as the most rebellious of Hanks's men, with a performance that struck me as rather mannered and modern.

John Williams' grandiose score has a tendency to overegg the pudding. Those of us who are not American may wonder why Spielberg has made it seem that the Yanks re-conquered Europe on their own. The British are conspicuous by their absence from Saving Private Ryan, and there's an unfair jibe at Field Marshall Montgomery. I could have done with a little less of Abraham Lincoln and the American flag.

But then there have been fine British-made war films which have more-or-less ignored the role played by Americans - and especially Russians - in defeating Hitler.

Spielberg's moments of stars-and-stripes jingoism are surely preferable to the defeatist miserabilism of so many European film-makers, whose attacks on their fellow-countrymen are routinely rewarded with prizes at major festivals, before plummeting equally predictably to box-office extinction in their country of origin.

Europe's film-makers and cultural apparatchiks have all done their bit to contribute to the current wave of anti-nationalistic propaganda that is threatening to bring European nations including Britain under the control of non-elected, non-accountable bureaucrats from an alien culture, thus bringing about one of Hitler's most cherished aims by stealth.

Far too many war films - even some of the most celebrated, such as La Grande Illusion and All Quiet on the Western Front, have taken the easy way out by blaming wars on nationalism.

Spielberg clearly understands the elements in human nature which make nationalism understandable and even attractive, such as a wish to be ruled by one's own kind, and have them controlled and replaced by democratic means.

In Saving Private Ryan and his other wartime masterpiece, Schindler's List, Spielberg communicates something that very few makers of war films have done - why it is that people fight in defence of freedom, and are prepared to put duty above self-interest.

To his credit, Spielberg refuses to toe the guilt-ridden pacifist line that dominated Hollywood's output up to and including the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and probably encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait, by leading him to underestimate America's will to fight.

In the decades after Vietnam, Hollywood reacted to such embarrassingly inept pro-war propaganda from the Sixties as John Wayne's The Green Berets, and the Boys' Own heroics of hits such as The Great Escape, by self-consciously propagandising for peace.

In film after film, especially those by Oliver Stone, American military involvement abroad was denounced as disastrous for the local population, and brutalising for the soldiers themselves. Virtually all the top Hollywood stars took turns in playing demoralised veterans returning home.

Saving Private Ryan is a return to an older tradition, since it acknowledges that war - though hellish - can be preferable to appeasement, and that war brings out the best as well as the worst in people.

Spielberg has never been on better form, visually. So graphic is his imagery that one would come away from this movie with near-total understanding of it, were one unable to comprehend a word of the dialogue.

The hand-held camerawork in the battle scenes by Janusz Kaminski is as powerful as his work on Schindler's List. Some of the quieter moments have the poetic quality of a verse by Wilfred Owen.

Though simple enough on the surface, this is a film of moral complexity. Parts of it make you weep over the wastefulness of war; yet it's no fatuous anti-war tract.

You get the feeling that these people are fighting for something worthwhile, with enormous courage and heroism - something that has tended to be forgotten in anti-war films since the Sixties.

Spielberg's experience of action films has made him a master of suspense. The way he works up tension as tanks approach for the final showdown owes plenty to the Tyrannosaurus Rex attack in Jurassic Park.

Most endearingly Spielbergian, however, is his faith in common decency, which seems genuine rather than sentimental.

Do we need another war film? I think we do, especially at a time when violence is portrayed so casually on our screens, and most young men have no practical experience of war, beyond shoot-'em-up arcade games.

This film brings home the realities in the most shocking fashion, but also leaves room for old-fashioned notions like duty, loyalty and selflessness - rare in modern cinema, but here very much present and correct.

The message - that war is hell, yet at the same time a theatre for astonishing heroism - is, I suppose, unexceptional. The execution of the film, and its emotional effect upon an audience experiencing the truth about warfare for the first time, is very exceptional indeed.

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