Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Saving Private Ryan

Grade : A+ Year : 1998 Director : Steven Spielberg Running Time : 2hr 49min Genre : ,
Movie review score

If “Schindler’s List” was the film where Steven Spielberg put away his cinematic toolbox and worked from the heart at the service of the story, “Saving Private Ryan” is the film where he used every tool in that box at the service of a story close to his heart. Both films won him well-deserved Oscars, and serve as bookends in a career of landmarks.

But whereas many cite the brilliantly-constructed 24 minutes on the beaches of Normandy as the film’s primary bid for greatness, a quieter, more heartbreaking sequence continues to stand out. Immediately after the Invasion on D-Day that opens the film proper, we get a glimpse at the room where condolences letters are typed to loved ones whom have lost their own in the war effort. Desk after desk, women type up different versions of the same letter, all with the same purpose- to give solace to the ones left behind that their loved one was the one that held things together, and gave a great sacrifice. Through the confusion of the constant typing, and as we hear several versions of the same story being told, we start to focus of a single woman as she makes a realization. We follow her as she sifts through hundreds of letters to realize- three brothers have died, and the mother will be getting all three telegrams on the same day.

What makes this sequence- as well as the one where we see Mrs. Ryan receive the telegrams- work is Spielberg’s subtlety of direction. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski don’t hit us over the head with a “Eureka!” moment but allow it to unfold, and trusts his audience to get what’s going on. He doesn’t always do that in his films (even my favorite film of his, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” is guilty of over-explanation), but when he does, few filmmakers are better at guiding an audience towards an emotional payoff…and this sequence hits you hard.

Maybe that’s part of why critics have always hit Spielberg hard for the modern day bookends- where a WWII vet visits the Normandy Cemetery- that start and end the film. This is Spielberg at his least subtle- John Williams’ score driving the emotions, Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat framing the tough and enthralling 2 1/2 hours in between with sentimental shots of an old man paying tribute to a fallen comrade, complete with not-so-subtle shots of the American flag waving.

Too bad for critics. Spielberg doesn’t make his films for them- he makes them for us. More specifically, he made this one for the vets of the Great War. People like his father, and my grandfather- who was awarded the Purple Heart and fought in the Battle of the Bulge- who saw themselves in the standard-issue pot-boiler of a company Spielberg and Rodat put together (another thorn in some critics’ sides against the film) to find Private James Ryan (played by Matt Damon in a performance that still rates as one of his best, if only for the way he tells the story of him and his brothers right before they shipped out) when it’s learned that all three of his brothers have been killed in action. It’s pure PR for the army, but for the soldiers in Captain John Miller’s unit, it’s a moral question at the heart of any military conflict of its’ kind- does the survival of one outweigh the sacrifices of many?

As compelling as that question is, another one, that ultimately stands at the true heart of the film, is of greater intrigue for Spielberg and co.- the question of how war can change a man. This is the one at the heart of the sequence that gets to the hard truths of war in “Private Ryan,” when Miller (Tom Hanks) orders the company to take out a machine gun nest they come across. For most of the company, it’s an unnecessary risk given their mission, but Miller’s logic is irrefutable, in that in taking out this nest, they will be saving the lives of comrades who may stumble across it later. They take it out, but lose their medical officer Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) in the process. They also take a German prisoner. The company wants to kill him for taking out one of their own, but Miller- after much thought and infighting between the squad- sends him, blindfolded, to be picked up by the first Allied company he sees because they cannot take him with them on their mission- a risk that’ll have consequences later. That leaves the crew is turmoil that’s only stopped when Miller- tight-lipped up to this time about what he does at home- breaks the tension by opening up in a monologue that not only settles a pool the company have but also gets to the heart of how he sees the mission. It’s one of Hanks’ finest moments as an actor and a crucial moment in the film for what it says about war.

Everything that comes before it leads up to the final battle in Ramelle, where the company finds Private Ryan with a squad manning a bridge that’s valuable to the Germans. When Ryan finds out that his brothers are dead, he nonetheless stands firm in his commitment to his squad, making the decision of Miller and his squad a complicated one. Suffice it to say, they take on another risk by protecting the bridge, but as Sargent Horvath (Tom Sizemore) says, if we make it through this, then all of us could get the chance to go home. The final fight between these two squads and the German onslaught that comes to the village is even more devastating an experience than the scenes of Omaha Beach that open the film, because we now know these characters, and to see them risk their lives for both missions is the mark of true heroism, making how the events play out- especially the pangs of conscience shown by Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies, in the film’s second-best performance behind Hanks) as he freezes up on a staircase even as one of his fellow soldiers is in a brutal hand-to-hand with a German- an unnerving experience. It’s also a true test of how Spielberg and his cast and crew have done their job- they’ve created a soul-stirring tribute to soldiers like the ones we’ve followed for the past 170 minutes without exploiting the human toll that’s lost in combat. When Miller tells Ryan at the end of the Ramelle battle to “Earn this,” he’s speaking less to Ryan than he is to the audience watching the film, in hopes that they’ll greater appreciate what soldiers like him fought and died for in the present day. It’s a message I got loud and clear by the end of the film.

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