September 1998
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Movie Review: Saving Private Ryan

by Jason Morrison

Saving Private Ryan is one of the few truly excellent movies I can recall in which the main theme, the driving idea, the very heart of the movie can be wholly stated with three simple words:

War is hell.

It's apparent from the very opening sequence of the film: a chaotic, filthy and horribly accurate view of the invasion of Omaha Beach in Normandy. This very difficult part of a very difficult film has received the most criticism. It's too bloody. It's too harsh for children. It's too likely to remind veterans of their own experiences. It's too real.

Steven Spielberg's direction is meaningful without being artistic in any way. The camera is not a canvas for the creation of dynamic movement or striking design. Rather, you feel as though you are half in the battle, rattled around, focused on the mud and the bullets with a few glimpses of the fortifications which defend your goal. At other times, Spielberg gives the impression he is trying to show every horrible mass and singular death possible-without making any of this up.

Tom Hanks plays Capt. Miller, a likable but tough commander who manages to get part of his company through the initial onslaught. He is given a new assignment, dreamed up by Army public relations: save a certain Pvt. James Ryan, the last survivor of four brothers sent to different parts of the front. It's not easy to think about Mrs. Ryan receiving three death notices at once and the Army would like to end the possibility of her getting a fourth as well.

But that reason just doesn't cut it with Miller's company. As one soldier puts it, "So what? I've got a mother. You've got a mother. Even the Captain probably has a mother." The reason they go on the mission, however, is simple: orders.

Here we see the simplicity of the movie: duty and heroism are not high on the company's minds as they continue to search for Ryan. But they are soldiers in a war and that requires discipline. The message is not, however, that duty and courage are not enough to make it through a war. The message, again, is that war is hell-and of the few ways to cope with it, training and discipline are most readily available.

The group is joined on their quest by Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies), the translator. Davies has the most difficult role in the film, that of a civilian honestly out of his element and out of his league. The man has never even fired a weapon when Miller recruits him for translation duties and by the end of the film, you will come to both hate and identify with him. Davies plays the role without becoming the stereotypical wimp or coward of the group. Very rarely is there a portrayal that can make the audience hate a character who is one of the good guys and is in the situation from no fault of his own.

Hanks will no doubt gain an Oscar nomination for his part in the film, but unlike Philadelphia or Forrest Gump he is not the center of the film. Though Miller more than anyone else can claim to be the protagonist, the movie concentrates more on his troops' reactions to the war than Miller's character itself. Not that he's one-dimensional or ignored; think Hanks' role in Apollo 13.

The ever-popular Matt Damon is far from the most important actor on this stage, even though his character gets top billing in the title, but he does what he can with the whole 15 minutes we see him.

Spielberg once again proves that he can make the best of whatever kind of movie he wants to create. Though he's often maligned for making roller coasters instead of movies, he certainly does make great roller coasters when he wants to. But when he wants to make a serious film, he's again astoundingly successful -- as if we needed any more proof after Schindler's List and Amistad.

More often than not, however, the first thing people say coming out of the theater is: "It was a very hard movie to watch," often followed by, "but it was still good."

"But" nothing. The movie is good because it's so hard to watch. It's more in the vein of a Vietnam movie -- about the personal experience of World War II, rather than the underlying reasons for the conflict. We have seen overly patriotic films about superhero soldiers, dodging bullets and crushing the evil Nazis. We've also seen excellent films about the motivations, lives and hardship of the generals and leaders who had to send these men to their deaths. But World War II, the last "good" war, has never really been shown like this on such a scale before.

In a way, the differences in people's reaction to this movie rather than, say Full Metal Jacket, is somewhat understandable, beyond the point that Private Ryan beats Full Metal Jacket in sheer number of dead. Some amount of the visual reality of Vietnam was available to the public while it was happening and the same was not true in WW II. The press was happy in WW II to receive most of their information directly from governments and served as the war's educated cheerleader. In Vietnam, the press was given some amount of free reign and some of the reality of that conflict, of any armed conflict for that matter, came through and was seen back home. Notice that the U.S. military no longer makes that mistake-in the Gulf War, footage of bombs going down chimneys and colorful maps of deployment came directly from the military to CNN and then to us. No more intrepid journalists trekking through the jungle (or desert) to show us all that no war, not matter how technological, is bloodless.

It will be interesting to see what future films about wars in this era will be like. Will the daring films go as far as Private Ryan, perhaps showing the carpet-bombing of thousands of Iraqi troops? Will the public feel the same sort of betrayal, forced to notice the inhumanity in another "good" war? As the tendency toward depersonalizing war through technology and infographics continues, Saving Private Ryan was a very responsible movie to make.

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