Saving Private Ryan (1998)

I tend to be surrounded by people who hate Spielberg, or hate his fans, or hate his movies, or some combination of all of those possibilities. I find this about as tiring as people who “hate the Beatles.” Generally it tends to be sourced in an aversion to what is widely considered good, thus leaving people on trying to make things live up to the hyperbolic praise heaped upon them, without simply sitting back and appreciating the artistry involved. Occasionally, with the circles I’ve ended up in, it also comes down to this silly distaste for anything cleanly, clearly, slickly put together and entertaining, as if entertainment value alone, or popularity, is reason to scorn and automatically implies some kind of deficiency in end product. Heck, most people around me think poorly of E.T. Was I just born too late for my tastes or what?

Anyway, Saving Private Ryan has been occasionally referred to as one of the best (if not THE best) World War II films ever made. Why is World War II of such great fascination? Certainly there’s the image of the grandfather who is either a veteran or was young and gung ho about the whole thing despite being too young to actually be involved. The words “a simpler time” are often applied to the decades surrounding it, which is of course inaccurate, but there’s still a sort of truth to it. There’s not much disagreement that Nazis weren’t good people. It sort of follows that they wandered around attempting to practice genocide–though often without even acknowledging ALL of the groups they decided were unnecessary. So there’s a general feeling of “good guys” and “bad guys” that was pretty thoroughly decimated by Vietnam, probably the second most popular conflict chosen for filming. Perhaps that’s the reason, or perhaps the massive scale, or perhaps it’s related to the society and generations that grew up with it and took interest in it. I can’t claim to be a military buff, though I know bits and pieces about both period weaponry and modern kinds, as well as bits and pieces of battles and conflicts within wars, but it’s nothing I actively pursue.

However, as I say that, there’s no doubting I know at least the rough overview of Operation Overlord quite well, as it is one of the most “popular” battles in history, one of the most exciting, tense, horrific, brutal and in fact largest (apparently the largest seaborne invasion in history to this day) to have occurred. It has been filmed numerous times, inevitably makes its way into any game that involves first person gun-based combat. I’m familiar with the depictions in The Longest Day and The Big Red One off the top of my head, as well as this one–actually the first I ever saw, though it was some years ago. Numerous beaches in France were invaded across the English channel by a mass of multi-national Allied forces, some of the most famous being Omaha and Utah, with Omaha the beach depicted here. This is, as you might guess from my little ramble here, the focal point of the film, despite the fact that it is the entirety of only the first 24 minutes or so–maybe the first half hour if you want. It’s tense, gory, manic and gripping, mortal fear appearing on some faces, and confused distance on others–we often see our main character, John H. Miller (Tom Hanks, in one of his earlier straight dramatic roles, almost completely separating himself from the goofy image he previously held from Turner and Hooch, The ‘burbs, Big and so on) completely dazed by explosions and battle around him, staring dumbly at the other people on the field through an auditory haze as people yell questions and requests at him.

The majority of the film, though, is based around a fictionalized adaptation of the story of a man named Fritz Niland who was saved to spare his mother the death of all her sons in battle–instead, obviously, the one being saved is one Pvt. James F. Ryan. Captain Miller and a small group of soldiers are assigned to find Ryan and bring him home. He works with Sgt. Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), his longest-known compatriot, Pvt. Richard Reiben (Edward Burns–apparently I HAD seen him in something before Confidence…oops!), Pvt. Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper), Pvt. Stanley Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Pvt. Adrian Caparzo (Vin Diesel), T 4 Medic Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) and the newly assigned Cpl. Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies), assigned for his knowledge of French and German. None are happy with the assignment, resentful of the idea that they have to risk sacrificing themselves and each other for one man they don’t even know just to let him go home.

There’s something peculiar about the acting–there are a few lines that feel acted instead of felt, if you can understand the delineation I’m choosing to make, as if Hanks, especially, though wonderful in private and introspective moments, two in particular coming to my mind, seems to occasionally drop lines in a believable tone and manner but with an underlying feeling of, “why am I saying this? I don’t really know, I guess I’ll just continue saying it like the other things…” Beyond that, everyone conforms to a particular mode of character pretty consistently, Mellish and Caparzo reminiscent of jaded and exclusionary soldiers in Vietnam, joking coarsely and privately with each other, with Mellish having a tendency to emphasize his Jewish origins to the Germans around them (holding up the Star of David he wears and saying “JUDEN!” at passing surrendered soldiers, for instance), Jackson is a constantly prayerful Southern boy with a distinct skill at sniping, very hard-edged in terms of activity, his movements and speech seeming to conform exactly to rigorous training with no slack for laziness or cynicism, Wade is slightly excitable and protective, clearly stressed nearly to his breaking point–probably not unexpected in a field medic, Reiben is a proud Brooklynite, full of attitude and not remotely ashamed to show it to everyone, Miller is quiet, private and resigned to his duty, Upham is a pacifist of sorts, unable to deal with the horrors of battle around him, disturbed by the vengeful attitudes of his squadmates and finding it difficult to involve himself in actual gunplay–and then Horvath. Horvath. Hmm. Horvath seems like he just might be Tom Sizemore himself–that sort of guy you think is pretty funny and sort of like having around, but then he shows that maybe, just maybe, he’s missing a few marbles (think Joe Pesci in Goodfellas) and you then sort of keep your distance–you keep forgetting and finding him funny again, then, oh yeah, he’s a little nuts. I’ve gotten the impression that that’s Sizemore in reality, but that’s only an impression.

The score for this film is beautiful, and feels, as one might naturally expect of Spielberg, like a “SCORE,” like it’s a “standard” one, the kind you expect in just “a film,” which this is. That sounds condescending, which one really shouldn’t be to John Williams, but that isn’t what I mean at all. Again, we come back to the idea of Spielberg’s films as slickly but carefully constructed, heartstring-tugging, heartwarming, inspiring sorts of things, the kind that “everyone” sees and “everyone” likes, but that aren’t totally vapid or lacking in artistry or skill. And that’s what it is here with Williams’ score. It’s not intrusive, it’s not wildly experimental, it’s there and it’s nice and it makes you feel what it should, and you do hear it, but you aren’t focused on it, and that’s entirely appropriate.

There are a lot of actors who snuck in here that I didn’t know when I first saw this film a few years back, like Burns, Diesel, the small role for Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina, and I didn’t recognize Ted Danson until this time (odd, as I watched Cheers when I was younger). Adam Goldberg is someone who, for whatever reason, got stuck in my head years ago and I desperately wanted to identify, but had nothing to work from, except that I knew his face when I saw it. I finally looked him up one day, had his name, promptly forgot it, then gathered it again when I saw him in something else. Ribisi and Pepper have those sort of peculiar and magnetic appearances that draw my eyes for reasons I can’t entirely explain, but find endearing and enjoy seeing. It’s not an attraction, at least not a sexual one, nor is it morbid fascination–but it is what lies behind a number of the character actors and smaller actors whose films I sort of pursue just because.

Anyway, this is indeed one of the greats of war film–it’s a bit of a flag-waver (literally at both the beginning and end) but not quite to the point of films from around the time of the war itself, and it’s only a bit off-putting at the end when it feels a little forced. There’s no glorification of combat itself, but there’s no condemnation of the men fighting over the simple fact of their fighting. There are blurred lines of responsibility and morality that feel to me like they are intentionally blurred–misguided mercies and disturbingly bloodthirsty attitudes–and I hope they are. I don’t like to think that the actions taken by Upham are being criticized, but there’s a sort of suggestion that that may be the case, which doesn’t sit well with me. Still, the film is masterfully put together and quite entertaining, and that’s what really matters to most people who think of watching it anyway.

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