Saving Private Ryan Movie Essay

The soldiers assigned to find Pvt. Ryan and bring him home can do the math for themselves. The Army Chief of Staff has ordered them on the mission for propaganda purposes: Ryan's return will boost morale on the homefront, and put a human face on the carnage at Omaha Beach. His mother, who has already lost three sons in the war, will not have to add another telegram to her collection. But the eight men on the mission also have parents--and besides, they've been trained to kill Germans, not to risk their lives for publicity stunts. "This Ryan better be worth it," one of the men grumbles.


In Hollywood mythology, great battles wheel and turn on the actions of individual heroes. In Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," thousands of terrified and seasick men, most of them new to combat, are thrown into the face of withering German fire. The landing on Omaha Beach was not about saving Pvt. Ryan. It was about saving your skin.

The movie's opening sequence is as graphic as any war footage I've ever seen. In fierce dread and energy it's on a par with Oliver Stone's "Platoon," and in scope surpasses it--because in the bloody early stages the landing forces and the enemy never meet eye to eye, but are simply faceless masses of men who have been ordered to shoot at one another until one side is destroyed.

Spielberg's camera makes no sense of the action. That is the purpose of his style. For the individual soldier on the beach, the landing was a chaos of noise, mud, blood, vomit and death. The scene is filled with countless unrelated pieces of time, as when a soldier has his arm blown off. He staggers, confused, standing exposed to further fire, not sure what to do next, and then he bends over and picks up his arm, as if he will need it later.

This landing sequence is necessary to establish the distance between those who give the order that Pvt. Ryan be saved, and those who are ordered to do the saving. For Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) and his men, the landing at Omaha has been a crucible of fire. For Army Chief George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) in his Washington office, war seems more remote and statesmanlike; he treasures a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote consoling Mrs. Bixby of Boston, about her sons who died in the Civil War. His advisors question the wisdom and indeed the possibility of a mission to save Ryan, but he barks, "If the boy's alive we are gonna send somebody to find him--and we are gonna get him the hell out of there." That sets up the second act of the film, in which Miller and his men penetrate into French terrain still actively disputed by the Germans, while harboring mutinous thoughts about the wisdom of the mission. All of Miller's men have served with him before--except for Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies), the translator, who speaks excellent German and French but has never fired a rifle in anger and is terrified almost to the point of incontinence. I identified with Upham, and I suspect many honest viewers will agree with me: The war was fought by civilians just like him, whose lives had not prepared them for the reality of battle.

The turning point in the film comes, I think, when the squadron happens upon a German machinegun nest protecting a radar installation. It would be possible to go around it and avoid a confrontation. Indeed, that would be following orders. But they decide to attack the emplacement, and that is a form of protest: At risk to their lives, they are doing what they came to France to do, instead of what the top brass wants them to do.

Everything points to the third act, when Private Ryan is found, and the soldiers decide what to do next. Spielberg and his screenwriter, Robert Rodat, have done a subtle and rather beautiful thing: They have made a philosophical film about war almost entirely in terms of action. "Saving Private Ryan" says things about war that are as complex and difficult as any essayist could possibly express, and does it with broad, strong images, with violence, with profanity, with action, with camaraderie. It is possible to express even the most thoughtful ideas in the simplest words and actions, and that's what Spielberg does. The film is doubly effective, because he communicates his ideas in feelings, not words. I was reminded of "All Quiet on the Western Front." Steven Spielberg is as technically proficient as any filmmaker alive, and because of his great success, he has access to every resource he requires. Both of those facts are important to the impact of "Saving Private Ryan." He knows how to convey his feelings about men in combat, and he has the tools, the money and the collaborators to make it possible.


His cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who also shot "Schindler's List," brings a newsreel feel to a lot of the footage, but that's relatively easy compared to his most important achievement, which is to make everything visually intelligible. After the deliberate chaos of the landing scenes, Kaminski handles the attack on the machinegun nest, and a prolonged sequence involving the defense of a bridge, in a way that keeps us oriented. It's not just men shooting at one another. We understand the plan of the action, the ebb and flow, the improvisation, the relative positions of the soldiers.

Then there is the human element. Hanks is a good choice as Capt. Miller, an English teacher who has survived experiences so unspeakable that he wonders if his wife will even recognize him. His hands tremble, he is on the brink of breakdown, but he does his best because that is his duty. All of the actors playing the men under him are effective, partly because Spielberg resists the temptation to make them zany "characters" in the tradition of World War II movies, and makes them deliberately ordinary. Matt Damon, as Pvt. Ryan, exudes a different energy, because he has not been through the landing at Omaha Beach; as a paratrooper, he landed inland, and although he has seen action he has not gazed into the inferno.

They are all strong presences, but for me the key performance in the movie is by Jeremy Davies, as the frightened little interpreter. He is our entry into the reality because he sees it clearly as a vast system designed to humiliate and destroy him. And so it is. His survival depends on his doing the very best he can, yes, but even more on chance. Eventually he arrives at his personal turning point, and his action writes the closing words of Spielberg's unspoken philosophical argument.

"Saving Private Ryan" is a powerful experience. I'm sure a lot of people will weep during it. Spielberg knows how to make audiences weep better than any director since Chaplin in "City Lights." But weeping is an incomplete response, letting the audience off the hook. This film embodies ideas. After the immediate experience begins to fade, the implications remain and grow.


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Though ''Saving Private Ryan'' is liable to be described as extremely violent for its battle re-enactments, that is not quite the case. The battle scenes avoid conventional suspense and sensationalism; they disturb not by being manipulative but by being hellishly frank. Imagine Hieronymus Bosch with a Steadicam (instead of the immensely talented Janusz Kaminski) and you have some idea of the tableaux to emerge here, as the film explodes into panoramic yet intimate visions of bloodshed.

What's unusual about this, in both the D-Day sequence and the closing struggle, is its terrifying reportorial candor. These scenes have a sensory fullness (the soundtrack is boomingly chaotic yet astonishingly detailed), a realistic yet breakneck pace, a ceaseless momentum and a vast visual scope. Artful, tumultuous warfare choreography heightens the intensity. So do editing decisions that balance the ordeal of the individual with the mass attack under way.

So somehow we are everywhere: aboard landing craft in the throes of anticipatory jitters; underwater where bullets kill near-silently and men drown under the weight of heavy equipment; on the shore with the man who flies upward in an explosion and then comes down minus a leg; moving inland with the Red Cross and the priest and the sharpshooter; reaching a target with the savagely vengeful troops who firebomb a German bunker and let the men burn. Most of all, we are with Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) in heights of furious courage and then, suddenly, in an epiphany of shellshocked confusion. Never have Mr. Hanks's everyman qualities been more instantly effective than here.

When the battle finally ends, there are other unfamiliar sights, like the body of a soldier named Ryan washed up on the beach amid fish. (The film's bloody authenticity does not allow false majesty for the dead.) Next we are drawn into the incongruously small-scale drama of the Ryan family, with three sons killed and only one remaining, lost somewhere in Normandy. Miller and his unit, played with seamless ensemble spirit by actors whose pre-production boot-camp experience really shows here, are sent to find what the captain calls ''a needle in a stack of needles'' and bring him home alive.

In another beautifully choreographed sequence, shot with obvious freshness and alacrity, the soldiers talk while marching though the French countryside. On the way, they establish strong individual identities and raise the film's underlying questions about the meaning of sacrifice. Mr. Spielberg and the screenwriter, Robert Rodat, have a way of taking these standard-issue characters and making them unaccountably compelling.

Some of that can also be ascribed to the fine, indie-bred cast that includes Edward Burns (whose acting prospects match his directing talents) as the wise guy from Brooklyn; Tom Sizemore as the rock-solid second in command; Giovanni Ribisi as the thoughtful medic; Barry Pepper as the devout Southern sharpshooter; Jeremy Davies as the timid, desperately inadequate intellectual; Vin Diesel as the tough Italian, and Adam Goldberg as the tough Jew.

As the actors spar (coolly, with a merciful lack of glibness), the film creates a strong sense of just how different they are and just how strange it is for each man to find himself in this crucible. Yet ''Saving Private Ryan,'' unlike even the best films about the mind-bending disorientation of the Vietnam War, does not openly challenge the moral necessity of their being forced to fight. With a wonderfully all-embracing vision, it allows for patriotism, abject panic and everything in between. The soldiers' decisions are never made easily, and sometimes they are fatally wrong. In this uncertainty, too, ''Saving Private Ryan'' tells an unexpected truth.

The film divides gracefully into a string of well-defined sequences that lead inexorably to Ryan. Inevitably, audiences will know that he is played by Matt Damon and thus will be found alive. But the film still manages to create considerable suspense about when and how he will appear. When it finally comes, Mr. Damon's entrance is one more tribute to Mr. Spielberg's ingenious staging, catching the viewer utterly off-guard. There's the same effect to Ryan's impassioned reaction, in one of many scenes that prompt deep emotion, to the news that he can go home.

Though ''Saving Private Ryan'' features Hollywood's most durable contemporary star in its leading role, there's nothing stellar about the way Mr. Hanks gives the film such substance and pride. As in ''Apollo 13,'' his is a modest, taciturn brand of heroism, and it takes on entirely new shadings here. In Miller, the film finds a plain yet gratifying complex focus, a decent, strong, fallible man who sustains his courage while privately confounded by the extent that war has now shaped him.

''Back home, I'd tell people what I do, they'd say, 'It figures,' '' he explains to his men after an especially troubling encounter. ''But over here, it's a big mystery, judging from the looks on your faces. I guess that means I've changed over here. I wonder sometimes if my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is I'm going to get back to her. And how I can possibly tell her about days like today.''

Among the many epiphanies in ''Saving Private Ryan'' are some especially unforgettable ones: the anguished ordeal of Mr. Davies's map maker and translator in a staircase in the midst of battle; the tranquil pause in a bombed-out French village, to the strains of Edith Piaf; the brisk way the soldiers sift through a pile of dog tags, momentarily forgetting that each one signifies a death. A man driving a tank looks up for a split second before a Molotov cocktail falls on him. Two of the film's principals huddle against sandbags at a critical juncture; and then, suddenly, only one is still breathing.

The sparing use of John Williams's music sustains the tension in scenes, like these, that need no extra emphasis. But ''Saving Private Ryan'' does have a very few false notes. Like the cemetery scenes, the capture of a German soldier takes a turn for the artificial, especially when the man expresses his desperation through broad clowning. But in context, such a jarring touch is actually a relief. It's a reminder that, after all, ''Saving Private Ryan'' is only a movie. Only the finest war movie of our time.

''Saving Private Ryan'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Its graphic war scenes depict maimed bodies and shockingly sudden death. Young children aren't ready for it. Teen-agers who would think nothing of watching a grisly horror film will think more if they see this.


Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Robert Rodat; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Tom Sanders; produced by Mr. Spielberg, Ian Bruce, Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn; released by Dreamworks Pictures and Paramount Pictures. Running time: 170 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Tom Hanks (Captain Miller), Tom Sizemore (Sergeant Horvath), Edward Burns (Private Reiben), Barry Pepper (Private Jackson), Adam Goldberg (Private Mellish), Vin Diesel (Private Caparzo), Giovanni Ribisi (T/4 Medic Wade), Jeremy Davies (Corporal Upham), Matt Damon (Private Ryan), Ted Danson (Captain Hamill), Paul Giamatti (Sergeant Hill), Dennis Farina (Lieutenant Colonel Anderson), Joerg Stadler (Steamboat Willie), Harve Presnell (General Marshall) and Harrison Young (Ryan as Old Man).

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