Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Edward Burns, Vin Diesel, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg
It’s hard to argue with anyone who suggests this is the greatest War movie ever made. Appropriately, its subject is the greatest War the world has ever seen. The film opens with the greatest single achievement by a modern armed force in the history of warfare, the D-Day landings. The lead is perhaps the greatest modern Actor, Tom Hanks. It’s gorgeous, haunting soundtrack is composed by the greatest film composer in history, John Williams. To top it off, the master of the blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, by many metrics the greatest director of the past half-century, leads the way. It’s a who’s who and the film shows it.
Hanks had established his star power at this point. He had been Jim Lovell, he had voiced Woody, he had gotten Big, he was Forrest and a key member of the cities of Seattle and Philadelphia. He had done primarily comedy and romantic-comedic work but Best Actor Oscar wins in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump showed he had something particularly special to give to the world. In Saving Private Ryan, he became a symbol of the American Soldier.
A ferocious, dead-eyed leader who stares atrocities, death, and suffering in the face but pushes on because duty calls. He has a past life he cherishes but it is precisely because of that life he trudges on to danger. As a symbol of the ideal soldier, Hanks is devoted, no-nonsense, decisive, brave, but also human and forgiving to a fault. He communicates the weight of the war, the weight of command, and the selfless love of a true leader with grace and passion.
He lost his Oscar bid to Roberto Benigni (file that piece of trivia away) but his performance is a brilliant display of nonverbal communication, timing, and commitment. It is still today his most prominent “action” role, and yet its the humanity and grace of the performance which is worth the price of admission and solidified Hanks in the pantheon.
John Williams already had 5 Oscars and had collaborated with Spielberg on 9 Oscar-nominated soundtracks before Saving Private Ryan. The use of the trumpet in a sort of medley combining the American National Anthem, Taps, and a distinctly military-themed march ties together Williams’ gorgeous score. Poignant and contemplative at times and furied and exciting at others, Williams’ recognizable voice clearly shines. It’s well worth a listen on its own and serves as a fierce friend to the screenplay.
The message of the film is fairly straightforward. The troop of fictional soldiers sent out to save the fictional Private Ryan are actually the men and women who gave their lives to save America, to preserve our way of life, to protect what we stand for and believe, in short, to save you and me. Spielberg preaches a soft sermon at the end when Harrison Young breaks down and asks his wife if he’s been a good man. After watching 2 hours of suffering, pain, sacrifice, and death, he wants us to consider the cost. Are we worth it, can we possibly be worth it?
In contrast with modern military-themed cinema such as Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Hurt Locker, Eastwood’s American Sniper, Spike’s Da 5 Bloods or earlier Vietnam War films like FFC’s Apocalypse Now, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, or Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon, it’s a much more optimistic and idyllic view of the American Soldier. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the country’s approach to today’s military conflicts and Vietnam in contrast with its approach to World War II.
Spielberg does not apologize for the brutality of the American soldier but instead shows it in the context of a brutal war in which brutality is the only mode of operation. The Germans are mostly faceless enemies with violence, anger, and deceit as their defining features. There’s little ambiguity on who the good guys are, the viewer is added to a company of men and with Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davis) slowly becomes one of the guys. This ragtag collection of character actors (Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg) steals your heart and then rips it out as they each face the inevitability of combat death. Robert Robat’s (The Patriot, Thor: The Dark World) script is caricatured and over the top but in a larger than life context feeds the immensity of the spectacle. The diversity of the little platoon mirrors the America it’s intended to represent.
To wrap this up – I cannot recommend this movie strongly enough. It’s exciting, fun, exquisitely well-made, poignant, touching, challenging, inspiring, and above all representative of the best of what America is supposed to stand for. There’s a time and place for realism and its dark gritty torture rooms, abusive drill sergeants, and the struggles of PTSD – those things need to be wrestled with, faced, and understood. But how can those things be faced without a clear view of the Ideal? A conscious understanding of what the sacrifice is for, what it costs, and the men who’ve faced it gives us the standard to lay the last 50 against. Spielberg’s masterwork shows us that Ideal and does it in an inescapably entertaining way.