MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI 100*** #71. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.


“Hell, these guys deserve to go home as much as I do. They’ve fought just as hard.”

For the last 15 or so years, pretty much all war movies have been shot and edited in a very specific way.  And not just war movies and big battle scenes, but one on one fights in action movies as well.  The camera doesn’t just watch the action now, it’s in it, being rocked by explosions, knocked around by combatants, with shots edited to keep the viewer a little disorientated.  When done right, you get cool, visceral action like in the Bourne movies.  When done wrong, you get incomprehensible shit, like in The Transformers movies.  Right or wrong, they all stole their style from one man and one movie.  Steven Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan.

In one of the most famous scenes of the last two decades of movie making, Saving Private Ryan opens with the storming of the beach at Normandy, the beginning of the allies final push to take Europe back from Hitler.  I hail of bullets and explosions, we focus on the platoon of Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks).  Against all odds, they survive the invasion and are given their next assignment.  When a War Department Colonel (Bryan Cranston) back in America finds out that there’s one poor mother in Iowa who’s about to get four telegrams on the same day announcing the death of four of her five sons, he decides the fifth boy will be sent home safely.

With his ragtag group in tow, Miller sets off in search Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon).  There’s the grizzled sergeant and right hand man (Tom Sizemore), the compassionate medic (Giovani Ribisi), the sniper (Barry Pepper), the obnoxious New Yorker (Edward Burns), the avenging Jew (Adam Goldberg), the ‘Vin Diesel’ (Vin Diesel) and the bookish new guy (Jeremy Davies).  They set off on foot across France, looking for Ryan, finding other battles to be fought.  With every skirmish, the resentment of these men towards the unknown Ryan only grows.

Saving Private Ryan was the highest grossing movie of 1998 and it won all the major Oscars.  I don’t know if I’ve seen it since the turn of the millennium and I was a little worried it might not hold up.  Not necessarily because it wasn’t good, but because its style has been copied and diluted so much in the years since.  But the instant the gate on their boat opened in the first few seconds and the carnage of Normandy kicked in, I realised that the original is still the best.

And it’s not as if the movie blows its load with that opening scene.  As amazing as it is, it’s still just the intro, and Spielberg has another two and half hours of intensity up his sleeve.  With its episodic nature, Saving Private Ryan goes from on location, setback and obstacle to the next, one group of ancillary characters to the next.  He rarely takes his foot off the accelerator, and when he does, it’s for the kind of little character moments that people like Hanks and Damon are built for.  What could be schmaltz in the hands of almost any other actor (especially under the direction of Spielberg), is always totally real and totally necessary.

War movies have been around as long movies themselves.  So for someone to have redefined how they’re shot, how the look and how they sound in such an industry defining way, Saving Private Ryan automatically deserves a place in movie history.  But more important than that stuff is that it’s just really entertaining.  At the time, movie snobs rejected this in favour of raising their noses while banging on about Terrence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line.

Sure, Mallick’s movie is gorgeous to look at and gives the pretentious crowd something to feel superior about with its mediations on the meaning of life and the futility of war.  But does it make anyone give even the slightest of shits about a single one of its characters?  Spielberg may be guilty of giving the world some of the worst in treacley sentimentaltity with movies like The Terminal.  But he’s also the guy who invented how to do it perfectly, with movies like E.T.  With Saving Private Ryan, he managed to combine just the right amount of treacle and sentiment, with legitimate carnage, bloodshed and horrors of war.

Saving Private Ryan
Directed By – Steven Spielberg
Written By – Robert Rodat

Academy Awards
Best Director – Steven Spielberg
Best Picture
Best Actor – Tom Hanks
Best Original Screenplay
Best Cinematographer
Best Editing

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