A review of Saving Private Ryan
Last summer, in honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, several movie theater chains announced their plans to re-screen Saving Private Ryan. The film, originally released two decades earlier, was an instant commercial and critical success and brought about a revival of interest in the Second World War. Since then, there have been scores of movies, miniseries, TV shows and video games released that were set in World War II. A few of them were legitimately great, most were at least serviceable. But no matter the medium, the critical response, or the box office numbers, every World War II-centric media released since July 1998 has been forced to compare itself to Saving Private Ryan.
If you’ve talked to me about movies before, you might know that my three favorites are, in no particular order: The Incredibles, It’s a Wonderful Life and Saving Private Ryan. I was too young to see Saving Private Ryan when it first debuted in theaters in 1998. I watched it for the first time in 2002, when it aired on network television in honor of Veteran’s Day. Since that first viewing, I’ve called it one of my favorite movies.
Saving Private Ryan is not a movie that I rewatch often. I’m not able to put it on in the background while I’m working on something else; I find it commands my full attention in a way most movies can’t. And if the experience of watching Saving Private Ryan is this powerful even when I’m watching at home, I’ve wondered, what must that experience have been like in a movie theater? So when I heard Saving Private Ryan was coming back to theaters for a few nights, I knew my opportunity had arrived. I bought my ticket for a Sunday evening, despite having to work the following morning, eager to experience one of my favorite movies on the big screen.
Saving Private Ryan is directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg. Spielberg came to fame by directing Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park and the Indiana Jones trilogy. But five years before Saving Private Ryan, he directed Schindler’s List, a total departure from his earlier adventure films but a universal critical success. Schindler’s List, along with Saving Private Ryan, established the next phase of Spielberg’s career which led him to direct Munich, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and The Post.
Even though Saving Private Ryan is a fictional story, Spielberg was very concerned with depicting the war realistically. After a prologue that shows a World War II veteran overcome with emotion as he visits the US Military Cemetery in Normandy, the story starts on D-Day. The D-Day scene has been imitated so many times since its original release that it’s criminally easy to oversimplify what makes this scene so good. Yes, it portrays the violence and brutality of war with realistic blood and gore, which wasn’t common for war films at the time. But that’s not what makes this scene the standard to which all other battle scenes are compared.
The D-Day scene has stood the test of time because it perfectly treads the razor thin line between the chaos of battle and the rigid choreography of storytelling. Spielberg – and some credit needs to be given to his longtime director of photography, Janusz Kaminski – uses handheld cameras to capture the frenetic chaos of battle. Spielberg has said in interviews that he hoped to create the feeling of the actual war footage captured on grainy film by the brave videographers embedded with the combat units. (Spielberg uses a desaturated color palette and adds a grainy effect to the film to simulate this effect in Saving Private Ryan.) That footage contains shots that aren’t perfectly composed, often not in perfect focus and sometimes interrupted at inconvenient times. You can’t blame the videographers; they were just as exposed to enemy gunfire as the combat units they were embedded with, only they weren’t armed. This is the crucial realization that Spielberg made: the handheld camera has a person holding it who is just as vulnerable and terrified as the subjects he’s filming. For this reason, Spielberg’s camera in this scene is often over someone’s shoulder, or from the eyes of a soldier. It feels like the cameraman is prone in a foxhole or squeezed behind some sandbags with the soldier he’s filming. His camera, Spielberg realized, is the character we’re relating to in this scene.
But this scene wouldn’t work if it was purely chaos. To Spielberg, it’s important that the audience has enough time to orient themselves, even if it’s just for a few moments. Narratively, these moments are critical for introducing the characters and starting to tell their story. Emotionally, these moments let Spielberg manipulate the audience into feeling like they’re getting their bearings, that things are calming down. Then a shell explodes or a volley of gunfire comes in and the scene falls into chaos again. This cycle of rising and falling chaos is why your brain stays dialed in. Without the moments to pause, your brain would have just tuned out the noise until it found some order to make sense of. But the rise and fall tricks your brain into staying engaged throughout the scene.
The D-Day scene is narratively set apart from the rest of the film. In other words, the whole scene could be cut and we could meet the squad on D+2 when they learn about their mission to rescue Private James Ryan. Its presence however gives the rest of the movie credibility. It establishes that while these are fictional characters, it’s a story that’s at least grounded in reality, a story that might have happened. It helps us understand that the characters who just faced the terror of Omaha Beach head on, because their mission was to liberate Europe, aren’t thrilled that that mission has been modified to rescue a private deep in enemy territory, simply because General Marshall in Washington thought it was a good idea.
In retrospect, Spielberg’s idea to shoot this in the style of an old war footage seems obvious, and the execution makes it look easy. But there have been scores of imitators since Saving Private Ryan, and none of them have quite reached this level. That’s a testament to how good Spielberg is. He won an Oscar for Best Director for Saving Private Ryan, and his crew – including Kaminski – added Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing. They probably won 95% of those Oscars with this 25 minute scene alone. It’s a tour de force.
As the D-Day scene draws to a close, Tom Hanks' character, Captain John H. Miller, looks out over the beach towards the armada in the English Channel. I didn’t notice this the first few times I watched the movie, but during one viewing I caught myself wondering about Tom Hanks in this role. He plays a soldier who is unquestionably competent at his job, but his personality is almost robotic. One of his squadmates quips that “they assembled him at OSC outta' spare body parts of dead GIs.” Hanks is one of our generation’s most beloved actors, and is best known for the heart he brings to his roles, but he inexplicably doesn’t seem comfortable early on in this film. The casting made sense, I figured, because he’s a great actor and everybody seems to like working with him. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right.
Then that scene came along. It’s the scene where Miller – who is captaining a squad on a mission to find and rescue a Private James Frances Ryan, of Iowa, and has already lost one man – decides to take out a machine gun nest even though they could avoid it fairly easily. In the skirmish that ensues, the medic is mortally wounded. One of the Germans survives, and the squad is split over what to do with him: most want to kill him, but Miller decides to disarm him and turn him loose and let him turn himelf in to an Allied patrol. This angers the squad further, and one member is on the verge of deserting. Then Miller says this:
I’m a schoolteacher. I teach English composition in this little town called Adley, Pennsylvania. The last eleven years, I’ve been at Thomas Alva Edison High School. I was a coach of the baseball team in the springtime. Back home, I tell people what I do for a living and they think well, now that figures. But over here, it’s a big, a big mystery. So, I guess I’ve changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is that I get back to her. And how I’ll ever be able to tell her about days like today. Ah, Ryan. I don’t know anything about Ryan. I don’t care. The man means nothing to me. It’s just a name. But if… you know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home. If that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission.
You want to leave? You want to go off and fight the war? All right. All right. I won’t stop you. I’ll even put in the paperwork. I just know that every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.
That’s why Tom Hanks is perfectly cast. He looks uncomfortable early on because he’s supposed to look uncomfortable. He’s not supposed to look like a heartless, battle-hardened warrior; he’s supposed to look like an English composition teacher dressed in fatigues. It’s not to say the rest of the squad members are soulless mercenaries. But John Miller, more than anyone else on the squad, is supposed to look uncomfortable. And Hanks, who was nominated for an Oscar, is perfect in this role.
The squad that Miller leads has great chemistry on-screen, partially thanks to them being sent to boot camp by Spielberg for ten days before filming began. “It brought us closer together, so when we started shooting the movie, we felt a bond,” said Tom Sizemore about this experience.1 On screen, this pays off; more than an ensemble cast, this group feels like a brotherhood who has already been through a lot before the events of this movie.
Matt Damon – who plays James Frances Ryan, of Iowa – was also sent to boot camp, but not with the main squad, so when they find him and he joins the squad on-screen he genuinely feels like an outsider. This isn’t the grizzled Matt Damon who starred as Jason Bourne in three Bourne movies (well, three good ones anyway). This Matt Damon is a little more wide-eyed and innocent and captures the youth of his character well. Emotionally, he hits the perfect balance between human grief that his brothers are gone and soldierly stubbornness to not abandon his post.
Outside of the D-Day scene, the rest of the film unfolds somewhat similarly to a typical Spielbergian adventure. The mission is stated, the team is assembled, the team sets off on the mission, runs into a few obstacles, and ultimately succeeds. For a movie that has the reputation of a gruesome war movie, there are a good number of lighter moments mixed in among the solemnity. The dialogue is written well and sounds believable. There are a number of smaller action scenes between D-Day and the climactic bridge battle that feel a little formulaic at times, although this might be because Saving Private Ryan has so many imitators, not the other way around. But even these smaller scenes are executed perfectly. It almost goes without saying, because it’s a Spielberg movie, but from a technical standpoint, Saving Private Ryan is flawless.
Like most Spielberg movies, Saving Private Ryan’s score is composed by John Williams. It’s a beautiful score and one of Williams' more underrated efforts because it’s used so sparingly throughout the film. Perhaps believing that adding instrumentation would soften the battle scenes too much, Spielberg omits the score from them. He instead reserves it for the quieter moments, like when Miller is reflecting on the D-Day invasion, the squad is walking through the French countryside, or when he’s giving his speech to the squad after the medic’s death. The score is peaceful, melancholy, and pastoral. It’s one of my favorites.
An interesting question has been asked in the years since Saving Private Ryan was released: is Saving Private Ryan an anti-war movie? For years, my answer to this question was no. To clarify, I wouldn’t have argued that it was pro-war – that’s a weird stance for any movie to take. I would have argued that Saving Private Ryan doesn’t take a stance on war in general; it simply seeks to tell a story set during a war.
But as I drove home from the theater that summer evening, I decided that Saving Private Ryan is anti-war, but also pro-soldier. Spielberg uses the brutal violence and painful sacrifice depicted throughout the film to show that war – any war – is a calamity. It should never be a first, second, or third option. Saving Private Ryan is also a reminder that our freedom comes with a cost. Despots and dictators and warmongers start wars; only our servicemembers and their sacrifices give us a chance to end them. Our veterans – and their fictional counterparts throughout Saving Private Ryan – remind us that because of their sacrifice, we get to escape the calamity of war and live freely in peace.
Thanks to Sara Sawczuk for reading a draft of this post.