Saving Private Ryan Review
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Robert Rodat
Produced by Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn, and Steven Speilberg
Starring Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, and Tom Sizemore
Runtime: 2 hr, 49 min
Rated R for intense, prolonged, realistically graphic sequences of war violence and for language.
Released: July 24, 1998
Reviewed: January 24, 2013
This one is slightly late because of a couple things. One, school is back in session, so homework and such have been taking up a bit of my time. Second, Act of Valor scarred me so bad I didn’t want to do anything. I went about my days as if in a daze (pun intended), shocked by what I had witnessed. I needed something to get me out of this. I needed a good...no...I needed a great war movie to purge my mind of mindless war action sequences. I needed characters I could care for for who they were, not what they were. I needed brilliant acting, true intensity, and unpredictability. I needed a movie that asks questions, that takes itself seriously but not too seriously. I realized that I needed Saving Private Ryan.
Spoiler alert before I review it, this is my third favorite movie of all time, so you can guess what my review is going to entail. Those five movies at the top of the page are my favorite movies in order (Those are my choices, my opinions. Sue me). I guess Serenity ties Toy Story since Toy Story is really on there for a nostalgia factor, but if I put them both on there together it would look weird and kind of cramped. I like the way it looks now. Anyways, little tangent. Now back to the review.
Saving Private Ryan starts out on June 6, 1944 on the beaches of Normandy as the USA begins its assault on Nazi-controlled France. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump) manages to survive the landing and, after an epic battle sequence to rival the climax of The Avengers that I swear is at least forty-five minutes long, assists the Allies in taking the beaches and establishing a foothold in Europe. Several days later, Miller is given another mission. As it turns out, three men who were killed over the last few days were all brothers. With three of four brothers dead, the powers that be have decided that it is of the utmost importance that the fourth and youngest brother, James Ryan (Matt Damon,Good Will Hunting), be found and brought home to his mourning mother. The problem is that Ryan, a paratrooper, was separated from his squad during the invasion and no one knows exactly where he is. So, Miller puts his squad together, including his loyal second-in-command Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore, Black Hawk Down), Bible-quoting sniper Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper, True Grit) and young translator Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies, Justified) and sets off to find Private Ryan. However, as their squad’s casualties begin to pile up, they all begin to question their mission, and whether one man is really worth what they’ve sacrificed.
Where I didn’t know where to begin with what was wrong with Act of Valor, I now have no idea where to begin with what is completely right with Saving Private Ryan. I’m sure there are flaws with it, I just can’t find them. I’ll start with the acting, I guess. The movie has a sizable cast that includes acting icons like Tom Hanks and Matt Damon as well as other well-known actors like Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Jeremy Davies. Let me tell you, everyone in this movie gives nothing less than a fantastic performance. Tom Hanks got nominated for an Oscar for his role as Captain John H. Miller, but honestly, it’s hard to believe that he was the only one. If I had to pick a favorite performance, I’d probably pick each Matt Damon as the titular Private Ryan or Jeremy Davies as Corporal Timothy Upham. Matt Damon gives a good performance, but it’s a scene that was completely unscripted that pole-vaults him to the top of my list. In a one-on-one scene with Miller, Ryan recounts the last time he saw his older brother, who was fooling around with a girl at the time. The entire speech, I recently learned, was not in the script and made up by Damon during the filming of the movie, and should have easily gotten him Oscar gold.
My other favorite, Davies, might be slightly for biased reasons. Jeremy Davies, is best known for his Emmy-award winning role as “Dickie” Bennett on the FX crime drama Justified. However, before that he played scientist Daniel Faraday in the last three seasons of the ABC drama Lost (My favorite TV show ever...wow I’m going off on a lot of tangents today). He was my favorite character on the show while he was on it...before his mother killed him in what was, for me, the biggest twist in the whole time travel storyline...except the time travel itself. In any case, there’s probably a little bit of a bias there. Davies’ portrayal of Upham is, in my mind, his best work, as a subplot throughout the movie is his character’s loss of innocence as the mission continues. Upham goes from being the guy who forgets what helmet is his (he almost takes a German helmet, to which Miller asks, “Is that a souvenir?”) to making what is presumably his first kill as he executes a German soldier during the final battle at the climax of the movie (I’d go into it, but it contains huge spoilers for the ending of the movie). In any case, the performance of Davies, as well as the other members of the cast, help make Saving Private Ryan what it is.
Now, if you remember, my biggest problem with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Dead Poets Society was that they had a lot of characters and not enough of them were thoroughly fleshed out. It wasn’t that big of a deal, because it takes a lot of skill to have a large cast of characters with all of them fleshed out. It still bugged me, but you can overlook it to still enjoy the movie. Saving Private Ryan still manages to avoid this, though, creating a cast fantastic characters that we grow to care about as the movie goes on, making the fact that a good deal of them die (I don’t consider that a spoiler, it should come as no surprise that characters die in a war movie) that much sadder and emotional for us as the audience. Unlike Act of Valor, who tried to make us care about their characters for what they were, Navy SEALs, Saving Private Ryan has characters that we care for because of who they are. The fact that they are soldiers makes them more likeable to American audiences, sure (‘cause ‘MERICA!), but it’s the fact that all the soldiers in Miller’s squad seem like real, three-dimensional people instead of cardboard cut-outs (*cough* Act of Valor *cough*) that makes them characters we feel like we know by the end of the movie.
One of the things I love to see in movies is a question that is asked, but not answered. Some people don’t like that, but I love being left with a morally grey question that is up for me to answer for myself. In this movie, for instance, the question we are left with is: was it worth it? Few soldiers from the original squad are left standing after the epic battle that marks the climax of the movie. Miller, seeing the destruction and death around them tells Ryan, “James, earn this. Earn it.”. We, as the audience, are left to decide for ourselves if he was. We are not shown what Private James Ryan did after the war, so we are forced to ask ourselves whether the life of the last surviving member of a family is worth the lives of several others. There really is no easy answer to the question, and, once more I love it when a movies does that. It is undoubtedly the reason that Saving Private Ryan ranks among my favorite movies.
One of the last things I’m going to go over is the overall intensity of the movie. To me, a war movie should be intense. That’s all there is to it. There should be some real “Holy crap, this is frickin’ awesome!” going on in the audience if you’re doing a war movie right. And sweet Lord is Saving Private Ryan ever intense. You barely have enough time to breath from the first scene on the bloodied beaches of Normandy, to the climax in the ruined city of Ramelle. Intense, I feel, isn’t even the right word to use to describe these scenes. These are full-on, white knuckle, adrenaline pumping, pedal to the metal, incredibly, unbelievably, superbly epic scenes. There’s one part of the last battle where Ryan and Miller are crouching by a huge embankment when suddenly a German tank, enormous in comparison to the two men, crashes over it. It hangs in the air briefly, before coming down as Ryan and Miller try to escape. It is that one shot, of the tank bearing down on them as they sprint away with their hands over their heads, that sticks with every time I watch this movie. It almost defines the intensity and tone of the movie in just that one shot.
That’s not the only thing, though. Saving Private Ryan has some truly, unbelievably intense moments, true, but it’s the fact that there are some real laugh-out-loud funny moments in the scenes between the battles that is surprising to me. Not many screenplays can find the right balance between intensity (or, in this case, epicness) and comedy, but once again, Saving Private Ryan does it. In fact, one of these comedic scenes takes place during the opening assault on the beaches of Normandy. The entire scene has become legendary for it’s goriness and fairly realistic portrayal of the D-Day invasion, but it’s almost like this one little ten second snippet was put in there to make sure it wasn’t too dark. It still is, but this makes it a bit more bearable. Anyways, Miller purposely draws fire from a German machine gunner to make sure one of his men can get to safety. Horvath tells him, “Captain, if your mother saw you do that she’d be very upset,” to which Miller sarcastically replies, “I thought you were my mother.” I dunno, it’s little things like that that make me love Saving Private Ryan that much more.
If you can’t tell by this review and the fact that’s its one of my favorite movies, I freaking love this movie. I love the acting, the characters, the screenplay, the plot, the questions it asks, the intensity, and the moments of comedy. I keep watching it expecting to find something horribly wrong with it, or not to enjoy it anymore, but every time I watch it I find it just as awesome as I did the last time I saw it. It truly is a fantastic, fantastic movie. I didn’t even get into the fact that it was made in the nineties but looks like it was made yesterday. I swear to you, everything works.
Now, by the score I’m about to give it, I am not saying that Saving Private Ryan is a perfect movie...even though it is, in my eyes. I am saying that it is exceptionally well-made, exceptionally enjoyable, and just plain exceptional overall. See it. Now.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’S FINAL SCORE: 30/29; 103%; A+
Wannabe Movie Critic