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USA 1998
Directed by
Steven Spielberg
169 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Saving Private Ryan

In one of the more glaring instances of AMPAS inconsistency, Steven Spielberg won the Best Director Oscar for Saving Private Ryan but the Best Picture Oscar went to Shakespeare in Love.  Not that the film doesn’t at times show signs of Spielberg’s propensity for manipulative sentimentality but if nothing else, logistically it is a compelling effort one most definitively demonstrated with an initiatory 30-minute tour de force of staging that recreates the carnage of the D-Day landing of American troops on the coast of Normandy at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.  It is matched at the other end by a climactic bridge-defending sequence that is impressive but not so well done, being more conventional in execution (and in one shot we can clearly see dummies exploding).

In between we get the story that the film’s title alludes to as Tom Hank’s Captain John Miller is sent with a small detail to find Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), an Iowa farm-boy whose three brothers have been Killed in Action (one at Omaha Beach) and who is being repatriated on compassionate grounds (a motive explained in one of the film’s more grandstanding moments by citing a letter from Abraham Lincoln to a mother who had similarly lost five boys to the Union cause) .

The search for the paratrooper is used by screenwriter Robert Rodat as an opportunity to showcase in the Fordian manner the lives of men at war  - from deadly skirmishes with the enemy to bonding on the march and at rest along with the moral dilemma Miller faces as he follows his order to “save Private Ryan” (the latter gives us another grandstand moment in which Miller tries to settle his rebellious men by telling them about his civilian life as an English teacher). Hanks’s portrayal of the war-weary commander is very good whilst Tom Sizemore impresses in one of his more memorable roles as Miller’s supportive right-hand man, Sergeant Horvath.  Amongst the many other recognizable faces, Jeremy Davies gives the only commendable performance of his career that I can recall as a young tyro who loses his nerve in battle.

There are a couple of oddities to the film.  One is that Damon’s Private Ryan,  despite his vehement commitment to staying at the front and fighting with his fellow soldiers (yet another grandstand moment) doesn’t actually thereafter do anything (as saving him is the object of Miller’s mission, this is at the latter’s directive). More significantly, the film opens with a modern sequence with the elderly Ryan visiting Miller’s military burial site and the story of his saving is framed as his memories depicted in flashback. But as Ryan only entered the picture very late in proceedings he cannot have possibly known of, let alone witnessed, the events that we see, which are above all Miller's story.

These are matters one tends to think about in hindsight for during its near three hour run-time Saving Private Ryan is a compelling film and one of the director’s best. 

FYI: Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line, a nearly contemporaneous WWII story, did not attain the box office or critical success of Spielberg's film but is well-worth comparing.




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