Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

When the battle is over, books are written and after books movies are made and after movies a romance of war engenders in the hearts and minds of those who stayed behind, or were too young to know. Steven Spielberg's film is a sharp reminder of the way it was, not courageous and glorious and good, but chaotic, insufferable, demented.

Robert Rodat's quality as a scriptwriter is his faith in the unexpected and an ability to convey the D-Day experience as a series of disasterous mistakes, instinctive decisions, chance ocurrences and the brutalising effect of violent death.

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"The more people I kill, the further away from home I feel," the beleaguered captain says.

It is in the breakdown of order that true character is exposed. Anyone can do their duty. Not everyone can rise above the ruins of expectation. When a secretary, working in the department that writes letters of bereavement to next of kin, notices that three sons of a Mrs Ryan from Iowa have been killed in action within days of each other, she informs her superior. It turns out that Mrs Ryan's youngest, James (Matt Damon), is somewhere behind enemy lines in France. An order is dispatched that he be found immediately and repatriated.

After surviving the maelstrom of Omaha Beach, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and what remains of his company - four soldiers, Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), a medic (Giovanni Ribisi) and a wimpish college grad, Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), picked up from somewhere else because of his linguistic skills - is given the job.

"It's like finding a needle in a stack of needles."

Actually, it's worse than that. It makes no sense. Why take risks to send an unknown private home? He better be worth it, is the general opinion, implying that he couldn't be, nobody could, especially if lives are lost in the attempt.

Spielberg is a consummate filmmaker, consistently surpassing himself - Saving Private Ryan is tougher and stronger than Schindler's List - stretching his imaginative and technical abilities beyond what he knows, or has done before, always remaining true to the spirit of the project. The way he shoots the telling-Mrs-Ryan sequence is as beautifully realised as the suicidal beach landing prologue, which captures the terror of that "glorious" occasion better than anyone would believe possible. The cinematography (Oscar winning, Polish born, Spielberg regular, Janusz Kaminski), with its grainy colour and handheld immediacy, recreates a memory of Forties newsreels, while taking chances and retaining its integrity throughout.

The story evolves accidentally, without logic, or reason. Plans go awry. Things happen that are not supposed to happen. The only semblance of solidarity is the men's feelings for each other, at times antagonistic and edgy. Miller believes that following orders, however ludicrous, will increase his chances of home leave, and yet knows that the Normandy invasion has been achieved, if achievement is not too dirty a word, at a terrible cost to human life ("I have lost 94 men under my command").

No one seems to know who is where, or what is what, as communications break down and units scatter like partridges before the drive. Miller is a small town English teacher, not a natural hero, a thoughtful man in an ignorant situation, only just managing to hold himself and his men together. Hanks digs so deep into Miller's psyche that he appears not to act at all, only respond to conditions as they abuse his sensibility, already numb from the shock of it, quietly stamping his authority on the rest of the cast. Davies has the advantage of playing a soldier, who should never have been a soldier, and therefore stands out, or, rather, back. Upham is hardly a coward. He is traumatised by fear, as so many might have been, and Davies plays gauche wonderfully, hinting all the while at a higher intelligence that is worse than useless in this theatre of blood.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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From Omaha Beach on D-Day, they search for a lost soldier in the fields of France.
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Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Robert Rodat

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Fillion

Year: 1998

Runtime: 170 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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