Classic Movie Review: Saving Private Ryan (1998)


Title: Saving Private Ryan
Release Date: July 24, 1998
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: DreamWorks Pictures | Paramount Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Mutual Film Company
Summary/Review:

This is another movie I’ve meant to see since it came out that I’ve procrastinated.  The epic war movie tells the story of a group of Army Rangers sent behind enemy lines to find a member of the 101st Airborne Division who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day.  Their mission is to bring him home because he is his mother’s only surviving son after his three brothers die in military action elsewhere.

In reality, Saving Private Ryan is really three movies.  The first part, and the most famous, is a verite style dramatization of the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy. It follows several American troops as they are initially repulsed by the German firepower but team together to break through the lines.  Characters are largely anonymous here and we don’t know who will play a part in the rest of the movie and who will die.  At the end of the battle we see that a soldier named Ryan is among the dead.  This is followed by several scenes on the home front where the military brass give hokey speeches about saving the only surviving Ryan child and we see his mother react to the tragic news. I would’ve have cut this part out and stayed with the troops in Normandy as the sappiness really drags.

The second movie begins when a team is organized under Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) to retrieve Private Ryan.  The characters in the team are largely war movie archetypes although they’re portrayed by good actors that gives them a bit of life.  There’s the cynical guy from Brooklyn (Edward Burns), the loyal second in command (Tom Sizemore), the devoutly Christian sniper  from the South (Barry Pepper), the medic (Giovanni Ribisi),  the Jewish guy who takes out his anger on Germans (Adam Goldberg), and the naive youngster with no battle experience who’s brought along as a translator (Jeremy Davies).  Along their journey they meet up with other Allied troops and participate in skirmishes.  They argue about the value of risking their lives to save one man and whether they should kill or release a German captive.

Finally, they find Private Ryan (Matt Damon before he was famous) in the French town of Ramelle where he and his fellow paratroopers are guarding a bridge against German crossing, and the third move begins.  Ryan refuses to leave and thus Miller decides to have his group provide reinforcement as they improvise ways to defend the bridge against a much larger German force, or destroy it. An epic battle ensues.

I found this to be a perfectly competent, well-made war film with strong acting, special effects, sound design, and cinematography.  But I don’t see it as one of the 100 greatest films of all time or even the best movie about World War II.  Too often their are effective set pieces but not enough time getting to really know and care about the loosely-sketched characters.  Moral quandaries are discussed but then brushed away with easy answers.  And the movie attempts to be a universal story of front soldiers facing the difficult decisions in war but then indulges in glurgy American patriotism.

I’d like it and I’d watch it again, but Saving Private Ryan is more Very Good than All-Time Great.

Rating: ***1/2

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