They ran up the hills and across hostile plains.
They learned from their drills and embarked on campaigns.
They slogged through the mud and up bullet-chewed shores.
They spilled others’ blood while they dropped by the scores.
These teachers and writers and miners supplied
Their service as fighters for duty or pride.
They risked life and limb, often lost one or both,
And faced dangers grim that weren’t part of the oath.
They left homes and holes to attack assumed foes.
They charged foolish goals they were told to oppose.
They braved likely death where the angels don’t tread
And gave their last breath with both courage and dread.
Some died on the field, and some died in the tent,
And some made survival their cause to repent.
And most dwell, years past their first sojourn to war,
In graveyards amassed for the ones they fought for.
They stormed into hell, not for heaven’s demand,
But blistered and fell for their nation to stand.
And though you and I fathom not their nightmares,
How deep our thanks lie for the gift that is theirs.
MPAA rating: R
Of all my Blindspot Picks this year (I know this one for June is a couple days late), Saving Private Ryan was the one I was most nervous about watching. There’s a reason I hadn’t yet watched this widely acclaimed classic from Steven Spielberg, namely its reputation as one of the more graphic war movies, which as a rule, I usually try to avoid. Yet after enduring the harsh battle scenes of Hacksaw Ridge and still loving it, as well as the current patriotic timing between the D-Day anniversary (June 6) and July 4, now seemed like the right time to finally give Saving Private Ryan a chance. I’m glad I did.
Most of what I’d heard of Saving Private Ryan centered on the first thirty minutes, the brutal re-creation of the Normandy invasion. Indeed it’s an impressively intense experience to sit through, even if it’s still only a fraction of what the soldiers involved actually had to endure, among them my own paternal grandfather. It also feels fiercely comprehensive in its depiction of the battlefield, following Tom Hanks’s Captain John Miller from the assault boats up the bullet-riddled beaches under constant enemy fire. The men’s reactions to the nightmarish setting range from terrified and dazed to angry and vengeful, particularly as the repeated attempts to save the wounded prove horrifically futile. There are no cuts away to generals talking or planning or anything to take the viewer out of the moment, and it’s epic and immersive. As for the notorious violence, it’s comparable to the battle scenes of Hacksaw Ridge, though perhaps a bit less constant in its bloodshed than the worst Hacksaw Ridge scenes.
Yet, even beyond the intense opening, the rest of the film has plenty of strengths as well, the strongest of which has to be Tom Hanks. Hanks has always been good in everything I’ve seen of his, and he gives an outstanding performance here, easily worthy of an Oscar, for which he was only nominated. As Captain Miller, he’s a competent leader willing to fulfill his duty, even when his superiors send him on a foolhardy mission into enemy territory to retrieve the titular Private Ryan (Matt Damon), whose loss of his three brothers in battle has earned him a sympathy ticket home. Yet Miller isn’t as tough as nails as he tries to act, sometimes amused at hearing his men guess at his mysterious past, sometimes letting his desperation and grief amidst all the violence show through. Hanks is the touchstone for the whole film, which is important when the rest of the men under him aren’t as distinguishable, at least at first. The film’s long runtime of 2 hours and 49 minutes helps the other men under him stand out a bit, such as Barry Pepper’s praying sniper or Edward Burns’ hothead who rebels at risking lives for the sake of one man. (Until the end credits, I really thought Burns was Ben Affleck for some reason.) Even if I couldn’t keep up with most of their names, all the actors do an excellent job, including Damon, Burns, Tom Sizemore, Giovanni Ribisi, and Vin Diesel. Speaking of characters, I was especially delighted to see a very young Nathan Fillion (Castle, Firefly) as a different Private Ryan and (major Lost alert!) Jeremy Davies as timid interpreter Upham, which is such a strong role for him that I’m surprised this film didn’t make him a more sought-after star.
Along the cross-country search for Private James Francis Ryan are individual encounters that convey so much of the horror, callousness, and sacrifice. At one point, Miller’s men rummage through dog tags of the deceased, joking and bantering as if they’re playing cards, only to be reminded that they’re essentially sorting through men’s stolen lives. Later, Upham defends a German prisoner whom the others want to kill, only for his naively righteous motivations to be starkly challenged by the ruthlessness of war. (The way this subplot plays out is like the opposite of a similar aspect of the 2003 film Saints and Soldiers.) And through it all is the question of whether Private Ryan is worth all the trouble of saving. Does offering Ryan’s mother a little comfort in her grief warrant putting other men’s mothers through the same? How can one man live up to the sacrifices made to rescue him?
Saving Private Ryan is undoubtedly one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest achievements, yet oddly enough, while the film runs through a range of emotions, one of the strongest for me was anger. Why? Because how on God’s blue marble did Shakespeare in Love beat this for Best Picture?!?!?! I mean, really, there is no contest as to which film is grander, better told, and all-around more significant. In my opinion, that has to be the worst Best Picture decision the Academy has ever made, worse even than the La La Land debacle from this past year. I’m sorry, but Saving Private Ryan is clearly the true Best Picture of 1998. At least, Spielberg won Best Director, alongside Oscars for Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Film Editing, and Sound Effects Editing.
Despite all this praise for Saving Private Ryan, I’m left divided on how exactly to rank it on my Top 365 List at the end of the year. As with Hacksaw Ridge, I loved the story, acting, script, patriotic message, and production values, but the violence is a big drawback for me, mainly in diminishing its watchability. While the violence is important for effectively re-creating the savagery of battle, I still feel that sprays of blood and severed limbs are unnecessarily gruesome tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal. At one point, someone is literally blown apart by a bomb they don’t throw away for some reason; I couldn’t tell who it was or why they didn’t chuck the explosive, making the scene unnecessary except for shock value. I just feel that this would have been a slightly more accessible film if it had been edited to avoid some of the gore; I know my aversion to violence puts me in the movie-watching minority, but there must be others who avoid films like this for the same reasons I did (like my VC, who still refuses to see it). Ultimately, though, its strengths far outweigh that personal negative, so I’ll have to figure out later where exactly on my list such a film deserves to be.
I have no hesitation in confirming that Saving Private Ryan really is among the best war films ever made. The cinematography and explosive battles augment its epic storytelling while never ignoring the human cost and casualties, and it captures the complicated mess of war, such as casting a disapproving eye at the vengeful cruelty done by Americans while reminding us that self-righteousness is rarely rewarded in battle. The strongest performances by Hanks and Davies should have earned them both Oscars. I can’t say I’d watch Saving Private Ryan often, due to its length and intensity, but few films are better suited for July 4 viewing.
Best line: (Captain Miller, to Private Reiben, who wants to kill a prisoner) “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.”
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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