Article By: Dan Clark
A person once asked me how I could possibly enjoy watching a movie that depicts war. How could someone pursue entertainment within our history’s most turbulent times? In a way is it not disrespectful to seek out an artificial depiction of so many ultimate sacrifices? Many may respond to that form of inquiry with spouts of frustration. They may believe people who ask those questions are unwilling to see the true point, but the truth is there is a lot of validity to those inquiries. When you are dealing with a subject like war in any context there is a great deal of inherit responsibility involved. Some fail at living up to that responsibility as they unjustly exploit the detriments of others for their own personal agenda. Others can live up to their obligation by placing respect above all other priorities. One director that certainty did his due diligence was Steven Spielberg when he directed Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg crafted a movie that instantly became the quintessential World War II film of our generation. Saving Private Ryan shows us how insurmountable of a challenge these men overcame. More importantly it goes beyond showing us what they did—it shows us who there were. Saving Private Ryan is not about using war as entertainment—there is no pleasure watching the events unfold on screen—it is an experience used to gain an even deeper form of admiration for our world’s true heroes.
Saving Private Ryan takes place during the invasion of Normandy as the Allied forces begin their all-out attack on the Germans. D-Day, as it was so infamously codenamed, has been recognized as one of the major turning points of the War on Germany. The assault on Omaha Beach has been portrayed on screen a number of times, but nothing comes close to this intensity of Saving Private Ryan . Personally, I have had the grand fortune of never being a part of any type of warfare, so I can only imagin this is the closest representation I will ever experience. Chaos reigns supreme as bodies are torn to shreds by an onslaught of bullets and explosions. Imagery, like a solider lackadaisically search for his blown off arm or countless bodies piling up like driftwood on a stormy day, puts the horror of the situation into perspective. This barrage of devastation is a sobering experience that can leave you shaken.
In addition to this sheer devastation, was another very important component—the waiting. Soldiers sitting among an abandoned rubble filled city is a chilling site to behold. Giving us this time to breathe also provides a number of quality character moments. We see how something simple, like the melody of a French singer, can provide a soothing aroma they so desperately need. The quiet before the storm is impeccably represented as the gears of German tanks echo through the city streets while American soldiers lay await. The momentum organically builds, increasing the tension of the battles to even higher levels.
Part of what makes it work on such a high level are the amazing technical skills. We experience the fighting like it actually happened. The use of a handheld camera along with the superb sound design places us right into the middle of the battle field. This is the type of movie that has you looking all around the room in anticipation for the next jolting boom. The orientation is always shifting so you never know where the next bullet will be coming from. A lot of credit should also go to Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography as well. The look of the film has a sharp realism to its presentation. Kaminksi increased the degree of the film’s shutter to provide a crisper picture. That along with how it would vibrate with the explosions blurs the barrier between reenactment and reality. The camera becomes our vehicle–and that vehicle because Spielberg’s target.
The film is very loosely based on a true story. Much of the actual events are fabricated, but its more to the films credit that it can make this unbelievable story feel entirely factual. Following Normandy a Private gains a ticket home when all of his brothers are killed in action. The issue is during the turmoil of D-Day companies got separated and no one is where they are supposed to be. A company of 8 mean lead by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) are set on a mission to find Private Ryan and bring him back home. The mission is utterly fubar—as they say it’s like finding a needle inside a stack of other needles—but they set off to do what needs to be done.
One key element to the success of Saving Private Ryan is the impeccable casting. All the work that went into establishing this realism would go out the window if the actors did not fit their parts. Besides Tom Hanks as lead, Spielberg filled the cast with relatively small named actors for the time. Unbeknownst to Spielberg, Matt Damon would also go onto worldwide success with Good Will Hunting prior to the film’s release. Still, even with the unexpected additional star power this cast works wonderfully. Tom Hanks in particular demonstrates a persona that is absolutely genuine. Hanks has represented the average American male for quite some time, which makes him ideal for this role. These men aren’t made out to be superhuman or camouflaged versions infallibility. Their bravery fails, their anger overcomes, and their self-doubt never yields. Removing that façade in no means diminishes their accomplishments—it enhancing them.
Saving Private Ryan places the vast excursion of war into microcosmic proportions, which allows for a more comprehensive understanding of what war is truly like. Though the narrative centers on a mission to save one man, the themes are far more reaching. Captain Miller’s piece of advice to Private Ryan resonates beyond its immediate service level. This ticket home—this new opportunity at life he was given is a gift we all have received. Although that may sound sappy, the truth is undeniable. Steven Spielberg grew up as a director when he made Schindler’s List, and the development continues here. Saving Private Ryan is an unrelenting tale of an anguish and sacrifice. It gives brave men the recognition they deserve, and will eternally inspire for generations.