Tuesday, June 26, 2012

#680. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore

Tag line: "The Mission Is a Man"

Trivia:  All the principal actors underwent several days of grueling army training - except for Matt Damon, who was spared so that the other actors would resent him, and would convey that resentment in their performances

Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan opens with a bloody reenactment of the invasion of Normandy, an amphibious landing along the coast of France carried out by the Allies on June 6, 1944. This sequence, which runs for approximately 30 minutes, is devastating, and gives me a whole new respect for the men who sacrificed everything on that June day. 

Yet it’s the memories and emotions, which go hand-in-hand with such sacrifice, that make up the heart of Saving Private Ryan, and prove just as destructive as any battle.

Having survived the assault on Omaha Beach, Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) is next given a special assignment, one that comes directly from the top: locate and rescue Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose exact whereabouts are unknown. 

It seems Ryan’s three brothers, who enlisted along with him when the U.S. entered the war, have all been killed in action within the last week. Gen. George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) has ordered that Ryan be found and brought back alive, so he may return home to be with his family during their time of grief. 

Most of the men under Miller’s command, including Sgt. Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Pvt. Richard Reiben (Edward Burns) and Pvt. Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper), are none too happy to be risking their necks to save a single man. But Miller accepts the mission and leads his squad deep into occupied France, where they hope to track down a soldier lost in the chaos of war, without knowing whether or not he's even alive.

Intense feelings are at play in Saving Private Ryan, and Spielberg guides us through them in a very meticulous manner, starting us off with barbarity and pandemonium on a grand scale (the beaches at Normandy), then slowly narrowing the story down to the effect war has on the individual. Yet while the film’s scope may narrow, the intensity of the experience is never diminished. For Capt. Miller’s men, every mile deeper into enemy territory gives them time to think. They begin to resent Ryan, whom they have never met, because he's suddenly become the sole reason they're fighting so far from home. Every skirmish they get mixed up in along the way, every wound the suffer, every loss the encounter becomes his fault.

But what about Ryan? What happens when, and if, they find him? Aside from the shock of learning that his brothers are dead, Ryan must also deal with the fact that a group of fellow soldiers risked their lives (some even losing them) so he could get a free ticket back to the States. Is he worthy of such a sacrifice? If he lives to be a hundred, will a day pass that he won’t remember it?

The first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan are a violent account of the atrocities of war. The final 2+ hours are a journey into the crippling emotions that, for many who serve, last longer than physical wounds. As Saving Private Ryan so wonderfully demonstrates, war is hell on many, many levels.

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