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A present participle in the title usually promises a film with light, ironical flavour: Driving Miss Daisy, Being John Malkovich, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Not here. Screenwriter Robert Rodat imagined this colossal second world war blockbuster with absolute seriousness, loosely inspired by the real-life case of Sgt Frederick Niland, recalled to the US from the Normandy campaign on emergency compassionate grounds because all his brothers were believed (wrongly, as it turned out) to have been killed in action.
With this movie, re-released 21 years on, Steven Spielberg created one of his greatest films, an old-fashioned war picture to rule them all – gripping, utterly uncynical, with viscerally convincing and audacious battle sequences. It was a staggeringly effective action film with a potent orchestral score by John Williams, candidly inspired by Elgar’s Nimrod. And it was based on a redemptive, quietist premise: the point of the mission is not to engage the enemy but to rescue an American soldier and spirit him away out of danger. Yet when the time of great trial comes, of course, no one is ducking the fight.
After a gruelling half-hour sequence depicting the beach landings, which reminded a new generation of filmgoers how terrifyingly low the life expectancy was for those in the first wave, we are introduced to our everyman hero, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), whose mission has been ordered from the very top: find Private Ryan (Matt Damon) on the field of battle, inform him of the terrible news about his brothers and order him home. Miller assembles a crack band of brothers: Horvath (Tim Sizemore), Reiben (Edward Burns), Jackson (Barry Pepper), Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Upham (Jeremy Davies) and Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) and they set off behind enemy lines on a desperately dangerous mission whose rationale the men not-so-secretly despise: it is Fubar – fucked up beyond all recognition.
The sweaty, traumatised faces of Captain Miller’s men are unforgettable. Some of these actors have gone on to become more famous than others, but for me, Ryan is a moment of equal triumph for each. There are stunning moments in this film and the biggest comes near the beginning when the Ryan brothers’ mother sees the official army car driving up to the house, and staggers with shock on realising what it must mean. (She is played by Amanda Boxer; the only other substantial woman’s role is Ryan’s wife in old age, played by Kathleen Byron.) It is strange now to recognise other actors – Paul Giamatti, Bryan Cranston – in minor roles.
Other moments have a sledgehammer force, particularly the grotesque mix-up when other men with the title of Private Ryan present themselves. There are expertly shaped crises, leading up to a horrible situation when the unit, who are not in a position to take prisoners, have to decide whether or not to execute a German soldier who has surrendered. There follows a huge, cathartic revelation from the fatherly Captain Miller – an outrageously hammy war-movie moment, perhaps, but superbly controlled.
Revisiting this film after two decades, some things do look a little broad. It’s certainly a traditional Hollywood war movie – right down to making it clear how irrelevant the Brits are. Captain Hamill (Ted Danson) takes time to express to Miller his view that General Monty (the “t” given full derisive pronunciation) is “overrated”. Some of the bonding scenes between the men are a little sugary. Another war film, perhaps even one made well before 1998, might want to contrive a “good German” for humanistic sympathy. But not here. Spielberg and Rodat probably did well to avoid the fence-sitting cliche. War is not glamorised in Saving Private Ryan, but the spectacular inferno is brilliantly created.
Source: The Guardian
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