Thursday, May 04, 2006


RUN TIME: 170 min.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN simply put is the most complete and multi-dimensional war movie ever made.
I have always maintained that traditionally there are two approaches to making a war movie- one where you get all political, philosophical, show war is hell and more often than not lose sight of all reality. These movies just beat you with their ham-fisted approach to impose upon you that “WAR IS HELL”. I would point out CASUALITIES OF WAR and THE DEER HUNTER as the worst of this kind.
The second approach is to get all gung-ho and heroic about it. Portraying soldiers as larger than life figures and again losing sight of reality is the way to go for these movies.
I personally fell that both of these approaches are wrong. These movies impose their viewpoint upon their audience rather than convincing them. And more often than not movies like these lose the whole point.
Now to the actual movie.
Mr. Spielberg along with screenwriter Robert Rodat and cameraman Janusz Kaminski have taken an approach to the war genre that is nothing short of brilliant. They have brought with all that a level of dignity that has been missing for a long long time.
The opening scene is itself one of the finest pieces of filmmaking ever put on celluloid. Whatever words are exchanged during the opening half an hour is simply lost in the visual assault on both the audiences’ minds and hearts. Simply put the opening sequence is plain horrifying. I can remember many war movies where the battle sequences become a spectacle and become more of an action sequence. You tend to enjoy those scenes. But that never happens here. I remember the numerous times I felt a sense of shock when I was first watching this scene. And all this for characters you don’t even now the names of. That has got to be plain genius.
The approach to this particular scene; the camerawork, the cinematography rather the whole direction is the most brilliant I have seen. I have heard a lot of D-Day war veterans’ accounts and I can positively say that it would have been more or less the same.
In a brilliant move, the people firing the bullets are never shown. The camera is hand-held and is just left smack in the middle of all the gun-firing. All this makes us feel we are right there in the middle of the invasion along with the Allied soldiers and not knowing where the bullets are coming from. For this scene alone the movie is a winner. I would just go on to say that this opening scene has got to be one of the finest things ever made for celluloid if not the finest.
The plot is pretty simple. It is supposed to be inspired by true events involving The Sullivan Brothers although it is not claimed anywhere. But there is a reference to the same in the movie.
A mother has lost 3 of here sons in the war and the fourth a James Francis Ryan, who was with the 101st airborne, is somewhere in France. A team comprising of 8 people led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and Sergeant Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore) is sent to find James Ryan and send him back home to his mother.
There is Captain Miller who is held in awe by his crew. One line about him by Private Reiben (Edward Burns) is particularly good – “The captain has been made out of dead GIs body parts.” Nobody knows what the captain was before the war, not even the Sgt. Who has been with him since Kasserine. In fact they have a pool going on about him. All this is not just for entertainment but lends a depth to each of the characters that I have seldom seen in war movies. It is something akin to what Quentin Tarantino does where the characters always speak about something else that is totally unrelated to the scene and give it a touch of reality.
And there are members in the group especially Reiben who are totally against the mission. He always maintains that what is the math of sending 8 of us to save one guy. And he starts to despise Ryan when the mission starts to get fatal.
In a way that is the whole question of the movie-“what is the value of a person’s life?’
The movie could be made in the 50s or 50 years from now and still this question would be very relevant.
In a brilliant scene, Tom Hanks tells Tom Sizemore-“I have lost 94 men under my command. But that means that I have saved the lives of 10 times as many. And that is how you rationalize things.” Tom Sizemore replies-“This time the mission is a man”.
And as all great artists do, Mr. Spielberg never answers the question. He asks a relevant question and leaves it to you to decide.
In another memorable scene where Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) struggles to death, Spielberg hits the nail. The scene obviously seems inspired by a similar one in FULL METAL JACKET but is infinitely more powerful. I still sometimes get choked while watching the scene.
In the bookend war scene, a more traditional approach to war sequence is taken. The sequence looks like a footage straight out of a war documentary.
The performances are just brilliant. I have seldom seen such brilliant performances in the same movie by everyone. I just cannot remember a single bad performance. As far as I can remember only GOODFELLAS, L.A.CONFIDENTIAL and THE GODFATHER could rival SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in brilliance of performance of an ensemble cast.
Tom Hanks is brilliant as always. As we have come to expect from him now, he is Capt. John Miller. He brings authority, vulnerability, dignity and immense depth as only he can. He is one of the greatest actors of all time if not the greatest. His breakdown scene and where he discloses what he used to do before the war are brilliant. Even in the opening scene his reactions are just so good. His generosity for the co-stars in front of the camera is quite apparent. And that is why you tend to get so many good performances when there are other actors in his company. I am just in awe of this genius of an actor.
Tom Sizemore brings a touch of larger than life characteristic to his role. He is heroic in a way John Wayne should have been in THE LONGEST DAY.
Edward Burns is the one who took me by surprise. He was simply brilliant as Pvt. Reiben. His hatred for Ryan, his whole disappointment on the mission and his hidden reverence for the Captain is brilliantly portrayed by him.
Matt Damon as the character to be saved has got just enough of footage to pack a solid punch. But he is a great actor and great actors don’t need much time to leave their mark.
The character we would most identify with is Pvt. Upham (Jeremy Davies). In a way he represents what we would have undergone had we been in the situation. His shock, his vulnerability are both we can identify with.
As I had said the performances are brilliant. Much of it owes to awesome character development on the part of Mr. Spielberg and Robert Rodat. It is quite rare to feel all the characters in a movie and that is what just happens here.
For me this is Mr. Spielberg’s best movie ever. And that is something from a director who has given us some of the greatest movies of all time. His filmography may be quite easily the most enviable body of work ever. It is to war movies what THE GODFATHER and GOODFELLAS are to mafia movies, what PSYCHO is to thrillers and what 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is to sci-fictions. Everything he has done in the movie works.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is the greatest war movie ever made. In fact it is one of the greatest movies ever made. It is not just a war movie. It is much more. It has a depth that speaks about life as a whole. Watching the eight people, I could always identify them with people in corporate life. Captain Miller is the typical boss maintaining a stern exterior; Upham is the newcomer who is just in awe of the boss and many such things.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN doesn’t preach before you that war is hell. It just put you right in the middle of it and lets you judge for yourself. And it tells you- War is hell, war does make beasts out of men sometimes but please don’t judge the soldiers on that. These men fought for us in circumstances we never would like to know. I have a new found respect for a soldier and I salute to all those soldiers, both living and dead, who were on the beaches of Normandy on that fateful day in the mornings of June 6 1944. These people are the real heroes.


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