I saw Saving Private Ryan nearly 3 weeks ago and I have been unable to write any reviews since. Mayhap that says more than my review will. By now you have all heard stories of special phone hotlines springing up for veterans experiencing shell shock flashbacks after seeing this movie. You’ve witnessed grave theatre managers in the pre-show announcement offering the expectation-blasting disclaimer that “whatever you’ve heard about this movie is not enough to describe this cinematic experience.” With this more “legitimate” wave of hype than say, Godzilla’s, Saving Private Ryan is bound to make you expect the most important movie ever made – and if you don’t feel that way, you will surely go to hell or something. I tried unsuccessfully to ignore all the press about the movie. I went expecting a punch in the stomach sob drama and came out more thoughtful, reverent, and horrified by warfare, but with no emotional catharsis. This is not to say the movie fails in any way, it is just not what They are leading you to expect.
From a technical standpoint, Saving Private Ryan is pure art. Wallowing in surround sound, we have whizzing bullets and loudly crumbling destruction, colors fading as men focus on combat, alternative film speed and handheld action thrusting you into a shocking world that just doesn’t come across the same in a John Wayne movie. During the credits, my eye randomly caught the credit for the clapper loader, and I was struck by how very much not-movie SPR felt. I could not imagine a 2 dozen-person-plus team of regular people with chairs and film boxes and grip stands and sound carts and makeup bags and Polaroid cameras anywhere near what I was watching on screen. It was trying to picture a faceless man snapping shut the clapper “B Camera!” and walking off screen in jeans and a gore-tex windbreaker before watching the actors scrabble in the grey mud for their lives that truly drove home the “reality” of he movie for me. It’s like they just waged a real war and threw a 2 man crew in there. All the actors are familiar faces, be they Tom “the envelope please” Hanks or the plethora of people who have been on Friends, but at no point do you think of them as anyone but the men they are portraying. OK, that’s not true – Matt Damon’s preternaturally white teeth make him look like a Hollywood frat boy next to the men assembled to save him.
The story is based loosely on actual events (I mean, besides WW2 of course), otherwise it would ring jingoistic and improbable. As with Schindler’s List, Spielberg demonstrates that this is an important life-changing war without infusing it with personal, Oliver-Stonesque melodrama. I actually prefer Schindler’s List from an emotional standpoint, but this movie gave me new food for thought. In the weeks since seeing this movie, I have had more conversations about patriotism and bravery than I or anyone else I know have had ever. Generally, my generation (you know, the X one) agrees that by and large, if we were thrown into this situation as these men were, not really trained military personnel but folks from regular life handed a gun and told, “Get the bad guys,” we would all be crying on the staircase and die in a moment. I am not denigrating any of my contemporaries presently enrolled in the armed forces – I mean, like, the rest of us, the couch potatoes who would have been conscripted for that bloody mess. We’d be whining about how the water tastes and “I want my PowerBook!” Basically what I am saying is, I now have a million times more respect for veterans, particularly the older veterans of those wars back before the big red button, when there was a palpable enemy (as opposed to economic security being threatened) to fight and conquer.
Patriotism is almost an embarrassingly quaint, backwoods emotion to exhibit these days – we seem to associate it more with either sheep-like adherence to things only partially understood, or movies like Armageddon. Our soft, selfish minds consider getting shot for our country foolhardy and lame. Our executive branch is the target of tasteless jokes formerly targeting The Enemy. SPR has short framing segments at the beginning and end set in the present, and a well-cast older gentleman is at the veteran’s cemetery. All I could think at the end was, “That old guy I’m honking at while I am driving pell mell to my swing dance lessons went through all that? For me? So I can drive my Honda and speak English and watch cable TV?” Wow….so instead of the emotional punch in the stomach that I was expecting, I instead have a quiet, respectful reflection…oh, and did I mention the graphic depiction of the horrors of war? Do I need to? Most of the movie was spent agape in amazement at the hellacious conditions these boys were in, and the incredibly real-looking carnage and palpable pain and fear and tension. Forget Lt. Dan’s missing legs – watch Pvt. Smith’s disappear *before your very eyes!*
People ask me, “Have you seen Saving Private Ryan yet?” and I say yes, and they say, “So is it good?” I can’t answer that question with a yes like I can other movies. It is well done, it is vivid and thought-provoking, and it is three hours of….I can’t say entertainment or diversion, it’s genuine transportation into the world of the movie. And for a director to completely absorb me is worth every penny of admission. It’s not like other movies. Go see it.
MPAA Rating R for intense graphic war violence, language
Release date 7/24/98
Time in minutes 170
Director Steven Spielberg