Saving Private Ryan is the definitive World War 2 movie. It covers one of the most horrific but influential moments in the history of the conflict, in a real, bloody and stark way, while also making a movie which tells a unique, almost unbelievable story of it’s own.
From the very beginning you are aware you are watching something special. The D-Day landings were seemingly impossible and here director Steven Spielberg pulls no punches. All the blood, agony, horror and terror is presented in it’s full realism. The explosions, graphic injury and insurmountable odds are given center stage. The event itself becomes the character here as the whole first twenty minutes of the movie is given to the landings. Spielberg places the audience in amongst the horror too, making the viewer feels like they are there without the need for virtual reality or 3D.
The rest of the movie doesn’t relent either. The injuries are real, “main” characters die, almost unexpectedly, and a lot of those deaths are done without grandstanding or dramatic overture. This is war and in war deaths are ordinary and that is exactly how Spielberg presents them here.
That normality and “ordinary” of the events we are watching is made more real by the casting. This is not Commando and the real life event involved ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Nobody exemplifies that more than Tom Hanks.
Tom Hanks plays Captain Miller and does so calmly, authoritatively and as an everyman would. Nobody thinks Hanks and thinks soldier but that is why it works so well. He is a man thrown into a situation beyond his control and is mastering it. It is a role which stretches Hanks, needing a touch of humour, a darker side than we are used to seeing and in one, very emotional scene, a moment of weakness as the war gets the better of him. It feels more real because Hanks’ character feels real.
The rest of the cast shine too. There is a who’s who of Hollywood future and past, with everyone from pre-fast cars Vin Diesel to post-Cheers Ted Danson making an appearance but the cast of characters never feel short-changed. Each bring their own baggage, from Ed Burns’ questioning the decisions of his Captain to Jeremy Davis’ naive and inexperienced Corporal. It is a movie with many facets to it’s story.
Spielberg also manages to bring the smaller nuances to the overall film. The quieter points are as important as the explosions. Three men joking about death as they search through discarded dog-tags showcases the numbness to death without signposting it, while a story about the last night before enrollment for four brothers tells more about a character than some two hour movies ever could.
You could argue that this is Spielberg’s greatest movie, and that is a tough group to choose from, but it is definitely a contender. It is certainly the greatest World War 2 movie, purely for the realism, shock and presentation of the horrors of combat.
Overall, Saving Private Ryan grabs you from the beginning and doesn’t release. The D-Day landings are presented in their purest, most realistic form and from there the movie is as gritty, dark and non-apologetic as you’d expect. Tom Hank’s performance sells that realistic tone even more, while the rest of the cast showcase Spielberg’s story-telling talent.
Rating – 5!
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)