TBT: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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In trying to keep with a theme for this month’s batch of TBT’s, I have failed. 😦 I kind of put myself in a bad spot by opening the month (and the year) with Arnie’s disastrous adventure involving Armageddon in End of Days, a film I didn’t really feel comfortable with “associating” with any others as it’s just so poorly made. Unless I wanted a month of movies that fell well below their potentials I would have to go with some randoms for January. With that in mind, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and explore 

Today’s food for thought: Saving Private Ryan.

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Storming Normandy since: July 24, 1998

[DVD]

Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus is one of those films you can recall precisely where you were when you first watched it. For me, that was crammed into a small bedroom in Columbus, Ohio on a road trip me and a high school friend took in the fall of 2003. He had suggested watching it since he had never seen it, and up until that point I hadn’t been overly enthusiastic over putting myself through something I had heard was so grisly violent. Finally, on the last night of being in town, we slipped the disc into the DVD player.

I’m not sure how many I’m talking to here when I say that if you are anything like I was, reluctant, you have good reason to be if you have yet to experience Saving Private Ryan, particularly the opening half hour. More akin to a form of psychological boot camp designed to test viewers’ resolve than just another confronting scene of blood and gore, the infamous D-Day invasion of Normandy beach cements the film as essential viewing. The reality of war has never manifested as a nightmare so uniquely absurd, what with bodies being engulfed in walls of fire only to emerge as liquefied flesh.

Grenades rendering the very unlucky without a face.

That boy crying out for his mama.

Good thing film can’t tap into our sense of smell and taste; although there comes a point where the blood becomes so much its coppery taste is palpable. It’s also ironic: while wartime violence is something no one should ever witness, this harrowing sequence is history no one can afford to ignore.

After I had made it through this part and the room had righted itself again — I sometimes get the feeling the room is turning sideways whenever I get very uncomfortable in my seat — I felt uplifted, as though I had just achieved something. At the same time I felt callousness as I had this sense that whatever would pass by my eyes next would not be as severe as . . . well, that. There would be continued loss of life and likely there’d be other confronting passages — goodbye, Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) — but I knew even then that Spielberg had crafted something unique once Tom Hanks and his band of brothers gained the hill and bunkers and managed to regroup.

Saving Private Ryan is a title that explains itself but for the sake of coloring the picture: Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) is unaware that his three other brothers have all been killed in battle over the last week, and it is now up to Hanks’ Captain Miller and his company (which is comprised of several names that would later become major players in the entertainment biz, including Vin Diesel) to track him down and ensure his safe return to the States. There’s a tension that somewhat dissipates once we’re off the beach, a transition some have misconstrued as the film losing its strength. That may be true, but only insofar as the opening scenes possess a power that no film can really maintain. Spielberg wasn’t setting out to be masochistic in his choices, nor did he have intentions of frustrating those expecting the bloodletting to continue for two full hours uninterrupted. In his orchestration of the D-Day landing, yes we suffer. And audiences suffer a lot in this sweeping chronicle, but not for nothing.

After the bunkers the narrative distinctly shifts gears, for we move behind enemy lines with Miller et al as they forge ahead through wastelands created by aerial bombings and the crushing weight of Nazi tanks and troops. We escape pervasive, shocking violence but move into a realm that’s arguably more disturbing; the aftermath of war upon civilization. The mission proper gets underway and we move through towns that now bare more of a resemblance to the surface of the moon than anything on Earth, searching for a needle in a gigantic, blood-soaked haystack. Spielberg scatters all kinds of present danger across a steadily sprawling map. From hair-raising sniper shoot-outs to savage hand-to-hand combat in abandoned homes the brutality of war manifests itself in far more personal ways.

The violence doesn’t go away because you . . . excuse me, I . . . wanted it to. Because you want the room to stop spinning like crazy. Because you feel ill. All of these things are symptoms of a person who either watches films too seriously (probably true) or effects of a director whose vision refuses to be compromised. The notion that something has been banned in several countries based on realistic depictions of wartime violence and not because it features a lot of graphic sex scenes necessarily places the film on a short list of extremely disturbing films that are remarkably without great controversy. Rightfully so. Steven Spielberg’s film, though difficult to watch and of the variety that’s good to watch once and be done with, is a cinematic landmark, and quite possibly the standard to which all war films are going to forever be held. Even the ones that have preceded it.

Not that any of this was my immediate impression having randomly thrown this on on a crappy tube-TV in Ohio. It would take me years to comprehend the depravity of its violence, and for me to appreciate how hard it is for a filmmaker to recreate such atrocities with such an unflinching eye, an urgency to tell it like it is.

Who remembers Bryan Cranston in this movie? I don't. I hope I am not alone.

Who remembers Bryan Cranston in this movie? I don’t. I hope I am not alone.

5-0Recommendation: Far from comfortable, Saving Private Ryan is compulsory viewing. An extraordinary achievement in practical special effects and committed storytelling. A powerful vision of the sheer scale and desperation of the D-Day invasion (thanks goes to Mr. Alan Turing for his helping Britain decipher the German Enigma code so they’d know where to invade and when). An altogether unforgettable experience. For all these reasons and quite a few more, you should commit yourself to this film if you have not already. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 169 mins.

TBTrivia: In the German-dubbed version of the movie, one of the actors, himself a German veteran of the Normandy invasion, couldn’t deal with the emotional realism of the film and dropped out and had to be replaced.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.moviezmag.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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22 thoughts on “TBT: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

  1. Pingback: TBT: Behind Enemy Lines (2001) | digitalshortbread

  2. I saw this in the theater the weekend it came out. I saw it on a Saturday. As soon as I saw it, I called my father, who is a Vietnam veteran, to warn him about it. It was so real, that I figured it might not be good for him. Well, I was too late. He saw it on the Friday. And he was in rough shape for a little while. I did love this movie so much. I was so pissed that it didn’t win Best Picture. That was when I totally gave up on the Oscars, and realized that the Academy Awards were more about politics than the actual quality of the movies.

    • Yeah I actually just learned the other week that this was not the Oscar winner of that year. I could have sworn it was. Well, in this reviewer’s mind it will be the winner! Hahah.

      Thanks for the comments man, as always. 😀

  3. I know I said I don’t do war movies, but…well, this is an exception. Lol. Not one I’d want to see often, mind you, but this really is an absolutely gripping, tense film. You’re right about remembering where you were when you first saw it, too–I vividly remember watching it in my freshman history class in high school. I’m actually kind of amazed we were allowed to watch it, come to think of it…Anyway, well done, Tom. A very worthy TBT choice.

    • Thanks! It’s one to watch for the education. If you’re watching it twice you’re likely a film buff/addict, because Steven Spielberg’s mega-violent war film is a true test on the eyes and the soul. It’s a harrowing tale of how men can treat other men. Kind of weird; I think Shia LeBeuof’s (goddamn it, how do u spell his name?!) character in ‘Fury’ last year had a line exactly like that and I was instantly reminded of the beach scene in SPR when he said that. There’s just no comparison to this one.

  4. An unparalleled opening 20 minutes and a brilliant final 20 mins bookend a strong, but only above average middle section. I always thought The Thin Red Line was the superior WWII movie of that year.

    • I am yet to see Malick’s war story, but I’m dying to. Especially knowing how unique of a filmmaker that guy is!!! Cheers Mark, thanks for stopping on by for a pretty gruesome edition of TBT. 🙂

  5. Within the first 30 minutes, Steven Spielberg changed everything there was to ever know about warfare filmmaking for he brought on screen the carnage no one thought they’ll be witnessing so early into the picture. Don’t agree with your Spielberg’s magnum opus tag… that belongs to Schindler’s List in my opinion, but it’s definitely in a league of its own. Excellent review.

    • Yeah ‘Schindler’s’ is pretty excellent too. That’s a really tough call between those — I think I might appreciate them both equally. Thanks dude!

  6. Another excellent piece Tom. Funnily enough, I also remember when I first saw this – in school. Crazy. If any teachers are reading this and want to have a totally silent classroom for thirty minutes, just stick on SPR.

    Adam.

    • Watching this in school would have been awesome! Not only would that basically take care of like at least two class sessions (all my classes in school were roughly all hour-long blocks) it would be an excellent education in film. Both in terms of story and in technique. This is such a gritty film, the depressing color palette really just adds to it. And we can’t forget the color red, of course. That might be the most dominant color here. SPR is just one of those films that will stick with me. For better and for worse.

      • We were the same Tom, hour long classes. I can’t actually remember if we watched the whole film or just half of it (I’ve seen it all since) but the opening beach scene definitely sticks out. Great shout regarding the colour palette – the grimness and grey haze really does emphasise the red blood and the horror of war.

    • Thank you kindly Kristen, yes it is a tough watch. An excruciatingly tough on at times. Those opening scenes, wowee. I can’t imagine sitting in a theater back when this was released. I had a hard time with it watching it on a shitty old 24-inch television set hahaha. Quite a spur-of-the-moment decision to watch this one, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity. I think I’ve only ever watched it two or three times all the way through.

  7. Great work here Tom! I absolutely LOVE this movie. It is well shot, it looks beautiful, has stellar performances, fantastic dialogue, it is super intense and it draws you all the way in.

    • Thank you, thank you! ‘Saving Private Ryan’ just well may be my favorite war film. It’s so incredibly sad and harrowing to get through, but man is it worth it. Steven Spielberg make you feel like you’ve accomplished something by getting through to the end, huh? 🙂

      Glad to be able to share enthusiasm over this one. It’s truly a classic.

  8. Yep this is pretty powerful stuff. This is Spielberg in top form. Such great direction but also a great cast.

    Talking about that opening DDay scene, I remember reading where a group of DDAY survivors received a special private screening of the film prior to its release. They were deeply effected by the film and said the opening was frighteningly accurate. Now every time I watch it I think of what those vets said. Makes it even more sobering and difficult to watch.

    • Man, that does. Wow. I also had read that there supposedly was a special 800-number that was established by the National Treasury of Veteran’s Affairs (i think that was the organization) for former soldiers to call after they had seen the movie and had been thoroughly shaken by it. This really is a potent movie, both visually and thematically. It’s brilliant and in my estimation an essential movie.

  9. Great review, I really like what you said about this harrowing sequence is history no one can afford to ignore. And after watching it, it’s one that’d be difficult to ever forget. I checked to see if this won the Academy Award for Best Picture … even though I liked the movie that beat out Saving Private Ryan I have to question what the academy was thinking haha.

    • That ‘Titanic’ won out over this isn’t entirely surprising, but yeah I’m with you. I’d much prefer this far more substantial and heartbreaking story to have taken home the Top Prize. James Cameron’s sinking ship disaster boiled down to a saccharine romance that came dangerously close to overshadowing the real tragedy of all those innocent lives lost. A well-made movie, sure, but this one far and away surpasses it. Haha, I’m not sure what the Academy was thinking either to be honest. 🙂

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