Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies
Spoilers Within: Yes
If you were to list you favourite films depicting war in 1998 chances are it’d have been an immovable list of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, or Paths of Glory, but once Steven Spielberg released his late-90s magnum opus Saving Private Ryan, the face of combat and action cinema irreversibly changed. Though it’s enormously difficult to choose which of his body of work is truly his greatest, in the pantheon of cinema as a means to communicate the horror of conflict, Saving Private Ryan honourably sits without dispute.
In its opening 30 minutes, Spielberg rewrote the military filmmaking handbook: everything you’d seen before couldn’t have prepared you for the technical marvel that was on vivid display in the extended rendering of the horrific Normandy landings. Its stunning realism depicted the panic and terror in a way that – almost 20 years later – I’ve yet to see bested, and though I know that there are films that tackle the same subject with distressing verve this is perhaps one of the finest to show such unprejudiced realism, even when Spielberg can’t help but inject the film with histrionic flourishes that are common with his most historical pictures.
Each concentrated set-piece sticks in the memory long after; Giovanni Ribisi’s Wade bleeding out is poignant and true, Private Mellish’s (Adam Golberg) hand-to-knife combat while Private Upham (Jeremy Davies) stands frozen is played mournfully, and the final explosive battle in the rubble of Ramelle concludes the narrative of most of the sympathetic heroes with satisfactory resolution.
The cast are incredible – and though I’ve tried – I simply can’t think of a single dud of any of them. It’s a huge achievement to compose such a substantial cast and give them all identifiable and respectable biographies, no matter how slight. They’ve all been given space to be humanised and though the film is bookended by typically saccharine scenes of Harrison Young’s elderly Private Ryan in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, their individual details never overburden the story. The 2nd Ranger Battalion – led with discernible warmth by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) – are sent on a mission to save a single soldier – Private Ryan (Matt Damon): a mission that’s objectively more about propaganda than genuine concern for the wellbeing of a soldier. It’s the smoke-and-mirrors of these behind-the-scenes delegates that follows immediately on from the D-Day landings scene, they’re fighting with words from the security of their governmental offices rather than dying on the beaches. These scenes – though infrequent – are a powerful reminder of the truth as well the effect of smart editing, presenting the side-by-side wars without overusing.
Whether or not you agree with the message being specifically delivered by one, Americanised story, Saving Private Ryan carries a universal message, a message that that can be delivered again and again. That this follows a parochial vision of one specific company of soldiers is irrelevant: war is an ordeal, and Spielberg has shown that with patience, grace, and the utmost respect to those who died in the deadliest conflict in history.