Blog Directory CineVerse: Ryan still shines bright on its 25th anniversary

Ryan still shines bright on its 25th anniversary

Thursday, August 10, 2023

In the summer of 1998, filmmaker Steven Spielberg unveiled what many consider his best work of the last 25 years, Saving Private Ryan, a war epic that is celebrated for its gripping and realistic combat scenes and depiction of ethical dilemmas faced by men during wartime. The film’s narrative centers on a perilous odyssey: locating and rescuing Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). The mission's urgency is underscored by the tragic fate suffered by Private Ryan's three brothers, all of whom perished in the line of duty. Retrieving him from the heart of enemy-held territory is deemed imperative to offer solace to a grieving mother. The movie meticulously chronicles the expedition led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his unit, charting their tumultuous passage through enemy-occupied France to find Ryan.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here. To hear the July episode of the Cineversary podcast, which celebrates Saving Private Ryan's 25th anniversary, click here.

Why is Saving Private Ryan worthy of kudos and commemoration 25 years later? This could be the finest movie yet made about the soldier’s experience in World War II, and, for that matter, a candidate for an all-time great in the war film genre. Benefiting from incredible realism, period-authentic details, intense violence, and immersive filmmaking techniques, Saving Private Ryan doesn’t pull any punches with its truthful and brutally honest account of the carnage, casualties, and consequences of warfare.

It’s exceptionally well structured as a three-act story that begins with the D-Day invasion, shifts to a second act focused on trying to find Private Ryan, and propels to act three wherein Ryan is found and saved. The exact midway point of the runtime is when the company learns where Ryan is. And the film is bookended by two mirroring sequences: the opening and closing shots of the American flag waving in the breeze, and the subjective shots of Miller being concussed by an explosion, which temporarily halts his hearing.

The thespian troupe recruited for this endeavor is among the most impressive in the last quarter century, with each performer and face perfectly matching his character. Ponder the prescience of assigning yet-to-be big-namers like Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Vin Diesel, and Giovanni Ribisi in juicy parts, making the filmmakers look like geniuses. Saving Private Ryan even gets the bit players exactly right, casting weighty actors in marginal roles, including Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Dennis Farina, and Harve Presnell.

The movie matters, too, because it gets the small details right, enriching this epic story – one replete with colossal themes, all-time great battle sequences, and a cast to die for – with comparatively insignificant images and relatively inconsequential touches that actually can be more memorable than the momentous moments. Case in point: Horvath scooping up and collecting dirt from the various countries he’s fought in; the little French girl slapping her father’s face; and Henderson asking Mellish for some of his chewing gum. These small brushstrokes add invaluable depth and dimension to the characters.

Saving Private Ryan transformed the way war was depicted in cinema by delivering an exceptionally accurate and disturbingly violent representation of armed combat. Spielberg utilized an array of techniques to achieve this realism, including using shaky handheld cameras, fast cuts, jarring juxtapositions, creative sound effects and an immersive sound design, desaturating colors, and skipping frames of film to create a sped-up, unsettling kineticism.

The raw viscera, cascading graphic violence, brutality, queasy camerawork, and unrelenting pace – which doesn’t allow wounded soldiers or shocked viewers time to properly process what they’re experiencing – combine to create unforgettable sequences, particularly in the beginning 27 minutes. No one had ever seen warfare so credibly and viscerally rendered on screen in a scope this epic and extended. Previous recreations of World War II battles lacked the verisimilitude, production values, and/or creative talent to bring them to life so convincingly. Earlier movies often sanitized the true realities of war and its casualties. This was a more honest facsimile of 1940s-era fighting, which even younger generations who have never wielded a weapon or served in the military can appreciate.

The film also devoted serious attention to character depth, examining the feelings and experiences of the American G.I. in a believable and humanizing manner. These weren’t stock characters or archetypes; every personality in Private Ryan has the capacity to surprise and mine thematically rich territory, thanks to savvy screenwriting and impressive acting.

Saving Private Ryan had a profound effect on the war film genre, leaving an indelible mark on later films and popular culture. After a long period during which no significant World War II movies were released, it rekindled national interest in that war from people around the world and helped intensify the spotlight being increasingly shown on what was now being called “the greatest generation.”

Saving Private Ryan surely paved the way for subsequent war pictures that also employed a more visceral and convincing approach and infused depicted soldiers with greater character development. For proof, consider the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Enemy at the Gates, Black Hawk Down, Fury, Dunkirk, 1917, Hacksaw Ridge, and the 2022 iteration of All Quiet on the Western Front.

The film can further be credited with helping to launch or propel the film careers of several top actors, including Matt Damon, Paul Giamatti, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Edward Burns, and even Bryan Cranston.

In addition, this picture was a game changer – literally – in the way it inspired popular video games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, two violent titles both set during WWII.

Here, we are in the hands here of a master filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Spielberg had already proved his ability to faithfully recreate powerfully plausible World War II scenarios with Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List, and his seemingly effortless cinematic command of epic scenes of colossal scope in works like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park was evident. Having already conquered the science-fiction and action-adventure genres, he crafts a war film for the ages.

Spielberg continually showcases incredible prowess as a puppeteer of emotions, perhaps never as convincingly as he does in Saving Private Brian. The picture delves deep into the characters’ emotional journeys, exploring their fears, bonds, and sacrifices. The director enhances the emotional impact of the narrative, enmeshing audiences in the soldiers’ experiences, humanizing and adding complex layers to many of the characters, and forging a profound bond between the protagonists and the viewers.

Additionally, his personal connection to the second world war, driven in large part by his familial history and his father’s service during that conflict, fuels his passion for this subject matter.

Spielberg’s work is particularly noteworthy for its fidelity to WWII detail and authenticity. The narrative is loosely based on the true account of the Niland family, who had lost three of their four sons in World War II, in which the War Department dispatched a platoon to find the fourth Niland son and send him home.

The movie’s recreation of the Omaha Beach landing during the D-Day invasion is widely lauded for its accuracy. Spielberg and his collaborators meticulously restaged the harrowing combat after reviewing historical records, collaborating with military historians and subject matter experts – including war veteran Dale Dye – and investigating testimonies and accounts by veterans. Consequently, the depiction rendered realistically captures the intensity and chaos of the invasion.

This film does an admirable job, as well, of representing the emotional and psychological turmoil, ethical conflicts, and fear experienced by soldiers during wartime. Many World War II veterans who screened Saving Private Ryan commented on how realistic and triggering these portrayals are.

The filmmakers also worked hard to source and re-create the uniforms, weapons, tanks, and equipment used during this conflict, and the lines, vernacular, and jargon delivered by the characters – including FUBAR – are intended to be period-accurate.

Still, it’s important to remember that this is a work of fiction and an interpretation of what soldiers likely experienced during and after the D-Day invasion; it’s not a documentary or a verbatim retelling of a true story.

Many regard Saving Private Ryan as the most detail-accurate Hollywood feature film ever made about World War II and combat in that war. Roger Ebert wrote: “Spielberg and his screenwriter, Robert Rodat, have done a subtle and rather beautiful thing: They have made a philosophical film about war almost entirely in terms of action. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ says things about war that are as complex and difficult as any essayist could possibly express, and does it with broad, strong images, with violence, with profanity, with action, with camaraderie. It is possible to express even the most thoughtful ideas in the simplest words and actions, and that’s what Spielberg does. The film is doubly effective, because he communicates his ideas in feelings, not words.”

Slate reviewer David Edelstein posited this: “What Steven Spielberg has accomplished in Saving Private Ryan is to make violence terrible again… The opening battle might be the most visceral ever put on film… The images are supersharp, as if viewed through too-strong glasses, yet they streak and pixilate–break into shards–as the camera jerks wildly left, then right. Color has been drained from the frame: The greens of uniforms and browns of earth are muted, the sky rendered a neutral gray. Against this monochromatic palette, the brackish blood leaps out of the screen…For nearly half an hour, the horrors come one upon another, unaccompanied by music and unrelieved by any point of view except that of the soldiers in the middle of the slaughter. There are no objective, “establishing” shots and no possibility for emotional distance…Death can come at any instant, from any direction…(Spielberg) shoots battles so that we can’t always see what’s happening, our vantage is frighteningly restricted, and the world of combat is reduced to pure sensation.”

Among its greatest achievements, Saving Private Ryan helped advance serious thematic discussions about the consequences of combat, morality versus immorality during wartime, and how battered combatants struggle to hold onto shreds of humanity amid constant violence and brutality. Perhaps the film’s most central thesis is uttered by Captain Miller: Earn this. The message here is clear—honor the extreme and selfless sacrifices others make to protect and preserve your life. Ryan asks his wife if he was a good man who lived a good life, and her affirmation of such assures him that he has done his best to keep Miller’s promise.

Saving Private Ryan is a powerful treatise on ethical quandaries one confronts in extreme circumstances. We observe characters like Upham, Miller, and Reiben being forced to make quick life-or-death decisions about POWs, fighting back when your pacifist tendencies predominate, defying authority, and overcoming fear and anxiety in order to save your skin and have your buddy’s back. The viewer is continually challenged throughout the movie via different scenarios that ask questions of them: Would you kill the German POW? Would you take the easier route, around the bunker, in opposition to Captain Miller’s orders? Would you think less of Ryan because of the deaths and sacrifices the company had to endure to find and rescue him? Miller’s discourse with Horvath is especially revealing: “Do you know how many men I've lost under my command? Ninety-four. But that means I've saved the lives of ten times that many, doesn't it?...That's how you rationalize making the choice between the mission and the man… This Ryan better be worth it – he better go home, cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light or something.”

Grace under pressure, and the personal damage war causes, as exemplified in the sometimes shaky hand of Miller, is another major subtext. Time and again, this character embodies the surprising bravery, intelligence, composure, and honor of a relatively simple everyman who is asked to demonstrate leadership under extreme duress. His unsteady hand suggests the pressure he’s under to perform and keep his men alive; it also reminds his men that he is a flawed and vulnerable human being. Miller’s wobbly hand further symbolizes how soldiers are negatively impacted and forever changed by what they’ve experienced. Miller’s soliloquy captures the essence of this point: “Sometimes I wonder if I’ll change so much my wife will even recognize me whenever it is I get back to her, and how I’ll ever be able to tell her about days like today. If (finding Ryan) earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission. Every man I kill, the further away from home I feel.”

FUBAR becomes more than a catchphrase in Ryan; it’s a reminder that, in war, little makes sense. Soldiers don’t play by the rules. Often, you have to pivot suddenly, improvise unexpectedly, and act against your intrinsic nature if you want to survive and safeguard your comrades.

The film also espouses that it’s commonly the small details in life that matter most. The dialogue between Ryan and Miller near the end reveals something interesting: It’s frequently the minor memories and relatively trivial details along our journey in life that resonate the strongest, propel us forward, and ascribe meaning to our existences. Recall how, when asked, Miller refuses to share details with Ryan about his wife or her rosebushes, and how the company is so thoroughly intrigued by their captain’s enigmatic backstory, hometown, and profession.

Maybe this film’s greatest gift is how it reminds us, and hopefully future generations, of the extreme sacrifices that were necessary among Americans of that era to preserve liberty and defeat tyranny. Optimistically, perhaps the movie suggests that this kind of shared sacrifice is possible in future generations if we take the time to learn the lessons of history and properly honor the memories of the fallen. Saving Private Ryan bombards us with visually devastating and acoustically overwhelming stimuli, disturbingly subjective shots, and ethically troubling hypotheticals that illustrate how extraordinarily impactful the second world war was to those who fought it and those who survived it. This is a work, using combat as a canvas, that may not be as poetic as The Thin Red Line, as mythically inspired as Apocalypse now, as antiwar in its DNA as Paths of Glory or All Quiet on the Western Front, as haunting as The Deer Hunter, or as timeless or culturally transcendent as Seven Samurai. But strictly as a World War II movie, it’s the best of its breed.

Another greatest gift is its unwavering ability to thoroughly stir the soul. Perhaps the best quality of a good film is its capacity to effectively evoke an emotional response. And no one does that better than Spielberg. Call him emotionally manipulative – that’s fair. Label him unashamedly sentimental – that’s on point. But I believe Spielberg earns the emotional reactions he arouses in us honestly, by getting us thoroughly invested in his dramatis personae and sticky situations. It also helps that he chooses a setting and context that’s emotionally unimpeachable: World War II, which can instantly conjure up sentiments of patriotism and pride among families of veterans and those who lost their lives in the conflict.

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