Saturday, December 17, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 30
Writer: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola w/ Michael Herr (adaptation), Joseph Conrad (novel)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Star: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Note: As with the other films on the AFI Top 100 which have alternate or extended editions, this article will be discussing the original theatrical version.
“Apocalypse Now” is a grand, angry, flawed film that goes deep and cerebral just when you expect it to get even louder and more bombastic. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to try just about anything to underline a point or create a sense of dread, and the audaciousness of the filmmakers leaves a huge impact on the viewer. It’s big in every sense of the word.
We first meet Captain Ben Willard in his bedroom while he’s having a slight nervous breakdown after his experiences in the Vietnam War. He’s brought into a room of higher-ups and given a super-secret mission to cross the Vietnam border into Cambodia and find a Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has apparently gone insane, murdered a bunch of people and is now regarded by the natives as a god among men. Willard must kill him.
Screenwriters John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola (also the director) transport Joseph Conrad’s novel from Africa to Vietnam, and though it follows the general beats of the book, it transcends it to become its own being. I mention this because I really dislike Conrad’s work—which is racist and barely makes dime-store insights into human suffering—and wonder why it’s consistently in print and taught in colleges when there are so many other, worthier, works from that timeframe that merit exposure and revisiting.
But I must admit that the structure and premise of the original is a good one, and it was a smart move to keep that, as the build-up to the introduction of Kurtz is at once menacing and tantalizing. Willard goes through a dossier of his life and decisions, trying desperately to make sense of who this guy is and what made him go crazy (or has he simply regained his sanity in an insane world?), and develops a deep respect for him before he even meets him.
Willard is sent up a river with four other soldiers for support, and every time they make a stop or take a detour the result seems to be a classic sequence. The best is still where we are introduced to surfing fanatic Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who invades an outpost simply because he wants to surf the beach (the waves break both ways). Here is the iconic “March of the Valkyries” action sequence, which retains all of its original power because you can tell there are no miniatures or trick shots used. Shit is really blowing up and these helicopters are really flying in formation. This realism makes the sequence epic, and that’s true about everything in the film. When the boat moves under a downed plane, or we see helicopters still smoldering in trees, we know that the actors are interacting with scale models, and the results are very impactful. It all “feels” bigger than other war films and makes you believe the actors and their predicament more as a result.
There’s also the sequence where Willard and another soldier go hunting for mangos and appear to be ants among the gigantic foliage surrounding them (hello metaphor!). And the sequence where the ship’s chief is impaled. And the bombing of the bridge. Each set-piece is excellent, long enough to resonate but short enough to not be too much of a distraction from the journey to Kurtz. The one sequence that doesn’t work is the detour with the Playboy Playmates, who eventually cause a riot thanks to their thrusting and boobies. It’s the only time where we expect the riot as soon as the women appear, and Milius and Coppola do not try to reverse our expectations.
Just who the hell is this Kurtz? What do we expect? Big budget action movies have taught us that war movies invariably end with lots of explosions and blood, but all of a sudden the boat reaches Kurtz’s home, which is a Buddhist temple. There’s a beautiful scene where all the natives of the town seem to have created a gate by standing on small ships in front of the temple, and they slowly part for Willard’s ship. And suddenly the movie goes cerebral. It’s a ballsier move than the viewer expects, that’s for sure, and I love the way the film underscores that, while Kurtz is a god among these people, his life is still very empty. It’s as if he’s seen or felt something he’s still coming to terms with, and just describing pieces of it to those nearby alters their lives completely.
This thinking-man’s third act underlines the major flaw with the film, which is that I just don’t care if Willard lives or dies. I want to see him get to Kurtz, sure, but that’s more because I want to meet Kurtz, not because I have some emotional investment in Willard. He’s a broken, horrible person, and the voiceover work that is written by Michael Herr seems to underscore this while still trying to make him human. It’s futile. I cared more about his shipmates than I did him, and when he does take Kurtz’s life at the climax, you feel as if Willard did not “deserve” to do it. A stronger man should have done it. But as I write this, I must say the fault is in the writing, not Sheen’s performance, which is aces.
Look at the AFI Top 100’s other serious meditation of the Vietnam War, “Platoon.” There I grew to care a lot for Chris and was deeply invested in whether or not he lived or died. It’s just not so for Willard. I think that “Apocalypse Now” is a better work of art than “Platoon,” but I also think the latter is a better film, if that makes any sort of sense.
The movie is long, and feels that way, and Coppola uses the epic nature of the war to create an intimate portrait of the enigma that is Kurtz. Brando’s performance isn’t a “performance”—he’s reciting the lines without much inflection either way and lets the lighting be the emotion his face lacks. The dialogue is great (“There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms.”), but Milius and Coppola will not give us any answers. Is he God? The devil? A man who has stared into the abyss and come back? Not come back? A little of everything? How seriously are we supposed to take his words?
Whether or not Kurtz represents God or Satan, Vietnam itself is hell, no question about it. It strips the men who are within its borders (both American and Vietnamese) from who they really are, leaving a shell filled with fury and confusing. There’s no future for Willard—he’s been too warped by his experience. “Apocalypse Now” is unafraid to stare this sad fact in the face, uncompromisingly. It’s a transcendent experience with deep flaws that bring you back to earth shaken.
My Score (out of 5): ****1/2
Friday, December 16, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 40
Writer: Ernest Lehmen (adaptation), Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II (music), Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse (book and libretto), Maria von Trapp (autobiography)
Director: Robert Wise
Star: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker
“The Sound of Music” is not the type of movie you can approach with cynicism, and since we currently live in an age of cynics, that’s difficult. If you sit down with the film expecting to want to punch the children in their smiling faces and root for the Nazis to find them, then that’s what you’ll feel. I sat down with a (relatively) open mind and found that within a half hour the movie had me under its spell.
I think it all comes down to how easy it is to fall in love with Julie Andrews. She plays nun-in-training Maria in Austria, who is sent to be a governess to seven rambunctious children who have recently lost their mother. She arrives at the huge (huge!) estate to find the children’s father Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) has become so withdrawn from grief that he runs the household and children like he runs the ships he captains in the navy. Of course, Maria breaks through to the children and falls for the father. Plus…Nazis!
The opening number, where Maria spins on a hill singing, has been parodied so many times that it’s lost much of its power, and the fact that she walks through a random stream she finds at the top of the hill that we know wasn’t there a second ago in the helicopter shots can bring on the chuckles. So can the second scene, where nuns complain about Maria by singing about how she sings in the Abbey (uh, hypocrite alert). But then Maria has a fun number called “Confidence” which is basically her just running toward her destiny, and I found myself starting to be won over.
The moment I just gave in and realized I sorta loved the movie is about the 40 minute mark, when Maria kneels down to pray on her first night in the von Trapp house. Andrews exudes charisma and humor here, and I accepted the movie on its own terms. It’s corny but utterly unapologetic about it – and that’s why it works. If any of the characters stopped and winked at the audience for even a moment, it would implode. But they don’t. Not even Plummer.
The plot is well-structured and the emotional arcs of the major characters resonate. I expected nothing less from screenwriter Ernest Lehmen in his adaptation. He’s got four movies (this, “North by Northwest,” “West Side Story” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) in the AFI Top 100 (sure, I loathed “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, but I’m trying to make a point here!), and wrote three others that easily could have been (“Sabrina,” “The King and I” and “Sweet Smell of Success”). He’s a master of structure (“North By Northwest”), creating appealing characters (“Sabrina”), and adapting near-impossible works (“West Side Story”). This guy is one of the greats in the industry and you can’t really call yourself a screenwriter unless you’ve read one or more of his scripts.
Sure, this is a three hour movie. There’s going to be some fat that could have been trimmed (how many times can you reprise a song?), and there are some character beats that feel false or are missing. For example, aside from the eldest daughter, we don’t get to know any of the children in any real way. Also, I highly doubt that the Mother Superior would recommend that Maria return to break up a happy couple and then sing a showstopper about it. And yet, when it works, it works beautifully. Lehmen does such a good job developing most of the characters (aside from those six pesky kids, but who’s counting?), that he pulls off a major tonal shift to suspense for the climax without altering the fabric of the film itself.
Then there is the music. Aside from “The Wizard of Oz,” has there ever been a movie whose music has so permeated our collective consciousness? I’d list the film’s standards, but then I’d be listing every song. Okay, I could deal without “The Lonely Goatherd,” and those damned puppets, but other than that there isn’t a clunker in the bunch. My personal favorite? “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” with a close second going to “Do-Re-Me.”
The songwriting team of Rodgers and Hammerstein is, of course, rightfully legendary. Both did great work with other collaborators, but together something just clicked between them both in their music and the content of the shows they chose to score. “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “State Fair,” “Allegro,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “Cinderella,” “Flower Drum Song”…the films created that are based on these shows (save for “Allegro,” which has never been adapted) vary in quality, but it’s never because of the music that they falter.
The choreography throughout “The Sound of Music” is simple and elegant. Look at the way the gazebo is used in “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” with the eldest daughter jumping from one bench to another in a circle to show her joy at first love. Understated works for the film—if the kids were dance prodigies as well as singing ones, I don’t think it would have worked.
But then again, much of “The Sound of Music” should not work in the slightest, but for some reason does. The youngsters would drive me to insert Twizzlers in my ears in another movie. If Maria were played by anyone other than Julie Andrews I would strangle myself. And so on and so forth. But it really did manage to break through and emotionally involve me in its story and characters, which surprised me.
I suppose it’s easier to poke fun at the twirling and the nuns and the guitar case, but if you can set your skepticism aside, you might discover that this is a really good movie after all.
My Score (out of 5): ****
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 97
Writer: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples (adaptation), Philip K. Dick (novel)
Director: Ridley Scott
Star: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
Note: As with the other films on the AFI Top 100 which have alternate or extended editions, this article will be discussing the original theatrical version.
The world of “Blade Runner” is one of the greatest in film history. It takes place in near future Los Angeles (where it rains every day instead of its current constantly sunny state) where skyscrapers are bursting with polluted fire and one layer of grime is piled on top of another, less stable, layer of dirt. The Tyrell Corporation at the center of everything is a fantastically designed, intricately created piece of architecture that you find yourself pausing your DVD to drink in. There are so many details that are stuffed into every frame, my favorite being the light-up umbrellas, that at times you feel as if you’ve wandered into a Terry Gilliam movie. The movie’s look has rightly become a touchtone for hundreds of futuristic worlds. It’s not a place you want to live, or visit, but one you must experience.
But the rest of “Blade Runner”? Meh.
Harrison Ford heads the movie as a detective named Deckard, who is assigned to track down four escaped Replicants and kill them. These Replicants are created by the aforementioned Tyrell Corporation, and seem human in almost every way. After a few years they even begin to develop emotions, which is one of the reasons they’ve been outlawed on earth. Rutger Hauer is the leader of the Replicants, who also includes Daryl Hannah. We also meet Tyrell himself (Joe Turkel), who has crafted a new Replicant named Rachel (Sean Young) who believes she is human.
There are “big” questions at play here, like what is the real measure of a man and what it truly means to be human. The writers, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, introduce these conceits and then pay them just enough attention to gloss them over and move on. I’m not asking for answers, obviously, but it would be nice to have them addressed and argued in an interesting, thought-provoking way. Instead the ideas are brought onstage and then forgotten about because…oh look! A big skyscraper with a Geisha projected on it!
Perhaps part of the problem is that I just don’t give a damn about any of the characters. Near the end of the second act, Hauer’s Replicant breaks into Tyrell’s home and threatens him, wanting to have a longer life and begging for answers to why he exists. The scene is directly inspired by Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but the difference is that in the novel, both men are monsters that we sympathize with and understand. Here we’ve barely seen the Replicant for more than five minutes and intensely dislike Tyrell already, so the scene has no drive. Who cares if the Replicant gets his answers and who cares if his creator dies?
Thank God director Ridley Scott cast Harrison Ford in the lead, because he lends gravitas to a role that is thinly written. At best. Just because a character is supposed to be cut off from his emotions does not mean that he can’t be interesting or engaging. Instead we get a character who visually looks like he’s really constipated. Then we’re given plenty of unnecessary voiceover that spoon-feeds us what he’s supposed to be feeling at any given moment (along with unnecessary exposition we could have figured out ourselves). Of course, then there are the none-too-subtle hints that Deckard may in fact be a Replicant, but really, who cares? If we aren’t invested in Deckard as a human being, why should it matter if he’s not what he seems and is unaware of it.
Deckard falls in love with Rachel, which in theory could have been very fascinating, especially since his mission in life is to destroy her kind. In reality, the romance is barely sketched and just when we get hints that it will become interesting, Rachel is yanked off-screen and doesn’t come back until the final scene.
The entire thing comes to a head in an old apartment building called the Bradbury (obviously named as an homage to Ray Bradbury, who I’m betting could have written a much more insightful and emotionally complete version of this story). First up is a legitimately cool fight scene between Deckard and Hannah’s Replicant, which I wish would have lasted longer. Then there’s a way-too-long cat-and-mouse game between Deckard and Hauer’s Replicant where we’re never quite sure of the logistics of the large apartment they are chasing one another through. Deckard climbs up toward the roof when he should be heading down the fire escape (why do people always do that!?), then drops his gun and doesn’t bother to go back for it (why do people always do that!?). The stuff on the roof has some impressive special effects, but how many variations on this scene have we seen, including several in the AFI Top 100 alone? For my money, the coolest is still the finale to “Batman,” (sorry, “Vertigo”) and this one doesn’t measure up.
I understand how much impact this film has had on science fiction of the last thirty years, and know that’s why it was placed on the Top 100, though I’d argue that Scott’s “Alien” would have been a better choice. But looking at it today, it seems like a simplistic take on ideas and concepts that have been told much better elsewhere. Television shows like “Battlestar Galactica” and films like “Dark City” and “Serenity” are obvious offspring of “Blade Runner,” and both eclipse it in terms of quality and depth. It’s an important film to see, and it opened the door to many wonderful stories, but it just doesn’t hold up.
My Score (out of 5): **1/2
Addendum: The DVD contains five (five!) different variations on this film, and I do prefer the “Final Cut” to the original theatrical version. The deletion of the voiceover was a smart move, as was the abbreviated ending, but ultimately did not change my feelings for the film in a profound way.
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 95
Writer: Larry McMurty, Peter Bogdanovich
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Star: Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman
“The Last Picture Show” was one of the films on the AFI Top 100 that I hadn’t watched before, and now here I sit in awe of it. How could I not have seen this film …experienced these feelings…known these characters? How easily it has entered into my consciousness, its world a familiar one I feel like I’ve always known.
The setting is a small Texas town that seems to only have one main road and three open establishments: a bar, a burger joint and an old movie house, all owned by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson). We meet two best friends, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), and watch them come of age together. Sonny begins an affair with the wife (Cloris Leachman) of his football coach, while Duane struggles with his feelings for the town’s prettiest girl, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). Things get complicated before they get more complicated.
All I had heard about the film before seeing it was that it was a younger generation’s “Citizen Kane,” and you can certainly see similarities and inspiration drawn from the Welles’ film. As the credits roll, we see small snippets of scenes with the actors’ names, exactly the same as “Kane,” and then there’s the use of “deep focus” throughout. The moment where the inspiration is at its most obvious is when Sam sits at a pond and recounts just how in love he was with a woman years ago. Obviously, the scene comes from the businessman in “Kane” who clearly remembers a girl he saw once on a dock decades ago. That might well be the best written scene in all of film, and the one in “The Last Picture Show” is similarly moving and devastating, though in a different way.
However much co-writers Larry McMurty and Peter Bogdanovich (also the director) used “Kane” as an inspiration, that film was about the impossibilities of understanding a man. This film is about our inherent understanding of its characters. At different moments in our lives, we have been all these men and women, and we sympathize and understand their actions, however frustrating they may be. Leachman’s character is given a moment of rage near the end, after Sonny abandoned her for months, and the words are incredibly painful—we empathize so much with what she’s been through and how hurt she’s been. And yet we also sympathize with Sonny, who left her because he thought he was in love with a woman his age—and was too young to understand how to handle his feelings or the situation.
Even Jacy, who is portrayed as an enigma to the men who can’t help but fall in love with her, manages to get our sympathy. The boys at the center of the film never see their home lives explained or illustrated in any detail (they don’t need to be), but we get to know Jacy’s mother (Ellen Burstyn, nailing her small part), and there’s a small moment in the kitchen between them where the viewer goes “Ah, now I understand who this girl is.”
Bottoms is the heart of the film, wonderfully cast, and manages to emote the frustration of his situation without seeming like he’s pouting or waiting for a violin to play. Though he plays friends with Bridges, they look like they could be brothers, and the moment where they experience a movie together on the final night at the theater before it closes is just about perfect.
The town around Sonny is dying, and I don’t just mean that in a metaphorical way. Every shop aside from the three I mentioned above appears closed, and by the end of the movie the theater closes as well. Sonny has to work another job just to keep the bar open after he inherits it. We’ve all driven through towns like this, barely giving them a thought. What must it be like to live in that place, desolation around you, lonely and begging to hear anything other than your own thoughts, knowing you can never escape them. Sounds a lot like adolescence to me.
Bogdanovich shoots the film in black-and-white, which underscores the wretchedness of the place but also the beauty of his main actors. Shepherd is just about as lovely as any teenager I’ve ever seen, and I’m going to echo what I said earlier in my “Taxi Driver” article: I wish that she would go back to serious dramatic acting instead of settling for guest-starring roles on “Psych” and “$#!+ My Dad Says.”
There isn’t much of a plotline, per se, but I don’t think I realized that until I typed this sentence. “The Last Picture Show” is more about a collection of moments that build these wonderful characters for us and the ways those characters bounce off of each other in ways both expected and unexpected. We have a pretty good idea that the Burstyn character was the dame Sam was in love with, and when it’s confirmed there’s a lovely scene where she reminisces for a moment about how wonderful life was…right before she drives home to her horrible husband. McMurty and Bogdanovich ensure that each character gets the chance to become a complex, layered “person,” and that’s one of the reasons you remember the film as a state of mind as much as you remember the individual moments.
The biggest compliment I can give the film is that the characters linger in my mind like real people would. I wonder what will happen to them and where their lives will take them as they continue on their respective journeys, meeting one another from time to time and impacting each other in ways both obvious and subtle. When I wrote about the coming-of-age film “American Graffiti,” I mentioned that if the characters were real people, I wouldn’t want to be friends with them. Here, I’d love to eat a burger with Sonny and then watch “Red River” with him, Jacy and Duane, even if they are trying to get up her skirt the whole time.
My Score (out of 5): *****
Friday, December 9, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 73
Writer: William Goldman
Director: George Roy Hill
Star: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a fun buddy comedy that succeeds mostly because of the talent and chemistry of its two leads. For a film about two outlaws who are destined for death, it’s very pleasant. This is a good movie, but since it’s on the AFI Top 100, I was expecting something…more.
The two titles characters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively) are bank and train robbers extraordinaire. Butch is great with the quips and Sundance lets his crackerjack pistol aim speak for itself. They are both sorta kinda in love with the same dame, a schoolteacher named Etta (Katherine Ross).
The screenwriter, William Goldman, does a great job at setting up the characters quickly and with humor. Sundance is set up when a cocksure poker player immediately cowers upon hearing who he’s playing against, and we learn everything we need to know about Butch in how he takes down a mutiny within his own group of thieves.
Both seem attracted to Etta, but in different ways. Sundance is the one who is in a “relationship” with her, and it’s all about the sex and physical attraction. But the next morning she goes to Butch, and they play around together like little children. The two men joke around about who really loves her, but this is never brought to a head. In the end, Etta removes herself from the situation—which is just fine since this is a “love story” about the two men. And no, I’m not going to describe it by using the word “bromance,” because that word makes me want to die inside.
This type of buddy comedy needs a really good, engaging villain to make it pop, and there’s none here. One day, while robbing a train (in an inspired bit, they find themselves dealing with the same banker they almost blew up earlier in the film, who ends up apologizing to them for reinforcing his safe), a posse of men arrives and begins chasing them. They never stop. We are told who some of the men in the posse may or may not be, but we don’t meet them and they never share any lines or significant moments with our leads.
Now, let me make myself clear, this is a fantastic idea for a villain and a great way to build consistent suspense and a sense of impending doom. In a straight drama. But this is a comedy, and the long sequences of the group following Butch and Sundance no matter what they do to make them lose the trail simply doesn’t create suspense, no matter how well shot or atmospheric they are. They seem like scenes from another film, and the entire tone of the project shifts until the boys bicker about jumping off a cliff together into the rapids below.
After that close call, they decide to go to Bolivia (with Etta in tow), and then there’s a very odd, out-of-place “montage” of photographs showing the threesome leaving the Wild West and heading to New York before moving south of the border. It feels like the montage of photographs goes on forever, though in reality it must be under two minutes. But still, two minutes of photographs? Really? I would have much rather watched a two-minute scene of Butch, Sundance and Etta completely out of place in NYC or, especially, at the amusement park on Coney Island having fun with one another. Was this done to save money? I would tend to think so normally, but this was a Paul Newman movie made at the peak of his stardom, so I doubt it.
Once they get to Bolivia, there are a lot of fun little scenes, most of them of Sundance complaining about the country. Butch tries to convince him that all of Bolivia can’t be like the run-down pit they first arrive at, and Sundance’s response is great: “How do you know? This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot that we're standing now. This might be the Atlantic City, New Jersey of all Bolivia for all you know.”
The film’s ending also seems out of tone with the rest of the film. Yes, Etta had mentioned something about them being doomed to die, but the climactic gun battle seems like something out of an earlier script draft before all the wise cracks and quips had been plugged in. It’s all very “the last five minutes of ‘Thelma and Louise.’” But at least Goldman and director George Roy Hill had the good sense to freeze frame on the two guys going off into battle one final time instead of going all “Bonnie and Clyde” on us, which would have really left a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.
I’m not a big fan of movies that pretend to be light and fun and then switch gears to become deep and tragic just to seem more meaningful than they are (I’m looking at you, “Moulin Rouge!”, with that exclamation point in your title and most depressing final act ever). The smarter thing to do would be to find a way to wrap your message into the fabric of the film without altering the tone completely. I’m not against killing off the two main characters at the end of a movie, but if Goldman and Hill were planning on it, they should have created a movie that better suited the ending.
Despite this, the movie still works, and that is because of Newman and Redford’s wonderful performances. No matter how much the tone of the piece changes, they keep the boat steady by making us believe in their friendship. Their personalities really do compliment one another well and there’s a fantastic give and take in their work together. This creative team really could have made a masterpiece together. Oh wait, they did. It’s called “The Sting.”
My Score (out of 5): ***1/2
Sunday, December 4, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 71
Writer: Robert Rodat
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon
I hate “shaky-cam.” It’s overused so often in film and television and almost never adds anything to what it is supposed to be supporting. Instead, all the viewer gets is a headache and a cranky demeanor from having to put up with it. By the time I saw it show up in “Harry Potter” and that very unfortunate James Bond movie, I realized that we weren’t getting rid of it anytime soon, and I wanted to weep. And now I have just finished watching “Saving Private Ryan,” and realize that shaky-cam can be powerful and brilliantly-executed. Everyone else is just doing it wrong.
Director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski give us a perfect portrait of chaos (hello phrase I never thought I’d write) in the movie’s first twenty minutes, portraying the Normandy Invasion how (I assume) it must have felt to be there. And yet, the shaky-cam actually adds to the scene, because even though it’s difficult to get our bearings, Spielberg and Kaminski still clearly show us everything we need to see, while only giving us hints and glimpses of other horrors to underline their impact.
The rest of “Saving Private Ryan” follows a group of soldiers led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) assigned to find a paratrooper named James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). Ryan’s three brothers have all died in battle, and the Generals in Washington want to bring him home alive, citing President Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, who lost five sons in the Civil War.
Screenwriter Robert Rodat presents us with a fantastic concept, full of moral ambiguities and ethical questions that the film touches on time and again. After all, is this one man’s life worth the lives of the eight men sent to find him? What if Ryan doesn’t want to abandon his men when he’s found? It’s a seemingly straightforward idea, but after two soldiers are dead and the other men find themselves in a seemingly unwinnable situation, things get much grayer.
But as much praise as I have for what Rodat accomplished with his screenplay, I also must admit that it seems like he was afraid to go all the way into the gray area, which is a shame. When Miller lies dying during the film’s resolution, his dying words are a plead for Ryan to “earn it.” Rodat then gives the viewer a handy-dandy frame story of an elderly Ryan at a cemetery asking his wife if he led a good life. Totally unnecessary. It is almost as if Rodat is hand-feeding the audience their happy ending with manufactured sentimentality that would have been better left on the cutting room floor or, even smarter, deleted out of Final Draft.
There are other odd tonal shifts in the film that feel like they are from a different movie. At one point Miller recruits an interpreter (Jeremy Davies) who has no experience in battle. Spielberg stages the scene like a farce, with Davies dropping his typewriter and knocking things over in a screwball-comedy fashion. And another scene, where the group finally discover where Ryan is, is a weirdly unfunny exchange where Miller tries to communicate with a man who has gone deaf because he was too close to an explosion.
To be fair, these are flaws that are pretty minor in the overall scheme of things. When the movie is good, it’s really fucking great. The dialogue between the men is well-written and gives the guys an extra layer of depth missing from most war films. A sequence where a German murders one of the men by slowly, terrifyingly slowly, stabbing him in the chest while comforting him is one of the most unsettling murders ever put on screen.
Hanks is just aces as the heart of the film, portraying a man who is closer to a nervous breakdown than he wants to admit to himself. His hands tremble and he tries to stay emotionally disconnected from the situation despite how he really feels about the assignment. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, including Damon, who communicates his “But why me?” attitude well.
The film’s final war scene is just as well-executed, in an entirely different fashion, from the one that opens it. Here the men are hidden in various points of a crumbled city protecting a bridge at all costs. They are outmanned, outgunned and their plan needs about ten things to happen by chance to go right. Here we know exactly where all the men are, what they must do and where the enemy need to be and, unlike the madness of the first 20 minutes, this underlines and enhances the suspense. There is still the element of surprise, as there must be in these types of action set-pieces, but knowing where the enemy troops are in relation to our main characters makes the sequence even stronger. Yes, the opening is great because of the staged anarchy, but I’d still take sequences like the climax any day because they have more coherency and, as a result, more impact.
I must admit, I’m not a big fan of the John Williams score. Perhaps the smarter thing to do would be to not have any music at all, because the score we hear is pretty cookie cutter and would have served better on an episode of “The West Wing.” Williams has created magnificent scores out of battles before (look at his work for “The Patriot” or his “Duel of the Fates” from “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace”), but his work here is just a bit dry and expected.
“Saving Private Ryan” isn’t the kind of movie you “enjoy.” I doubt I’ll ever go to the AFI Library to borrow a movie and think “I’m in a ‘Saving Private Ryan’ state of mind.” If I am, something major has gone wrong in my life. But it’s still an important movie that means something. It asks questions that there aren’t easy answers to and illustrates World War II in way you’ve never seen before on film. It’s a shame its biggest impact on the industry was the shaky-cam and not the subtle storytelling and ethical questions, but what can you do?
My Score (out of 5): ****