Sunday, December 4, 2011

Saving Private Ryan

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 71
Year: 1998
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): ****

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