I approached Saving Private Ryan with a sick feeling in my gut, remembering how beaten up I felt after Schindler’s List and hearing all the warnings about Ryan.
Saving Private Ryan is every bit as brutal as you’ve heard, and probably more intense than you can imagine (unless you’ve actually been in combat). Director Steven Spielberg has achieved a level of reality here that I’ve never seen before in a film. Ryan opens, as you’ve no doubt heard, with a recreation of the landing at Normandy on June 6, 1944 that is so chaotic, and on such a massive scale, that it’s almost impossible to believe that this could be staged — this must be some long-lost footage from the invasion that we’ve never seen before. (You’ll feel this way about the battle that closes the movie, too.) If you shut your eyes against the awful, unflinching images of American soldiers being ripped apart on the sand, the unceasing barrage of German machine-gun fire and the screams of the dying will be enough haunt your dreams. If your gaze is riveted to the screen in numb horror, as mine was, you’ll never forget the tide turned red with blood or the faces of the horribly wounded men crying for their mothers.
The feeling that this is all real never lets up. The whole film has the washed-out look of the 16mm color movies from the period, and with the major exceptions of Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, the cast is mostly lacking any recognizable stars (Damon was actually unknown, too, when Spielberg cast him) that would let you remember that this is just a movie.
After the beach at Normandy is captured, Captain John Miller (Hanks) is given the mission of finding one Private James Ryan (Damon) — Ryan’s three brothers were all recently killed in combat, one right there at Normandy, which, the War Department decides, earns Ryan a ticket home. But Ryan, a paratrooper, dropped into France before the beach landing, and no one is quite sure where he is. Miller gathers together a small cadre of men — including translator Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), Private Reiben (Edward Burns), and Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) — and they walk into the German-occupied French countryside, searching, as Miller says, “for a needle in a pile of needles.”
Is one man’s life more valuable than another’s? Does Private Ryan deserve to get out of the hell they’re all in any more than anybody else? Miller and his men debate the question endlessly, and to Spielberg’s credit, he doesn’t try to answer it.
And as much as Saving Private Ryan is about that dilemma, it’s also an unforgettable look at the way that war dehumanizes the people who fight. Miller and his men are involved in plenty of skirmishes during their search for Ryan, and you will be appalled by the acts of some of the characters that you’ve come to like. Or perhaps you’ll cheer. Half the audience I saw the film with got as desensitized as Miller and his men — they were so caught up in the realism that they cheered at American troops shooting surrendering German soldiers.
Saving Private Ryan is one of the most brilliant pieces of film ever created. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it again.