The sky is dreary and overcast, and the gray ocean waves are choppy as the Higgins boats advance steadily toward Omaha Beach. Inside each boat, rows of soldiers stand in formation, gripping their weapons, some nervously vomiting on the deck, other shaking with fear, others grimacing at the increasing volume of the explosions ahead of them. All of their faces are scrawled with terrified anticipation-not of greatness or glory in fighting for their country, but of death. When the boats arrive and the front gates drop open, we get the first wave of that death. In an instant of heavy machine gun fire, what was once a boat-full of soldiers is reduced to a pile of blood, bones, and gristle. Not one soldier manages to even take a step forward before they are brutally cut down. This doesn't feel like war; it feels like senseless slaughter.
Such is the beginning of the excruciatingly intense, graphically depicted re-enactment of the storming of the beach at Normandy on June 6, 1944, that opens Steven Spielberg's masterful war drama Saving Private Ryan. The sequence lasts for nearly half an hour, and it remains of the most brutal, devastating cinematic depictions of warfare ever created. No film had ever captured, with such a forceful mixture of bloody chaos and intense clarity, the subjective experience of combat. Spielberg's camera does not simply record the violence as soldiers are blown apart by bullets and shrapnel, but rather thrusts us in the middle of it (the aforementioned depiction of the boatful of soldiers being obliterated by machine-gun fire, for example, is shot from inside the boat). Shaky and jittery, the film puts us in the shoes of a foot soldier clamoring up the blood-soaked beach. At some points in the action, we are made to feel like we are literally inside a firing machine gun. Working with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, with whom he had first worked on Schindler's List (1993), Spielberg essentially redefined the look and feel of the combat film by desaturating the palette to resemble contemporaneous newsreel footage and employing techniques like narrowing the camera's shutter opening to 45 degrees, which results in moving images that are more intermittent, yet visually sharper and more distinct. Some have compared the effect to that of stop-motion animation, where the film frames do not blur together and the eye detects a kind of jerkiness, which underscores the chaotic and highly charged nature of combat. Spielberg had depicted war combat before, notably in his much undervalued Empire of the Sun (1987) and in some parts of Schindler's List, but he had never delivered such a sustained cinematic assault; it was a truly revolutionary moment and one that was seared into my memory when I first saw the film on opening day in 1998.
It is interesting that Spielberg would be the man to render the gruesome violence of war in such vivid strokes. Like Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone, both of whom started by making gory horror films and later made intense films about the violence of Vietnam, Spielberg started his career with stylized violence. From the man-eating shark in his generation-defining summer blockbuster Jaws (1975), to the pulp adventures of the Indiana Jones films, Spielberg demonstrated from the start that he was a master of choreographing action, suspense, and bloodshed. But, in Saving Private Ryan, he infused that violence with a deep sense of purpose, a reckoning to remind us that, behind the platitudes of glorious war, lie devastated, broken bodies and tormented minds. Despite being so highly stylized, the film's violence is almost too real to bear.
The story concerns a squad of men, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), that has been ordered on a morale-boosting public relations mission to go behind enemy lines in France and find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers have all been killed in action. Miller's squad includes the dedicated Sergeant Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore); the outspoken Private Reiben (Edward Burns); Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), a translator who has never shot a gun in battle; and Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), a sharpshooter with a Southern drawl and a penchant for quoting the Bible to steady his hand while taking aim. All the men react to the assignment in different ways, some resentful that eight men have to risk their lives for one man they don't even know, and some more resigned to the fact that it is an order from General George Marshall (Harve Presnell), and in war one doesn't question orders. As the film progresses, we get to know each man individually. As he did in the opening battle on Omaha Beach, Spielberg brings us inside the squad, so that when the men fall in battle, we feel an acute sense of loss. Screenwriter Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home) makes each man unique, but purposefully keeps them simple and direct, thus reminding us that wars are not fought by larger-than-life John Wayne archetypes, but rather by everyday people, many of them kids.
Spielberg uses the opening sequence to sear into our minds the violence of war in the largest sense, then he shows us the politicking and public relations in the offices of the top brass, and then hunkers down and filters the entire experience through a small group of ordinary men fighting for their lives amid the chaos. From whatever angle you look at it, the film's message is staggeringly clear-war is hell-and Spielberg delivers it with blunt-force trauma (he won the Oscar that year for Best Director, his second, although the film lost out Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love, a controversial decision that still rankles many to this day). However, the film is not without its faults, most notably a framing device in which Ryan, as an elderly man, returns to the Normandy American Cemetery with his family. It is an awkward narrative device, and while it make sense on paper, it doesn't quite work, partially because it is simply too obvious and too direct in its emotional appeal. Spielberg has weathered more than his share of criticism for being a sentimentalist who all too often goes for the big, easy emotions, and while many of those criticisms have been deliriously misguided, in this case they may be right. However, the rest of the film is so powerful, so intense, so uniquely compelling in its vision of human violence at its worst and human decency at its best, that it's hard not to consider it a masterpiece of its kind, a war film that redefined the possibilities of a genre that had long been considered closed.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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