It could perhaps be perceived that 2010 is going to be the year that Blu-ray finally hits the level that enthusiasts hope. That moment of critical mass where the big hitters from the back catalogues start jostling for shelf space alongside the high profile recent blockbusters. For every bare bones vanilla release (we're looking at you, Avatar), a lovingly presented, feature-packed collectible disc of a highly regarded classic arrives. We have already had Gladiator and Lord of the Rings. Alien Quadrilogy is confirmed (albeit under a different name), Back to The Future is on its way, and even George Lucas has announced Star Wars to our beloved format.
These are exciting times indeed for high definition movie watching at home. But up until now, perhaps the most high profile missing director was Spielberg. Yes, I know that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was already available. But up until now this was all we were getting. Suddenly, though, a Spielberg glut has hit the market with Minority Report having already arrived and the severely underrated War of the Worlds incoming. But even amongst a canon as significant as Spielberg's, there must be two titles that stand head and shoulders above the rest. Schindler's List is yet to be announced - but here in front of me I have one of the most gruelling Spielberg films committed to celluloid. In terms of importance I would argue that Saving Private Ryan is not only up there amongst his best work - it is possibly up there amongst the greatest films ever made.
The plot should be well-known to most reading this by now - but I am sure a brief recap would be prescient. After leading his platoon on to the beaches at Normandy, Capt. John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) is given another mission - one that he and his men are taking on against their will. It turns out that a family of four siblings have enlisted in the army, and three of them have been listed as Killed in Action. The whereabouts of the fourth - James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) - is unknown. He has parachuted in with the 101st behind enemy lines and it is Miller's job to bring him out alive so that he can return home to his family. He is accompanied in this mission by a hand-picked group of men: Technical Sergeant Michael Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Private First Class Richard Reiben (Edward Burns), Private Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper), Private Stanley Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Technician Fourth Grade Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) and Private Adrian Caparzo (Vin Diesel). Along with them is interpreter Timothy Upham, played by Jeremy Davies. Normally I wouldn't type a cast list out like that, but in this case I make no apology. This is an ensemble cast, and every single one of these actors is absolutely believable in their role. But more about this later.
As the platoon push deeper into occupied territory, so the mission becomes more and more dangerous until eventually they come across Ryan himself. At this point their mission becomes even more blurred as their misgivings turn out to be shared by the person they are supposed to bring back. This is a Private Ryan whose loyalties are to the brothers in arms first of all, and his family back home second.
The film is justifiably known for its bravura beginning - 25 minutes of some of the most powerful cinema that you will ever see. But this is almost doing the film a disservice. Yes, this is one of the most realistic (as far as we can know) portrayal of battle yet committed to celluloid, but the film is so much more than this. The characters are beautifully served from everyone involved in this production. They are key to the story and the writing, performances, and the direction make you care so much about this platoon and their mad mission. Each character is a realistic, living, breathing person who gets under your skin and affects you with their actions on the screen. Each one of them goes through a realistic and believable arc, and each one is changed irrevocably by the time-frame of the film. The stunning thing about the characters are they are clearly chosen to represent certain facets of humanity as it was in that time period (the Christian, the Jew, the humanitarian, the hot head, and even the coward), but despite this their assembly never feels cynical on the filmmakers behalf. These characters are so well written that you are not aware until afterwards just how much you are being manipulated.
Of course, for characters to truly shine you need quality writing, a director who is prepared to give them space to develop and breathe, and actors capable of playing the roles. There is not one miss-step amongst this Platoon. Ribisi (an actor I have long admired ever since his early days in The Wonder Years) is superb as the humanitarian medic - saying very little most of the time but providing the much needed human element amongst the carnage. Vin Diesel shows subsequently wasted promise in his role as Carparzo - dying an extended, miserable death in the rain. It is a shame we didn't get to see more of him in this film - to see just how well he would have fared up against such heavyweight talent. Barry Pepper as the moralistic, Christian sniper is fantastic. The juxtaposition between his religious beliefs and the particularly cold, calculating way he carries out his duties is chilling, and he brings out his character superbly. Perhaps the cleverest character however is the Translator Timothy Upham. Initially appearing to be the comic relief of the troop, it soon becomes clear that he will be the mirror through which the rest of the platoon will see themselves. In particular, Captain Miller finds an almost kindred spirit in this gentle man, and we learn as much as we ever will about Miller through him.
Leading the desperate group of men is, of course, Captain John Miller - played by Tom Hanks. I always found Hanks a bit of an anodyne actor, always watchable but never (apart from in Big) taking me to the emotional places I know great actors are capable of doing. In Saving Private Ryan, though, he is quite simply breathtaking. You can never take your eyes of this man thrust into circumstances he can barely understand, forced to follow a career not unlike his peace-time role, but where the consequences of failure are so much more serious.
The way the film is shot is an absolute revelation, particularly for Spielberg. For a man who has always peddled essentially kiddie blockbuster fare (albeit with a darker edge than many realise), this is a major departure. I have already alluded to the opening scene, but there is a reason why it is regarded as possibly the finest battle scene ever filmed. It is thanks to the courage of these men that most of us will never know the horror that an event like the D Day landings was, but surely it cannot be much different to what we see here. From the opening of the film, all is confusion, pain, and anguish - even the landings never actually happen. Instead, bodies go piling over the edges of landing craft, being torn apart in the water, or drowning slowly and painfully. The ones who escape this carnage find themselves up against a deliberately faceless enemy - nothing but muzzle flashes endlessly spitting fire to signify their presence. As they are torn apart in front of our eyes the constant tension cannot help but affect the audience profoundly, the camera work deliberately and cleverly placing the viewer right in amongst the carnage. Clever use of sound and vision help to immerse us in what the men are going through - and although it would be doing the real soldiers a disservice to say we even get within a tiny fraction of feeling their pain, their confusion - this scene surely brings us closer to it that any other battle scene filmed before or since.
The way the film is shot by Spielberg's now long-term collaborator Janusz Kaminski is at times shocking, at times beautiful but always innovative. The palette is washed of all colour, a compressed gritty image is the canvas on which Spielberg paints. And every frame is beautifully composed. Whether it is the detached view the camera takes as Mrs. Ryan is given the awful news, or the more immediate position during the battle scenes - Spielberg and Kaminski always use the frame to emphasise the horror and futility of war and sacrifice. And despite using techniques since beloved of every action director on the planet (hand-held shooting) the action sequences are never difficult to follow - it is always painfully clear exactly what is going on.
But the success of the film, and why it is rightly regarded as such a classic, is that at the centre of the whole piece is a moral dilemma. Just how much is one man's life worth, and just how far should multiple lives be risked to rescue just one? Are the relationships forged on the battlefield greater than that of family? And should sentient human beings ever blindly follow orders without questioning their import?
It is this emotional core, this central debate that makes the film the truly great one that it undoubtedly is. Despite the intense battle scenes, the film never glories in the blood and the action, instead focussing on the emotional damage that is inflicted on men just as much as the physical damage. As a treatise on the second world war it is nearly peerless - offering much in the way of physical and emotional heft. It is rare that a film comes along that is this perfect in every way. It is not an easy watch, that much is true, and it will be one of those films that it is easier to admire than it is to enjoy. But this is one of the greatest ever filmmakers at the top of his game, working on material which is beautifully written and with an ensemble cast who really do understand their characters and bring their arcs vividly to life. It is film as art, and it is film as historical document, and whichever way you look at it - it is a film that deserves a place in your collection.
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