Arguably one of Spielberg's most memorable works, Saving Private Ryan takes place during the D-Day invasion and tells the story of a squad of US Marines, led by Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), whose mission it is to track down the last surviving brother of a family of four, the three dead brothers all having been killed in battle on the same day. Questioning the value of sending eight men to rescue one, the squad (Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribiski, Vin Diesel and Barry Pepper to name all but two) trek across the fields of Northern France, searching for Private Ryan (Matt Damon) in a bid which seems all but hopeless, and takes them from one confrontation with the enemy to another.
The movie, shot primarily with hand-held cameras in a washed-out documentary style, puts you right in the centre of the action and doesn't let you out for its near 3 hour running time. The opening 20 minute Omaha beach assault will go down in cinema history as one of the most visceral and brutal sequences to ever come out of mainstream Hollywood, such is its ferocity and unflinching depiction of the horrors of infantry warfare. It all comes across as disturbingly real and therein lay the power of Saving Private Ryan.
Essentially the movie is a series of vignettes, a collection of engagements and situations shown through the eyes of a foot soldier, and book-ended by two large-scale battles. Along the way there are moral and practical dilemmas to be wrestled with - cowardice and revenge are two such subjects dealt with - but the bottom line is that this movie shows you what war really IS like. It's that simplicity for which Saving Private Ryan has been criticised in the past. Indeed, character development is set as a secondary concern to the main action (with the exception being Hanks character perhaps), although in the quieter sections you do get a sense of the men and their fears, and to a degree their hopes.
All criticisms aside however, this is a genre-defining piece of cinematic history. No matter what your thoughts on the plot and characters, this film can only be described as an "experience" on the first viewing, and one that should not be missed.
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