We begin Saving Private Ryan with a scene that left me queasy and confused. It’s shot with a handheld camera, and it makes us feel like we’re in the action. The assault of Omaha Beach was a pretty important time, and it makes sense for a World War II film to open with it. This scene, which goes on for right around 30 minutes, feels incredibly realistic. You understand the confusion that the soldiers felt, and you feel what it’s like to have comrades dying all around you. There is only one character/actor that I could recognize in this scene, although I think that’s part of the point.
That has little to do with the plot of the film, which is focused almost solely on a rescue mission. It definitely helps set the mood though, as well as establishing the character of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). We follow him for most of the beachfront assault, and we watch him lead a squad and end up taking a strategic position that was a pivotal turning point. So, it’s only fair that he has to get a squad together in order to rescue a single soldier that was dropped somewhere behind enemy lines, right? I don’t think so.
His squad doesn’t think it’s fair either. Neither does the Captain, but as he explains to them, you don’t gripe to people who are beneath you in rank. His squad can complain to him, but he can only complain to his commanding officer. And so on, he tells us. His fellow soldiers are made up of a bunch of people who have little discernible personality, although that might just have been because the dirt and grime covering their faces made it hard to tell them apart.
Their mission is to recover a man named Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). I suppose the title of the film makes more sense now, doesn’t it? Ryan had three brothers fighting in the war. All of them are dead now, so the decision was made to find the last remaining Ryan brother and send him home. After all, it’s better to bring news of three dead children to a mother if you can also bring one that’s still alive. At least, that’s about what I got out of the speech from the man who decided this.
I gave you an actor to portray Private Ryan, although that still doesn’t give anything away. For all you know, it’s a cameo role where all we see is Matt Damon lying there dead. That would certainly fit the theme of a depressing war movie. Or maybe we see him only through flashbacks. How are you supposed to know until you see this film? Make no mistake, this isn’t a happy film, and I for one was tearing up at the end.
Disregarding for a moment the 30 minute opening scene, there’s actually quite a lot of action in this film. More than I expected, actually. Enemies can pop out from behind a wall whenever they feel like it, and the film milks this to give us a few unexpected ambushes. Members of the squadron do die, and fairly quickly. I believe the first death involves a character played by Vin Diesel, although even that I wasn’t quite sure of. These deaths leave an impact only because of how tragically their presented, not because we have any connection to the characters.
The film concludes with another massive action scene, which I would guess is also somewhere around 30 minutes in length. It serves as a reminder just how terrible war really is. Most of the film shows this to us, but it’s only when soldiers are dying left and right, both German and Allied, when the point really hits home. Seeing so much death all around the characters is tragic, and once the scene ends, you’re completely spent emotionally. So spent, in fact, that at the time, I didn’t even notice how terribly and arbitrarily the scene concludes.
Without wanting to spoil it, this massive battle ends just because it wants to. Something happens that makes one side win, but it comes from the outside with little prior indication that it was a possibility. It’s like writer Robert Rodat and director Steven Spielberg couldn’t think of a way to end it, so they decided to just cut it short because something like that could have potentially happened, maybe. It just wreaks of laziness or indecisiveness, and while you might not realize it at the time (I didn’t), it just might hit you later on.
Performances are strong, at least, whenever the actor does something that is noteworthy. Tom Hanks carries Saving Private Ryan on his back, giving us a character to learn on when things get tough. Other actors are believable, but not being able to tell who they are meant that all they had to do was be a believable nameless solder. They all performed that task admirably, but looking through the cast list, I was shocked to see names like Paul Giamatti, Tom Sizemore, Ted Danson, or a few others, because I didn’t recognize any of them while watching the film.
Saving Private Ryan tells a simple story well, while also providing us with a ton of action meaning that we never get bored. Despite taking almost three hours, this is a film that is never boring. The characters grow on you — at least, the characters you can discern and remember do — and in the end, you’re bound to get emotional when you realize the turmoil they’ve all been put through. This isn’t a film that glorifies war. I wish the ending had been better constructed, but you’ll be unlikely to care while you’re watching it because of how invested you are by that point. This is a highly recommended film that is absolutely worth all 169 minutes it takes to watch.