War is hell. Any combat veteran will tell you that. Unless you’ve actually been there, you can’t really know what it’s like. But with Spielberg’s epic 1998 war film though, you can get just a taste of it. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we’re looking at Saving Private Ryan: second only to Schindler’s List, it’s one of the director’s greatest dramatic masterpieces. By using his best strengths, Spielberg demonstrates with this film the enormous sacrifice given by those to protect our freedoms.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
World War II has always been a point of fascination for Steven Spielberg. Up until this point in his career, Spielberg had already either referenced it, or focused on it, in films including 1941, the Indiana Jones series, Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List. His interest in it, however, goes back to his childhood, when his father would dazzle him with stories of being a radio operator in the China-Burma Theater. Around middle school age, he directed a pair of amateur 8 mm short films entitled Escape to Nowhere and The Last Gunfighter, which both centered on World War II.
The inspiration for Saving Private Ryan comes from the book D-Day by historian Stephen Ambrose, which details the storming of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the event that is considered the climax of the war in Europe. In this text, Ambrose also describes the Nilands, four sons who served during the same time in World War II. At one point, three of the brothers were believed dead, so “Fritz” Niland was sent back to the U.S. to complete his service. Screenwriter Robert Rodat was struck by this story, and wrote Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg then signed on to direct.
The film begins in the present day with a veteran visiting the Normandy Cemetery. We are then transported back to the morning of June 6, 1944, as a group of soldiers land on Omaha Beach and navigate through the hellish onslaught. Soon after, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes some men to locate a private James Ryan (Matt Damon) and send him home, due to his three brothers dying in combat. Miller and his men reluctantly carry out their orders, and upon finding Ryan, decide to stay and help him defend an important bridge against an impending German attack.
Following the brief opening set in the present day, the intense 23-minute battle sequence of the storming of Normandy is arguably the most memorable and renowned set piece in the history of war cinema. In fittingly brutal fashion, the viewer is submitted to the most graphic and realistic representation of the chaotic landscape possible without actually experiencing it. In comparison to Spielberg’s past work, it’s a shocking escalation in his depiction of violence, but in realizing the ruthless nature of war, he understands its necessity in educating viewers on the subject.
The portrayal of war violence is a precarious line to tread: in trying to capture the severity and the blood-drenched nature of battle, it can be easy to stoop to exploitation and disrespect your subjects. Spielberg here proves himself fully capable of handling this masterfully. Where previous war films glorified military violence, and were often inaccurate, Spielberg’s approach here was groundbreaking, and was incredibly influential on the genre. The film proved so believable upon release, that theaters advised caution to actual combat veterans in seeing it.
Contributing to the appropriately harsh portrayal of the battle, the Omaha Beach sequence works so powerfully because of Spielberg’s direction choices. Inspired by World War II era-newsreels as well as war films by John Ford, Spielberg takes a guerilla/documentary approach in following Captain Miller and his men as they weave through the barbarous hellscape, with minimal editing. Working again with Schindler’s List cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, the pair took a desaturated and low-tech approach to capture a look and feel similar to footage of the era.
Considering Spielberg rose to prominence with big-budget commercial fare, the war genre could have been considered a natural opportunity for him to step up to serious content, so it’s almost surprising that he waited this long to make a film focusing on armed conflict. When it comes to action, there’s no question Spielberg is qualified, but at this point in his career, his resume represented a capable, if not an always reliable competency with drama. However, thanks to the help of a fabulous cast, Saving Private Ryan rings in as one of his strongest works in this regard.
The film marks Spielberg’s first collaboration with Tom Hanks, and the pair actually share a long friendship that pre-dates the making of this film. The two actually hesitated to work together for fear of mixing business with the personal, but their shared passion for the project made it clear that this partnership had to happen. Hanks submits a profound performance as Captain Miller; partly what makes his character so great is that he’s not a stereotypical warmonger, but a typical everyman (in this case, a schoolteacher) that answered the calling to defend his country.
However, that’s not clear from the start. An ongoing plot point highlights Miller’s commitment to maintaining an air of secrecy with his men, as they participate in a pool trying to guess his background. Another important facet of Miller’s character is his mourning a sense of decency, as he is fully aware of the consequences his time in the war are projecting on his person. Because of themes like these, Saving Private Ryan functions interestingly as an anti-war pro-war film that acknowledges the negative aspects of war, even while recognizing their occasional necessity.
Spielberg also helps the viewer get an idea of the experience of war by instilling a sense of brotherhood with Captain Miller’s men, and forcing us to mourn them one by one as they are inevitably lost during the proceedings. The cast includes a host of recognizable names including Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, and Paul Giamatti, many of who underwent a mock “boot camp” to prepare for the film. This unquestionably benefited their performances, as their weariness is palpable.
And of course, you can’t forget about Matt Damon as the film’s eponymous Ryan. Following an exemplary demonstration of acting chops in Goodwill Hunting the year prior, Damon submits superb work in two demanding scenes in which he is most prominent. As the film ends with an aged Ryan (Harrison Young) standing over Miller’s grave, he begs his wife in anguish “Tell me I’m a good man. Tell me I’ve lived a good life.” The emotion here is inescapable. Let’s make this a world worthy of the sacrifice of men like these. And like Spielberg, let’s make films worthy of it.
Next week we’ll be diving into the new millennium with Spielberg’s ambitious science fiction film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The film is on DVD and Blu-Ray; it’s also available for streaming on Showtime, as well as for rental from digital retailers. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next week.