Tuesday, May 31, 2011

You want to explain the math of this to me? I mean, where's the sense in risking the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?

No 156 - Saving Private Ryan
Director - Steven Spielberg

Saving Private Ryan is known (and really, is remembered) for one thing. One epic battle on the shores of Omaha Beach in Normandy. It is so ingrained as THE memory of the film that it eclipses everything else. I was so convinced that this was how the film truly began that I was surprised to see a little old James Ryan shuffle along to the Normandy American cemetery and Memorial. But it is old Ryan which bookends the film (indeed the fade out at the end from young Ryan to old is masterful) before we hit the full horrors of war.

The opening sequence is incredible. Shaky cameras which seem to be documenting evidence rather than filming fiction, mud, blood, entrails and futility are all captured on screen. It is deliberately chaotic, the camera almost seems like an additional character as it looks around the beach trying to find moments of action to focus in on. Throughout this mess we lose track of characters and can barely hear what is being shouted over the bombs and blasts. But that is not the point. This is not there to boost a character arc or to progress the plot. This is there for one reason. It shows you that war is a horrible brutal place and it shows you just how fragile and fleeting life can be. In that job, it succeeds triumphantly. It is a tough and painful bit of cinema - incredibly visceral, and unnerving in how 'in your face' it all is. It stands alone (and it is, really, separate from the rest of the film) and should be watched. Or.... experienced.



Only after subjecting us to a good 15 minutes of brutal warfare do we begin to actually mention the plot and the strange ruling which sees Tom Hanks and a small unit sent to rescue Private James Ryan (a point which is contested throughout the film) - during this, the group coincide with other groups performing their own missions and we get to see a barrage of familiar faces. Spielberg putting together a marvellous (and somewhat surreally diverse) cast.

Ted Danson?!
Daniel from Lost?
Vin Diesel in a role written specifically for him?!

The main focus though (and the drive of the film) is the relationship between the soldiers as they suffer in a horrible situation - a theme Spielberg continues to explore in Band of Brothers and The Pacific. The film really allows the characters to breathe and shows a depth and three-dimensional nature which still isn't massively common in films. See the way they struggle with their morality and their hatred of the Nazis. Rather big themes are lightly touched as parts of the war, rather than parts of the story. I for one found the scene in which Goldberg's Stanley Mellish declares his Jewish faith to the German POWs very powerful. For him, this is more than just a job. This is a battle against people which have persecuted and vilified everything that he stands for. This is a moral quest for justice. Yet, the film never expands on it... it is just part of the day to day nature of the war.

The film continues in this way.... setting up minor events which test and explore the group's characters until we come to the major event of meeting the titular James Ryan and one last big action scene. It is a film which doesn't shy away from death but which also tackles some interesting, and far tougher, themes such as survivors guilt.

A big and powerful film, which I'm going to undermine by linking to an Adam and Joe sketch: