So much has been written about the film’s stunning opening sequence, and the closing battle that I often fear the film’s greatest moment is missed. It comes mid-way through the picture after the death of the little medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). We watch as Wade, shot several times, tries to help Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) identify the wounds and where they are. The look of terror that crosses his face when he realizes his liver has been shot through is heartbreaking because we know that he knows he is doomed to die on that field. Slowly, and in great pain, he does indeed pass with the shots of morphine dulling the pain, nothing more, until his body lies still. Miller, devastated by the loss, walks away to be alone behind a hill. There he begins to break down, slowly at first, fearful that his men may hear him weeping, and then the sobs escape him as though from his very soul. We see for the first time that the stoic Captain, the leader is just as terrified as the men he is leading into battle. He is us, we are him; we know that man, we are that man.
Thousands of miles from home, at war with another nation for a cause he believes to be right, he leads his men quietly terrified, concerned each day that one of his decisions may lead to their death, and he will have yet another dead soldier on his conscience. Nothing he had done in his life before the war prepared him for what he was dealing with when he got there, he led like he taught in the classroom, with efficiency and integrity, his soldiers trusting him as the children he taught back in Philadelphia trusted him. Eventually the sobs subside, and he gathers himself together and goes back to his men, where he will again make life and death decisions each and every day.
For me, that single sequence defines this war film as the finest of its kind, a movie that is equal parts about the Second World War as much as it is about Second World War movies. We have the cliches that distinguish the films of WWII, beginning with the squadron made up of a cross section of young Americans. Leading them is Miller, the wise and decent Captain who tells little about himself, and likes it that way. His left arm is Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore) the tough as nails sarge who gathers earth from various places in Europe, depositing the dirt in tin cans marked with the name of the place from which it came. There is the kid from the Bronx, the Jew, the gentle little medic, the southern sharp shooter, devoutly religious and praying before every shot taken, and the educated interpreter who was not made for war. That group of men, seen in so many war films represents America, represents the brave men who fought in WWII, placing their lives ahead of ours for the common cause.
Their mission is to save one man, a soldier who is deep in France behind enemy lines. The military learns that his three brothers have been killed and they make the decision to get Ryan out so his mother will have one son left. That is the mission of Miller and his men, to save one life, to bring one boy home to his mother. Is it worth it, Miller is asked, to risk the lives of the squad for one man? Orders are orders states Miller, those are my orders, and if those orders mean that he may get back to see his wife by following them, that is what he is going to do. Miller does not question orders, he follows them and expects the same of his men, so they move behind enemy lines into France to find Private Ryan and take
Steven Spielberg bookends the film with two sequences, the first set in present day, opens the film as an older gentleman makes his way through the graveyard at Normandy, his family behind him as he seeks out a particular grace. Overwhelmed with emotion he falls to the ground and the camera moves in on his face, and cut to Miller in the back of a boar, moving quickly towards the beach on D-Day.
Two astonishing battle sequences bookend the film as well, an opening that is alarming in its intensity and realism, so startling when it happens I watched audiences members flinch. The bullets start flying the moment the gate is opened on the boats and the Americans become targets for the Germans, who perched high on the sand banks of the beach gun down the constant waves of Americans arriving on the beach. Slowly they make their way up the beach, amidst the carnage, the blood, the screaming men who have been mutilated by bullets and grenades, until they have the beach. The second battle sequences takes place near the end of the film as the Americans attempt to hold a village and bridge they have taken, fighting off the Germans who are now coming at them in waves. It is here they have found Ryan, and here Ryan has decided to stay, bravely “with the only brothers I’ve got left” he tells Miller. And it is here Miller will die, whispering into the ear of Ryan to “Earn this.” The second bookend begins right after Miller’s death, as the face of the young Ryan morphs into the old man in the graveyard at the beginning of the film.
It was Ryan in the graveyard.
Ok, now it is here we have a major flaw. The language of the cinema is to follow the camera, the camera never lies. At the film’s beginning we move in close on the old man’s face and cut to D-Day, and a shaking hand, Captain Miller, moving up to his face. We assume that the old man is Captain Miller, therefore the memories we are about to experience will be Miller’s. But at the end, Miller is dead, and the memories we are now asked to believe are Ryan’s. Except that Ryan was not on the beach, Ryan did not experience what Miller and his men did, so how is that
possible?? It has been explained that perhaps one of the surviving members of the squad explained to Ryan the sacrifices Miller made for him, and that is fair, but again, the camera does not lie and we are taken in one direction and then throw a curve. Does that detract from the power of the film?
Not a bit, not for me.
Most masterpieces are flawed. In Citizen Kane (1941) the entire premise of the film is built around something that could not have possible taken place. A reporter is dispatched to find the meaning of Kane’s dying word, ‘Rosebud”. The butler overheard it. The only problem is the word was whispered by a dying man, alone in a room with massively thick doors. Not even if the butler was listening at the door would he have heard the word. Still that does not stop the film from being a stunning work of art, and neither does the flaw within Saving Private Ryan prevent this film from being a masterpiece.
Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances as Miller, giving the Captain an everyman sense that allows for we in the audience to believe he could be one of us. On set Hanks is said to have taken away key monologues he had in the film because he felt his character would say less: that is a great actor confident in his ability to convey those feelings without Oscar baiting speeches. Tom Sizemore is excellent as Horvath and Giovanni Ribisi heartbreaking as he lays dying in a field far from home calling for his mother. Edward Burns, normally a director, is terrific, and Matt Damon, one year after he won his Oscar for Good Will Hunting (1997) hits the right note as Ryan, likable and wholly decent. Once they meet him they are fine with their mission.
The New York Film Critics gave the film their Best Picture Award, as did the Los Angeles Film Critics, along with several other critics groups. The Golden Globe Award for Best Film and Best Director was won by Saving Private Ryan and Spielberg won his third Directors Guild Award for the film.
The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and rocketed to the top of the years box office, finishing second behind the disaster epic Armageddon (1998). On Oscar night the film triumphed early with awards for Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Sound Editing. Janusz Kaminski won his second Oscar working with Spielberg for Best Cinematography, and then Spielberg won his second Oscar for Best Director, setting the stage for the film to take home the big one.
Incredibly when Harrison Ford opened the envelope, there was a momentary look of astonishment on his face and then he read Shakespeare in Love, not Saving Private Ryan, stunning the audience and the world. How is it, the best directed, best shot, best edited, and best sounding film loses Best Picture?? In no way am I stating that Shakespeare in Love is not a good film, it most certainly is beautifully acted, directed and written, but in no way does it possess the power and majesty of the Spielberg film. I sat in a theatre at dawn watching Saving Private Ryan, and remember not being able to move when the film ended, so moved was I. Looking around, I saw that not a single critic had moved towards the door, so frozen in place were they by the images to which we had just bore witness. We spoke, something we do not do, about the film, and the discussion always turned to the opening and closing scenes of combat, which indeed were astounding in their realism. But again, for me, that moment where Miller slips away to weep on his own resonates of what the war was like. Strong men fighting for a cause that sometimes got the better of them. Grown men do cry, they did cry and they were better men for being able to do so. There is glory in war, no question, but there is also death, and horror and pain, and watching men you come to think of as brothers die terrible deaths as they cry in fields of blood and mud for their mothers. War is ugly and emotional, and Saving Private Ryan captures those aspects better than any film before it ever had. Flawed? Sure, great films usually are in some way.