Saving Private Ryan (DVD)

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Saving Private Ryan (DVD)

Director Steven Spielberg's World War II tour de force chronicles the journey of a GI squad on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Led by Captain ...

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Review of "Saving Private Ryan (DVD)"

published 06/03/2004 | zerbine28
Member since : 15/03/2003
Reviews : 106
Members who trust : 51
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Good
Pro Some very good scenes. Ensemble cast work, and Edward Burns, especially.
Cons Ultimately overdone, hyper-real; some weak dialogue; incessant music; inescapable schmaltz; unwitting propaganda. Matt Damon.
exceptional
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"Stacking the Emotional Deck, Again"


Dare I swim against the torrential tide of accolades heaped by masses of film critics—many of whom I thought were more discerning—upon Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”(1998)? I might be swept away and dashed against the rocks in the process, but I won’t go under without at least attempting to confront that tsunami of uncritical praise that greeted the film. Thanks to Jill Murphy’s wicked influence, I finally gave in and rented “the greatest war film of this generation.” Or so I was told.

By now everyone must know the plotline. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) leads a motley group of weary soldiers who survive the bloody D-Day landing on Omaha Beach on an unusual mission, that of tracing the whereabouts in German-occupied France of a certain paratrooper named Private James Ryan, and bringing him home. The US military has just learned that all of Ryan’s three brothers have been killed in action within a short period of time, in different theatres of war. Recalling the words of Abraham Lincoln to a mother who lost five sons during the Civil War, General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) is adamant that Pvt. Ryan be returned to his soon-to-be-grieving mother before any more harm befalls her last living son. It’s a public relations move thought up by the military top brass, nevermind its patent lack of logic and practicality.

The persistent trouble I have with Spielberg is his wont to stack the deck in his favor by choosing oh-such-worthy causes to make into movies. So I feel like an evil and blasphemous Grinch for not locking step with the rest of Them in worshipping at the Spielberg altar and pronouncing SPR “a masterpiece”—because Spielberg made the film as a personal tribute to the D-Day veterans. I understand that we do owe a great debt to these everyday men who did their level best in carrying out their duty through the fear, with sometimes heroic action in some impossibly hellish circumstances of horror and death. There’s no arguing with that at all. But honoring heroes by simply throwing up Big Symbols of Heroism and Patriotism onto the screen does not make for great cinema. Not in my book, anyway. Ultimately, SPR is a good film at best. What deep respect and gratitude I felt for the veterans’ efforts were eclipsed by Spielberg’s fairly clunky attempts to make his Great Masterpiece about war.

I have to divorce Spielberg’s filmmaking from his subject matter, because he insists on melding the two into one, forcing me to feel a certain way about something by virtue of the innate and unquestioned goodness of his cause. He wrests from me the freedom to glean for myself what the onscreen events might impart to the viewer. Spielberg seems not to fully trust his audience. He fears I may not ‘get’ his points, whatever those may be (often rather simplistic ideas about the world), so he must lead me by the hand as he would a little child and show me exactly what to feel and think, and when. Well, I find no joy or pleasure in the experience of being condescended to like that.

Some vital technical elements served only to distance me from the film. Like “Schindler’s List,” there’s a clinical sterility to the film’s look—its colors and milieu, its composition, its use of light and shadow—that calls attention to itself and trumps the painstakingly re-created realism of the grime and sweat of the soldiers and the disorganized rubble of half-leveled towns. Spielberg isn’t one for originality and imagination. His films are well-stocked with cinematic clichés. Note the Norman Rockwellian sweeping Midwest farms where the Ryan brothers’ mother lives, the sharp contrast shot of almost black against light of Captain Miller’s group during a solemn moment, and that uneasy lull with Edith Piaf playing on the gramophone as the guys chat amid the rubble about things that guys do. Spielberg wants so badly to make his picture look “artistic” and does so with such self-consciousness—did you notice that dizzyingly “realistic” camera shake a la “NYPD Blue”? the blood-spattered lens in the landing at Omaha Beach? the oversaturated colors and image flicker that look like they’d been through the Adobe Photoshop mill?

Not having lived under a rock for the past few years (well, not technically, anyway), I haven’t escaped the gallons of ink spilled and the gigabytes consumed on impassioned claims of how those first thirty minutes are “the most realistic depiction of war ever” and all that. Coming to this film with that expectation just dulled the experience for me. I was ready for a horrifically graphic bloodbath, and I got it—literally, up to those crimson waters crashing onto the shore at the end of the half-hour of carnage—just in case you still missed the point that the landing of the Allied forces on D-Day was an insanely chaotic mess of seasick, terrified young soldiers being cut down in an unending hail of bullets and mortar fire coming from the German bunkers above. Pretty neat special FX there, with those yellow streaks and zip-zip sounds for the bullets. The horrors of war made more realistic through LucasFilm computer enhancement. But this is realer than real, folks! Despite his supposed insistence on authenticity, Spielberg isn’t genuinely interested in realistic depictions. Once more this film showcases his intemperance, his penchant for overdoing everything and belaboring the obvious to ensure his point comes through—and is hammered home into your thick skull. Instead of drawing me deeper into the movie, Spielberg only succeeds in alienating me further.

Well, then, on to the good parts.

The fine cast deserve kudos for their strong ensemble work. Those pre-shoot days of actual boot camp did help to turn the actors into convincing grunts. I fell totally for the wonderful Edward Burns as Brooklynite Pvt. Reiben, and even the normally pallid Tom Hanks as Capt. Miller would grow on me by the film’s conclusion. I also learned to like Barry Pepper as the sniper, Pvt Jackson, who gives some nuance to his cross-kissing, Bible-quoting character. His clean and brisk hand signals fell in with his assumed skill with the riflescope. It also helped that, for a moment or two, I thought I was seeing Johnny Depp playing Jackson! (Why was he absent from the film, anyway?) The terrified paralysis of the young and inexperienced translator, Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), is heartfelt and painful, although his Big Grown-up Moment felt a bit forced (and what was the point of that scene? Killing a man makes you a man?).

On the other hand, there’s the insufferable Matt Damon, whose reason for his continuing current popularity escapes me. He smacked so much of the late 90s and annoyed me no end with that self-satisfied look and big white teeth of his. He was the falsest note in this otherwise interestingly discordant group of soldiers. (And no, ex-Bennifer Affleck won’t do in the role, either.)

I can pick out some well-done scenes that made me forget about Spielberg’s ubiquitous shadow, and a few that went even further and moved me to tears. There’s the early, almost throwaway chatter among the men whom Capt. Miller chooses for the mission, and I rather enjoyed the lively and surprising repartee as they march through the French countryside. Edward Burns’ Pvt. Reiben first grabs my attention in this sequence. Here’s a guy who dares to question the orders from above, and I wanted to hear more from him. His character rang true for me through most of the film.

An unexpectedly moving bit comes when the gravely wounded medic, Pvt. Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) stoically and vainly tries to save himself while the others remain helpless in their clumsy, desperate efforts following a brief but costly raid on a small group of Germans. Near the end, witnessing the scene of Pvt. Reiben coming to the aid of his badly injured captain touched me deeply, too.

This might be the first of Spielberg’s works to offer a glimmer of redemptive hope for the reigning Naked Emperor of Emotional Manipulation. He and Robert Rodat (the writer) actually allowed some grayness and a faint hint of cynicism to seep into the tale. Doubts arise among some of Capt. Miller’s crew about the wisdom of their mission, one of whom (Pvt. Reiben) asks why Ryan gets to go home to his mother when all of them have mothers waiting back home, too. Midway through Spielberg presents our exhausted captain with another dilemma directly pitting one soldier’s duty against another’s. The resulting turn in the story would be a bit of a letdown, but at the same time felt true to the American spirit of making the best of what could be mildly called a crazy situation.

However, Spielberg keeps shooting himself in the foot, or in the toe, at least. That well-directed, suspenseful, surprise encounter between the erstwhile hidden German soldiers and Miller’s troops in the French town was somewhat spoiled by the Spielbergian contrivance in its introduction and resolution, but it was still early in the film for me to get too upset. There’s a real tension generated when Pvt. Reiben makes an attempt at insubordination, but the explosive situation is defused with a mixture of plausibility and improbable melodrama—very tricky but not totally fatal here. Spielberg ruins some other strong parts by, for instance, having Miller’s men constantly repeat the newly minted platitude about “earning the right to go home”.

SPR has a few interesting scenes of the funny-puzzling kind. The dead serious look on the faces of those military officers meeting with General Marshall about the mission almost had me bursting out with laughter at the funereal earnestness of everyone. And when that Panzer tank suddenly looms large behind the two GIs in that foxhole near the bridge, can you say that this wasn’t just another bit of tongue-in-cheek humor on Spielberg’s part? These were jarring and disorienting moments amid all that gravity—I couldn’t suppress a chuckle on recalling a similar move to the Panzer’s by that animatronic Great White, when it emerges with a startling suddenness from the calm waters behind the oblivious Roy Scheider in “Jaws”. Are these examples of effective storytelling? Or perhaps the black humor was intentional? Heck, not a bad idea, really.

Manipulative and banal would describe some other bits. Never one for subtlety, Spielberg fails to disappoint yet again in some places. I felt annoyed at the exchange of warm and fuzzy stories in the dark church, especially those related by Miller and the medic, Wade. Not to mention the embarrassingly unamusing incident told by Pvt. Ryan to Capt. Miller. (Or was that the point—that even the most trite things become significant in such circumstances? Should I give Spielberg the benefit of the doubt? I think not.) What about those opening and closing sequences featuring the US flag waving majestically against the sun (was that a halo I spotted there, embracing the flag?). He continues to employ glib symbols, such as that involuntary tremor plaguing Capt. Miller, and Pvt. Mellish’s (Adam Goldberg) taunting of German POWs with his star of David.

And what is one supposed to make of those inane questions in the Hallmark–Kodak moment in the finale, questions asked pleadingly by the elderly character of his wife who doesn’t seem to understand: “Have I led a good life? Tell me I’m a good man!” The unbearably saccharine—almost farcical—scene just blew to bits the emotional build-up created up to this point. It ain’t Spielberg’s fault— it must be in his DNA because the man just can’t help it when it comes to dreaming up such onscreen scenes of counterfeit emotion and passing them off as the real thing.

Once more Spielberg enlists the aid of composer John Williams. Williams holds nothing back, drowning the viewer in sonic rivers of sentimental schlock. I searched in vain for a button to cut off that maddening, wall-to-wall music that played without pause in between sections of deafening sounds of explosions, whizzing bullets and rumbling tanks. This nonstop musical wallpaper would swell at the approach of nearly every Big Moment, effectively depriving said Big Moments of their potential punch and rendering them as anticlimactic events left to unfold for completeness’ sake.

I’m not so sure that Spielberg even has an anti-war message in SPR. He seems to accept war as a necessary evil, and the given that the men in uniform are duty-bound to obey all orders received and make the best of a dire situation—I’m not knocking this admirable trait at all. However, the fixed framework of his world remains, and he seems content to give deserving credit to those who fulfilled their wartime duty, for the cause was good and just. He also wants to tell us that war is hell in a very literal way, but I think other films have told us that in a much more effective manner (see later). In the final analysis, Spielberg pulls his punches on the moral questions and falls back on the good and the simple ideals set to rousing, salute-worthy music. It’s better than most of what he’s offered previously, but still doesn’t go far enough—and that might be asking too much of a very conventional filmmaker.

In the end, Spielberg still plays it safe. Iconic and idealistic symbols of mythical Americana remain paramount in his worldview, and a genuine exploration of the complexity of the human condition—not just the American one—seems to be beyond his interest or his ken. (A clue to this can be found in Spielberg’s own admission to having been reared on a steady diet of John Wayne war films, found in the DVD extra about the real story of D-Day and “saving Pvt. Niland”). To his credit, at least he’s shown a willingness to see beyond the black and white that pervades his cinematic world of unspoiled goodness and American patriotism. That’s his vision, limited as I think it is. He’s got a right and certainly the means to express it, and who can argue with the many millions of viewers out there nodding their heads in agreement. Yet, I can’t help thinking that it still amounts to propaganda of an unwitting kind. And doubly pernicious for its seeming innocence. I, for one, am unable to swallow the whole schtick, hook, line and sinker.

You might ask, would I know a better way to portray the hellaciousness and brutality, as well as the rare humanity of wartime? Well, yes, and at the moment, can offer one word: “Stalingrad. ” It’s a German film from 1993 directed by Joseph Vilsmaier (and starring the handsome Thomas Kretschmann of Polanski’s “The Pianist”). It eschews any propagandistic tendencies in favor of going directly to the human core of the tale. I felt closer to the those poor German and Russian soldiers portrayed in the more powerful and far less bombastic and self-congratulatory “Stalingrad” than I did to Capt. Miller and company, despite the latter’s indubitable heroism and goodness. The deeply moving and realistic (in more senses than one) “Stalingrad” stayed with me for a couple of days afterwards (and I’ve yet to find the proper words to write it up months after seeing it). Meanwhile, SPR would become just another rental in my memory within an hour of finishing the film—and all those promotional DVD extras, too. Three-and-a-half stars, max, for this mixed bag of sadly misused potential.

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Comments on this review

  • yilllllllled published 29/07/2006
    great film indeed
  • L0BSTER_QUADRILLE published 19/04/2006
    Jackson looks nothing like Johny Depp! I agree with most of what you said, but I expected it from Spielberg. I don't understand why people like him so much, he's all about cheese. x
  • MAFARRIMOND published 23/12/2005
    A well-directed and acted film. Maureen
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Product Information : Saving Private Ryan (DVD)

Manufacturer's product description

Director Steven Spielberg's World War II tour de force chronicles the journey of a GI squad on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), the unit is under orders to track down a soldier, Private Ryan (Matt Damon), so he might return home to his mother in America, where she is grieving the unimaginable loss of her three other sons to the war. The first unforgettable 20 minutes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN realistically and horrifically depicts the Normandy invasion as Miller. his second-in-command, Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), and the others in the unit land at Omaha Beach. Before the film began shooting, Hanks and the actors in his squad went through a one-week boot camp in the woods. All the actors, except Hanks, wanted to quit, but Hanks rallied their spirits by reminding them of the incredible tribulations endured by the real veterans of World War II. Production designer Tom Sanders found a beach in Ireland that perfectly matched the landscape of Normandy's. Spielberg gave great credit to the Irish army who helped re-create the Omaha Beach scenes.

Product Details

Video Category: Feature Film

Production Year: 1998

Plot: A war epic which tells the story of four brothers from the same family who are all fighting in the Second World War. On Washington's orders Captain Miller is sent behind enemy lines to bring back the sole surviving brother, Private Ryan. Winner of five Academy Awards.

Country Of Origin: United States of America

Classification: 15 years and over

Genre: War

Colour: Colour

Director(s): Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg

Actor(s): Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Edward Burns, Ted Danson, Dennis Farina, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Edward Burns, Ted Danson, Dennis Farina, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, Paul Giamatti

Release Details

DVD Region: DVD

Studio(s): PARAMOUNT HOME ENTERTAINMENT; TECHNICOLOR DISTRIBUTION SERVICES, PARAMOUNT HOME ENTERTAINMENT; TECHNICOLOR DIST. SERVICES

Catalogue No: PHE 8600, PHE 8362, PHE 8040

Barcode: 5014437860033, 5014437836236, 5014437804037

No of Discs: 2, 1

Release date: 01/11/2004, 01/09/2003, 06/11/2000

Executive Producer: Gary Levinsohn, Steven Spielberg

Featured: Steven Spielberg

Editor: Michael Kahn, Michael Kahn

Screenwriter: Robert Rodat, Steven Spielberg, Robert Rodat

Producer: Mark Gordon, Ian Bryce, Gary Levinsohn, Steven Spielberg, Mark Gordon, Ian Bryce, Gary Levinsohn, Steven Spielberg

Production Designer: Thomas Sanders, Thomas Sanders

Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski, Janusz Kaminski

Composer: John Williams, John Williams, John Williams

Special Effects: Neil Corbould, Stefen Fangmeier, Roger Guyett

Languages

Main Language: English

Subtitle Language: English

Hearing Impaired Language: English

Technical Information

Dubbing Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1<br>Dolby Digital Surround<br>DTS, DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 English

Special Features: An Inside Look With The Filmmakers, Looking Into The Past The research The Screenplay And The Vision, The Making Of A Platoon, Boot Camp For The Cast, Recreating DDay Omaha Beach

Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital Surround, DTS

Aspect Ratio: 1.78 Anamorphic Wide Screen, 16:9 Anamorphic Wide Screen

Award Information

OSCAR: Best Director 1999 (Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg)

BAFTA: Best Achievement In Special Effects 1998 (Stefen Fangmeier, Roger Guyett, Neil Corbould)

Professional Reviews

Review: Ranked #3 in Entertainment Weekly's "10 Favorite Films of the '90s" -- "...[A] masterpiece....One soul-shattering experience..." (Entertainment Weekly, 2000-04-01)<br><br>Ranked #3 in Entertainment Weekly's "10 Favorite Films of the '90s" -- "...[A] masterpiece....One soul-shattering experience..." (Entertainment Weekly, pp.159-60, 01/04/2000)<br><br>...Unprecedented immediacy [in] the battle scenes....Uniformly superb performances... (Movieline, 1999-06-01)<br><br>"...Unprecedented immediacy [in] the battle scenes....Uniformly superb performances..." (Movieline, p.91, 01/06/1999)<br><br>...Soberly magnificent....It is the ultimate devastating letter home... (New York Times, 1998-07-24)<br><br>"...Soberly magnificent....It is the ultimate devastating letter home..." (New York Times, p.E14, 24/07/1998)<br><br>...Sheer gut-wrenching immediacy....[Spielberg] has come of age as an artist... (Sight and Sound, 1998-09-01)<br><br>"...Sheer gut-wrenching immediacy....[Spielberg] has come of age as an artist..." (Sight and Sound, p.34-52, 01/09/1998)<br><br>

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