Friday, October 15, 2010

Saving Private Ryan

This is one of those movies where it seems like everyone is in it. The main cast of soldiers trekking across France is full of guys you recognize even if you don't know your names. Hey, Tom Sizemore! And Vin Diesel! And Adam Goldberg! And Giovanni Ribisi! And Ed Burns! And Daniel from Lost! And it doesn't stop there. There are plenty of other small roles without a lot of prestige but still played by famous actors. It's Bryan Cranston with one arm! And Paul Giamatti! And Ted Danson! And Dennis Farina! And one of Nathan Fillion's first roles! It honestly gets fairly distracting when you're playing spot-the-guy in the middle of an epic, dramatic war movie, but that's one of the only flaws in an otherwise quite remarkable film.

The two most significant parts go to Tom Hanks as the leader of the unit sent after Private Ryan to bring him home after his three brothers are all killed in action, and Matt Damon as Ryan himself, the object of the film, although he only shows up for the last hour. It's funny, he was cast because he was basically unknown, but by the time the movie came out he was already a celebrity. Remember that distraction thing? I spent a fair amount of time thinking "So when is Matt Damon gonna show up?" But yeah, the film itself is a remarkable one. Just a great combination of drama, acting, cinematography, and editing. The film has a washed out look to it that someone sets the tone of a period war film without having to say anything. The production values are pretty outstanding; even when nothing is blowing up, the bombed out, rubble-filled city streets and rolling countrysides always look amazing and authentic. There are many scenes of the soldiers arguing about the mission, hazing the new guy, or just killing time that always have a natural feel to them, making you believe that these men have grown used to each other through so much time training and fighting together.

And of course there are the battles. The film is bookended by two sequences nearly half an hour in length, including the famous Normandy landing scene, filled with bullets, screaming, and severed limbs. The stark brutality of it might seem exploitative to some, but I thought there was power in the harsh, blunt way it was presented. War isn't pretty, and few sequences have captured it as well as that. Besides that and the climactic final battle, there are multiple other sequences, although they're relatively brief. They're still well filmed and choreographed, and throughout all of them the different soldiers get their chances to shine, although the unit's best marksman gets a lot of the best moments. As you might expect with a war movie things don't end well for everybody, and there's actually a scene where an earlier act of good will has negative consequences, which made me wonder for a bit what exactly the script was trying to say. Although in some ways the film romanticizes heroic sacrifice, it's still effective at conveying what it really does to people. One of Steven Spielberg's best films, and an effective jumping off point for the HBO miniseries that followed.

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