Like a spastic ballet that’s painted in charcoal grey, “Saving Private Ryan” is an unnatural but moving cinematic experience. Every moment feels grueling, tedious but undeniably rewarding, a much-intended reflection of Steven Spielberg of the true horrors of war, and the lifelong wounds they leave on its participants.
Tom Hanks plays Captain John H Miller, a respected but ailing army officer who leads a unit of soldiers during the invasion of Normandy. Miller receives word that his squad must rescue Private Ryan, a young officer played by Matt Damon whose brothers had all been killed in combat. Miller’s crew battles with the moral quandaries of risking their lives to save one man, as well as battling Germans as they trudge through the soggy, blood-soaked streets of Europe.
The performances are sublime, but even if they weren’t, the film would be a marvel simply for its cinematography. Spielberg really doesn’t get enough credit here, because if any sequence of this film were helmed by a less famous director, they’d be heralded as a gritty filmmaking visionary. But because it is Spielberg, we expect nothing less than the best. The only way to really appreciate the majesty of “Saving Private Ryan” is to watch a lesser war film immediately beforehand, and compare the quality that nearly seeps through the screen like a pile of blood dripping onto the floor below.
The only immediate flaw I noticed with “Saving Private Ryan” is how the film seems overly patriotic, particularly the scenes where higher ranking army officers are discussing bringing Ryan home. Perhaps this is just my own cynicism speaking, since I can spot a “hokey war movie directed at folks living in red states” from a mile away. But WWII was the last, true just war, where the cause was accepted by everyone as a necessity. The patriotism is just, its just when you’re drenched in it from every other war movie that it feels repetitive.
But after watching “Saving Private Ryan” again, I’d argue that this is Steven Spielberg’s best and single most unique movie, even more than “Schindler’s List.” If you ask anyone what their favorite Spielberg flick is, it is usually “Jaws,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” If you ask the best, people will usually say “Schindler’s List,” either because they truly think its the best, or because they want to sound smart.
Rarely do you meet someone whose answer to either of those questions is “Saving Private Ryan,” a film that’s so disassociated with Spielberg that it might as well not have ever been made by him. But its also his single greatest crowning achievement, a filmmaker who grew better and better over the decades with every film he made, his expanding skills finally coalescing into this 1998 epic, where somehow, he managed to fit the biggest story of the 20th century on the silver screen, the only film that can sing the same melody of the greatest generation’s forgotten song.