Monday, May 26, 2014

The Essentials- "Saving Private Ryan" (1998)

The Essentials-#58

Saving Private Ryan
I apologize for being absent from my blog for so long. I think you all will understand that we had a nice three day weekend. Even though I write on this blog for free and absolutely nothing but passion drives this blog, even I like a little vacation time. My girlfriend and I went back to my hometown and visited with my parents. It was good time to just chill and not do anything important for a few days. But now it is time to get back at it, as I am behind on my two weekly columns. I think it is quite fitting that I close this Memorial Day weekend with a review of the classic war movie, “Saving Private Ryan.”

I am seen quite a few war movies in my life, American history, world history, you name it. That is what happens when your father is a history buff; you become something of a history buff yourself. I am still awaiting my teaching license for the state of Illinois, and once I get it, I will be certified to teach American and world history to grades 5 through 12. Some people like to say that history means nothing and we could wipe it entirely from our education curriculum and nothing would change. I wholeheartedly disagree, history is important. I could write all night long discussing the merits of knowing history, but I promise to be brief. We wouldn’t know where we came from and we wouldn’t know how to shape this modern world without history. That is the biggest merit I could give without completely boring my audience. So by being a big history guy myself, I love it when Hollywood can blend a history lesson with entertainment. Such is the case with “Saving Private Ryan.”

On Wednesday, during the latest entry of “Who Played It Best?” I was discussing how Hollywood is notorious for releasing to movies, within months of each other, with the exact same premise. In 1998, both Steven Spielberg and Terrance Malick released two epic movies set during World War II. Both films featured ensembles featuring outstanding casts, both a murky cinematography that really enriched the visuals and each film told potent stories. Out of the two WWII films to come out that year, my personal favorite was Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” “Saving Private Ryan” is a grand highlight in Steven Spielberg’s career, coming from the guy that gave us “E.T.” and “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park,” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Schindler’s List” and “Minority Report” and “Indiana Jones” and “The Color Purple” and “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Amistad” and “Catch Me If You Can” and “Lincoln,” that says something. That really, truly says something. Steven Spielberg will go down in cinematic history as one of our greatest storytellers and he created a intoxicating experience with “Saving Private Ryan.”

“Saving Private Ryan” is not the typical World War II movie. Heck, it is not the typical war genre movie. That is as clear as day, especially within the opening moments of the film, the audience can definitely see how original and different Spielberg wanted to be. The film opens with the invasion of Normandy during D-Day, the big operation that won us the victory in Europe. We focus on Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) and he prepares his men to rush the beach. Already, there is scenery that captivates us right from the beginning. The booming of the bombs, the splashing of the ocean water, the nervousness of the soldiers, the sea-sickness, it all draws us in right away and that is all before the bullets start flying toward the soldiers.
The D-Day invasion that Steven Spielberg created is a massive achievement all by itself. Yes, it is bloody and gory, but what would you expect from an accurate depiction of the Normandy invasion. It is clear that Steven Spielberg was not doing anything by half-measures when he chose to direct this movie. The invasion is tense, confusing, woozy, and quite harrowing. Not only is it a masterful way to open a war movie, but it captures the nightmare of war. Though so many lost their lives in the invasion, Miller and his men are successful. As the camera pans at all of the dead soldiers on the beach, it focuses on one dead man in particular, a man with the last name of Ryan.

The commanding group in charge of the American military catches wind that the Ryan family lost three of their four boys within something like two weeks and that the mother will be receiving all three telegrams on the same day. They also discover that the fourth boy may still be alive, and they send out a mission to rescue him and bring him home. The mission is given to Miller and he puts together a team that includes Sergeant Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Private Reiben (Edward Burns), Private Jackson (Berry Pepper), Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Technician Irvin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) and Technician Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies). Together, they go as far behind enemy lines to find Private Ryan (Matt Damon) and bring him back home.

The genius behind “Saving Private Ryan” is how well this group of actors gel together. These are not actors reciting lines; these are actors who become a group of men that have been to Hell and back together. The way the group jokes, the way they have conversation and the way they argue with each other all feels natural and real. It is truly defining work for everybody that goes on the mission. What really seals the deal for me is the work done by Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore and Edward Burns. They are the three that really drive the group and their chemistry is undeniable. Hanks proves why he is one of the best actors in the history of the business, creating a somber yet sincere performance as the group’s leader. Tom Sizemore, who has been missing from film for way too long now, proves why he was the go-to guy for these roles in the 1990’s. How he never won an award for anything is astounding. Then there is Edward Burns, in some cases he is my favorite performance in the whole film. He’s one of the few in the group that doesn’t fully understand nor believe in the mission, but how he has so much respect for his brothers-in-arms and how willfully goes on the mission anyway is pitch-perfect. It’s a wonderful performance, easily one of the best of the whole decade. There are great actors all throughout the movie that make a brief but inspiring footnote in the film. These are  not just quick cameos, everybody means something, whether its Ted Danson, or Paul Giamatti, or Denis Farina, or Bryan Cranston, or Nathan Fillion, or Leland Orser, they are all important to the journey to Ryan.

How Steven Spielberg captures war on film is the main reason to see the movie. How he captured the dirtiness of war, the stench, the confusion, the horror of it all is completely shocking. I believe his movie will go down as one of the most accurate and rousing visions of war in the medium. He also successfully captures how these men were affected by the war and how almost none of them came back themselves afterward, not only that but Spielberg captures how our nation changed as a result of the war. The film is packed with symbolism, packed with realism, but it also inspired hope. It tells that even though WWII was dark, there was still hope; hope that one small mission could bring good back in the world. I think that is why the film is so important and so worth your time. If you don’t know what to watch as this Memorial Day weekend comes to a close, consider this gracious experience.

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