The Wars On Film: Saving Private Ryan

Spielberg explores the horror and humanity of war.

The Wars On Film is a Bi-Weekly series dedicated to films and television mini-series set within the war genre. Once every two weeks I’ll dive into a classic of the genre, performing a retrospective on it, digging into the storytelling, production design, and depictions of military combat within these works and examining how they tackle the various  tropes of the genre as well as any attributes unique to the specific works. If you have any suggestions for films or mini-series that you would like to see me tackle, feel free to mention them in the comments.

I have a rule regarding films, it’s a very simple rule and I use it as a guiding light when analyzing and consuming film: if Steven Spielberg has directed a film in a specific genre of film, said film is mandatory viewing when analyzing and examining that genre. My reasoning behind this is quite simple: Steven Spielberg is both the greatest director of his generation and the greatest director alive today, therefore, if he has decided to direct a film within a new genre, it is because he has something to say about the genre and topic as a whole, and it is always worth listening when Spielberg has something to say about film. Which brings us to this week’s film choice: Saving Private Ryan.  I’m going to be honest with you folks, I was a bit nervous leading up to this piece, and for a multitude of reasons. Saving Private Ryan (which will be referred to throughout the rest of this piece as SPR) is my favorite war film of all time, full stop. Beyond that, it is also one of the most well respected and thoroughly critiqued films in it’s genre. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, it’s a Spielberg film, and as I said earlier, Spielberg films ALWAYS have something to say, and as such your response to a Spielberg film says a lot about the level at which you engaged with it.  In short, for whatever trivial reasons, it felt important to get this piece right.

Before we get into the film itself, I want to take a moment to discuss Spielberg as a filmmaker, because when discussing a film in the filmography of one of the true directing masters, especially one with a filmography as dense as Spielberg’s, it helps to have an understanding about their specific approach as a filmmaker. This allows us to analyze how they bring their singular approach to bear on the specific film. First of all, it is important to get this out of the way at the beginning, Spielberg is a true master when it comes to filmmaking and that extends to all phases of the process, from cinematography, to story, to attention to detail, etc., the man knows his stuff. However, perhaps the singular aspect of Spielberg’s films that stands out and stamps a work as his, is his ability to instill and conjure up emotions in the viewer. Whether nostalgia (it’s no coincidence that the bulk of his films deal with the past), wonderment, joy, sadness, fear, etc. no one else can quite manipulate and wield emotion in the way that Spielberg does. Oddly enough, this is may be the very reason that it is so popular for young film lovers to start claiming they are not Spielberg lovers around the time they hit their late teens and early twenties. The common and worn out refrain is that his films are cheesy or cloying and that they are far too heavy handed. In reality what many of these people are objecting to is the way that Spielberg masterfully and openly manipulates emotions. In short Spielberg (with a few exceptions) is much more interested in engendering thoughts and feelings in his audiences than he is in crafting ambiguity, which some (wrongly) interpret as a sign of a lesser filmmaker. The reality is, that if it were truly that easy to do what Spielberg does, everybody would be doing it and doing it successfully, yet no matter how much directors such as JJ Abrams (and to be clear I actually like JJ Abrams) try to crib from his style of filmmaking, there is simply no confusing the works of these other filmmakers with that of Spielberg. That is what makes SPR so utterly fascinating, because having watched several Spielberg films, you might think that you know exactly how he would approach the film and the emotional palette that he would be playing with, and you would be absolutely wrong.

Before we get into the technical aspects of what makes SPR such a brilliant film (and it absolutely is a technical marvel), let’s dive into the thematic and story aspects which are at the heart of what make it such a stunning movie going experience. The plot of SPR is fairly simple; during the midst of WWII, top Army brass discover that over the course of a week, three brothers have been killed in action, and that a fourth Private James Ryan  (Matt Damon), has just parachuted into Normandy. Not wanting Ryan’s mother to lose all four of her sons to the war, they decide to send Private Ryan home. A squad of Army Rangers led by Captain Miller (portrayed masterfully by Tom Hanks, the physical embodiment of American decency) is tasked with venturing behind enemy lines in order to retrieve Private Ryan before any harm can befall him. As I said earlier, if you have watched a lot of Spielberg, you probably think at this point that you have a decent idea of where this is going: with strong conviction that their mission and cause is righteous the rangers valiantly fight their way through Nazi held territory, acting as beacons of American goodness, retrieve Private Ryan and complete their mission in a heartwarming tale for the entire family. And as I mentioned above, if this was your guess, you were off by a mile. After starting with a scene featuring an old man falling to his knees in front of a cross in the famous Normandy graveyard, Spielberg dives headlong into the horror of the Normandy invasion and the second World War, and proceeds to craft a film that takes a long unflinching look at the reality of war. Spielberg’s message as usual is never in doubt: while opportunities for valor and heroism and great deeds may be found within, war is an ugly, destructive thing, that brings men low physically, morally, and psychologically. It makes monsters out of men, and can lead even the most honorable to commit unspeakable acts in the name of their country or cause. Spielberg utilizes every tool in his expansive arsenal in order to make one thing abundantly clear: there is nothing glorious about war. Yet, even within the horror and ugliness of the war, the hope and optimism on which Spielberg hangs his hat can be found to break through. In what is arguably the emotional high point of the entire film Captain Miller, seeing his squad coming apart at the seams over the burden of a mission that many of them view as pointless, interrupts an argument to tell his men his life story for the first time. He talks about how back home he is a school teacher and the coach of the high school baseball team, and how the fact that people no longer seem to guess that about him after three years at war leaves him concerned that this war has changed him into a man that his wife will not recognize when he comes home, and how home feels farther and farther away with each passing day and with each man that he kills. He tells them that he doesn’t care about Private Ryan, who he is or why they have been sent after him, all he cares about is getting back home to his wife and if finding Private Ryan gets him closer to that goal, then that is exactly what he is going to do. This weight of this moment is truly hammered home in the final act of the film. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Captain Miller and his squad find Private Ryan with a squad of paratroopers holding a town with a key bridge needed in the Allied war effort. After Ryan refuses to leave behind his fellow soldiers, who he calls the only brothers he has left, Captain Miller and his men agree to help the squad hold the town until reinforcements can arrive. In the battle that ensues, all but two of Captain Miller’s remaining men are killed, and Captain Miller is mortally wounded. As he sits there dying, knowing that he will never make it home to his wife, he looks Private Ryan directly in the eye and tells him “earn this”. As the battle fades out we return to the graveyard and discover that the man from the beginning of the film is Private Ryan, now in his 70’s returning with his children and grandchildren to Normandy to pay his respects. We learn that Captain Miller’s final words have weighed on him his entire life, and that he has used those words to guide him to lead a good life, in hopes of living up to the price that was paid for him to keep it. It is a moment of pure emotion that anchors and contextualizes the entire film, and it is quintessential Spielberg.

Beyond the thematic heavy lifting that is the heart of the film, it is also important to appreciate SPR for the technical marvel that it is. In the process of making the film, Spielberg sweated every single tangible detail in order to craft as authentic an experience as humanely possible. This started with the cinematography. Wanting to avoid glorifying the carnage of the war and seeking to create an experience like viewing “color newsreel footage of the war” Spielberg and his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski took steps to alter the film and the camera in order to create a darker less color saturated look for the film. This was combined with a less scripted, more chaotic approach to shooting the more massive sequences allowed them to create scenes that truly immerse the viewer in the chaos of war and insures that at no point does the combat look glorious or honorable. The D-Day landing sequence, is to this day considered to be one of the greatest battle sequences of all time and is 27 minutes of utter chaos and carnage. Using thousands of extras, including reserve soldiers, and a large cast of  amputees, Spielberg crafts one of the most stomach churning and horrifying images of combat ever produced, and according to the men that actually fought in the invasion, one of the most accurate. Blood and gore are everywhere with men being cut down at random and without fanfare. People do not die in a blaze of glory in this film, they simply die. Using a combination of camera techniques and brilliant sound editing, Spielberg puts you directly into the experience through the eyes of and ears of Captain Miller. Every single detail in this film works in concert with the others to instill emotions and ideas in the viewer. At the beginning of the climatic final battle, in true Spielberg fashion, he manages to create a sense of utter terror before the first shot is even fired. As the soldiers hold out in their predetermined positions preparing for the battle to begin and waiting and praying for the enemy tanks to take their bait, a noise suddenly breaks through the silence. We hear the sound of squeaking pullies and an engine slowly moving toward the soldiers. The looks of terror on their faces tell you everything you need to know. The enemy tanks are almost upon them and the battle is about to begin. As the sound continues to grow closer we finally after what feels like an eternity see the tank pull into view, and as it slowly turns onto the street where the Americans are dug in, a feeling of utter dread descends. This is the genius of Spielberg, for in that moment, that tank is just as terrifying as the most horrific monster from our nightmares, as terrifying as any image Spielberg has ever put to film (and this is the director of JAWS and JURASSIC PARK) and it has not even fired a shot yet.

I could go on for several more paragraphs talking about how brilliant of a film SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is, and I would not run out of things to dissect and discuss. It is a masterpiece of modern filmmaking and one of the greatest films of it’s decade. It is a film that demands to be watched, and  reaches out and grabs hold of the attention of the viewer. In short, it’s Steven Spielberg.