#30: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

When and how did I watch this?

April 5th, 2017, on Amazon.

Had I seen this film already?


What did I know about the movie before watching it?

I don’t remember when or where I saw this film, but I do remember how it changed my perspective on World War II on the ground.  The terrible events of the war were only names and terms and statistics in a high school history book, and I was remotely aware of the horror the Jews underwent, fleshed out in books like “Number the Stars” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Saving Private Ryan altered my perspective like few movies have, in such a brutal, graphic fashion.  Surely there were deadlier fronts during the war, and the euro/america-centric element is not unlike other treatments, but none have done it so well. I’ve been looking forward to this rewatch for a long time.

What do I know about it now?

What makes the film work so well is manifold and requires analysis beyond the script. At the rawest level, the sound and cinematography are bar none. It doesn’t take long for it to have an effect; as we zoom in on the elderly veteran’s teary eyes, the haunting sound of lapping waters seeps in — normally having a tranquil effect, but in this context having the exact opposite — and this sound would be soon overtaken by gunfire and screams of agony and desperation to go back home. Bullets whizz past and often penetrate flesh; bodies are ripped apart everywhere in an inconveniently realistic way, and I say inconvenient because we’d love to sanitize this war, to make us look heroic when many were there to take high caliber ammunition to the gut. Spielberg looks to force the viewer to feel how thousands of Americans arrived. This now-legendary Omaha beach scene is framed with a before-and-after shot, both quiet, but the latter displaying the carnage and countless bodies, many of them never making it past the hedgehogs they embraced ironically in an attempt to protect themselves. This extended scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, which turns out to be about the role of service and the morality of killing others so you can go home. The remainder is punctuated with violence — all heartbreaking sequences in nature — and highlighting the role of Upham and his line of thinking and folly in the context of the gruesome war. Countless other little moments exist in the film, all of which contribute further to the themes.

What are some themes in the film?

WWII, sacrifice, death, D-Day, PTSD, dehumanization

Did this affect me personally?

Permanently.  The respective fates of Wade and Mellish have an irreversible effect and are nothing short of horrible.  The story of Miller and Ryan reminds us of the role of sacrifice and the importance of living intentionally.

Why is this ranked #30?

The ranking is perfect, and all of the conditions of a high ranking film are present: it’s based on WWII (like seemingly a third of these films), directed by Spielberg, featuring Matt Damon and Tom Hanks, along with a fantastic supporting cast, and it has relentless violence and a universal message of hope and the value of life in the midst of great sacrifice.

Did my wife watch/like it?

I warned her that the film would be unsettling to her.  She watched it anyway. It’s unsettling to her now.

Would I watch it again?

Yes, but only occasionally.  This is a heavy-handed movie.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

Few movies are as important and indelible as Saving Private Ryan.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

What transforms this film from good into great, in my opinion, is the Upham character.  We watch him stumble about and hesitate, soon garnering hate for him, and in the end we see his colors. But Upham is a heady guy, often rationalizing and attempting to justify his surroundings, and we quietly empathize with him, even as he clutches a rifle idly while his buddy suffers just upstairs. The role opens a psychological aspect of the war in contrast to the bravado and relentless violence it displays. Without Upham, the movie still belongs on the Top 250, but its greatness is revealed as they add on to the humanity factor in a chaotic and hyper-violent conflict of great sacrifice.

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