May 2, 2010

#71: Saving Private Ryan

I don't really know how someone in my age demographic grew up and never sat through all of Steven Spielberg's WWII epic Saving Private Ryan -- I'm sure I watched some part of it in my AP American History class ... but that may also have been The Patriot or some other movie about war from the late 90s. I was probably daydreaming. In any event, I'd never seen it, and now, thanks to this blog, I'm all caught up, and I can finally take sides on that Best Picture Oscar debate. This was robbed.

Company: Kecia, closing her show and coughing up a lung doing it, poor thing

Cuisine: most of a bag of dark chocolate peanut M&Ms (don't ask what it's doing in the house, not because I don't know, but because I don't want to justify its purchase)

The film opens with a simple brass melody over the credits, reminiscent of taps maybe. First we see a faded American flag, the reds and blues pale and dull, an image that sets us up quite succinctly for the next nearly three hours. Then: a man, crumbling at a grave at the American Cemetery in Normandy. We have no idea who he is or whose grave it is, but we're about to find out. Ah! So the whole movie's a flashback, eh?

Steven Spielberg is just not the kind of director who lets his audience off the hook, and so it is here, that we jump back to June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach, for what amounts to over 20 minutes of uninterrupted blood, gore, savagery, death, etc. You keep thinking, it's got to stop at some point, they can't keep going.

But when we settle on Captain John H. Miller (a wonderfully natural and calm Tom Hanks) we see through his eyes that it just won't stop. The Americans at that fateful beach are being wiped out, and minute after grueling minute we see them losing so badly. They're burning, they're decapitated, they're injured and screaming in pain. Much of the praise for the film has focused on its unrelenting and uncompromising view of combat, and while it's nearly unbearable even for someone with a strong stomach like me, you have to admit it's damn effective. After a while, it reminded me a little of the final scene of Platoon, in which you're so worn down from watching the violence that it actually becomes disorienting.

The Americans finally and miraculously prevail, and it's not a few hours before Captain Miller is informed of a mission: locate one soldier whose three brothers have all recently died in combat and send him home, as a sign of good will and charity in part but mostly as a publicity stunt.

I can't imagine having children right now, so consequently I can't imagine losing one, much less three. But I imagine losing my three best friends and then I think that starts to plumb the depths of the horror that Mrs. Ryan feels as she watches that old car drive up her impossibly long and perfectly pastoral driveway. Through the whole sequence, we actually don't see her whole face in any one shot, and I started to notice that Spielberg specifically blocks faces from us, mostly with lighting.

The men who are assigned to the mission to save Private James Francis Ryan appear over a hillside, which seemed at the time like the first time we'd seen any green (or any color, for that matter) in France, but we don't see their faces. In time, the metaphor becomes quite clear: the human cost of the war became so great that people began to lose count, lose sight of the human tragedy of the premature deaths of thousands of American soldiers. Now we see these men, not walking directly into combat but assigned a seemingly tamer mission, and Spielberg (along with the brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) won't show us their faces, their emotions. Soon enough he does, but what makes his work on this film so brilliant is the way he trusts his visual world to speak for itself without much dialogue. We hear screaming and some words in the first beach scene, but mostly it's indecipherable, especially because we're focused on the soldiers fully engulfed in flames.

See what I'm saying? Those silhouettes, man.

The men follow their orders begrudgingly, but complaining that their task is "a misallocation of military resources." As one says, finding one soldier is like "finding a needle in a stack of needles." How are they supposed to find one guy? He could literally be anywhere. These are men who are so desensitized to death that they have forgotten how much one life can mean. Plus, they're all risking their own lives trekking across the French countryside so that one man can be set free of military obligations. I can imagine I'd resent him. According to a couple sources, Matt Damon (who plays the titular Private Ryan) was not subjected to intense military training like the rest of the principal cast, but was brought on set much later just to film his scenes in order to stir up actual resentment.

But how can you resent that face?

Spielberg also cast Damon, an unknown at the time, for his all-American good looks, but didn't know he would sky rocket to fame after winning an Oscar for his screenplay for Good Will Hunting. Oops casting. But Damon is a formidable actor, bringing a deep life to a character it takes us almost two hours to meet and whom we get to know only for a few minutes before the final showdown battle.

A striking scene comes when Private Upham (a magnificent Jeremy Davies), an interpreter assigned to the mission despite his lack of combat experience, cannot bring himself to kill. It stops your heart: at this point you're over two hours into the film and all of a sudden you are met with a character to whom life still means something. I won't describe the scene in more detail, but it brings a vulnerability and a universal connection to the struggles of warfare that we've been watching this whole time.

More bloody violence and finally the story ends with a bookend, coming back to that old man at Normandy, hoping and praying that he's led a good enough life, a life worthy of the lives that were risked to save his own. A lovely circular image, and a tear-jerking end.

As far as war films go, it's hard to imagine one more brutally accurate and detailed as Saving Private Ryan. Although the film is only loosely based on true stories, it still manages to have an overwhelming sense of authenticity to it, which was probably a large factor in getting it on this list. Maybe at the end of this whole diablogue I'll go back and compare films by genre, maybe get some more suggestions by genre. Hmm.

My mind is almost nearly completely elsewhere as I'm heading to the airport in twelve hours for my family's trip to New Zealand to see my sister get married. But I got in one more blog before the vacation, and I'll be back real soon. Next up: let's get messed up. It's A Clockwork Orange, folks.

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