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Posted on 8/20/07 09:00 AM
There are some movies where the MPAA Rating really doesn't matter. I mean, this movie is Rated R for a reason, but I was allowed to watch it anyway. The reason is because this is Saving Private Ryan, one of Spielberg's greatest films and one of the best movies in the last decade. It's still a bit of an accomplishment on my part whenever I'm able to watch an R Rated movie, and what better R Rated movie to entertain myself in the dull month of August than Saving Private Ryan?
The first time I saw the movie, it was a few hours in as one of the soldiers was dying. I didn't want to start watching from there, as I would miss vital character background and plot details if I did. The second time I watching it with my [13-year-old] sister. I convinced her to watch it with me, since this is Saving Private Ryan and you can't not see this movie. My sister is pretty smart, but I guess she isn't quite as into movies as I am, so she missed a lot of plot points throughout the movie and I had to explain it all to her. Keep in mind that this was my first viewing of the movie as well, and I was missing out on it just as much as she was by explaining it away to her. It was worth it; she does need to see this movie at some point in her life and better sooner than later. But I felt that I had missed a lot; I never really got to know any of the characters besides John Miller and James Ryan. The soldiers were dying and I didn't even know who they were...I felt robbed, basically. So I rewatched it.
And this time, the movie really sank in. Now those nameless faces who were dying in combat weren't nameless faces. I understood the conflicts between them and I understood better who was blowing what up against whom for what reason. And it's much more satisfying seeing the movie in that way, because the whole point of the movie was to humanize the violent murderous war machines that we call soldiers, to show us that they're men just like us. I'm glad I took the chance to rewatch it; yeah I know the rough plot outline and yeah I knew how it ended, but that's hardly the point. The end of the movie is a heartbreaking one, but it doesn't mean a thing unless you've really been following the story the whole way through.
I agree with most people in that the D-Day invasion scene was the best battle in the movie and although all subsequent battles were impressive and gripping, nothing really tops the opening scene of the movie. It really is incredible, and it tells you quite bluntly how much courage it takes to be one of those soldiers riding in boats and just waiting to be shot down at any moment. Seeing Miller and his comrades struggle through the barrage of bullets as men lay mutilated around them definitely set the tone for the movie and I'm glad they began with this scene. All they really needed to do was show Sean Ryan's dead body and the movie could have moved on, but they encompassed that scene with a big elaborate set-up that worked brilliantly instead. And I'm glad for it, obviously.
My favorite scene, though, is probably where Giovanni Ribisi's character (never could tell if it was Wayne or Wade; the constant gunfire drowned out the crucial consonant) is rewriting Vin Diesel's (I must look like an idiot. I did hear his name, actually, I'm just not sure how you spell it. Capperzo? Capurso? No clue) character's letter. That scene came out of nowhere and it was honestly fantastic. Mike and John are just laughing about the weird kid they were discussing, and then there's Giovanni Ribisi who looks up once and continues to rewrite the bloodsoaked letter that Vin Diesel meant to give his father. That small display of camaraderie really tugged my heartstrings, even though it was such a short scene. Think of Anton Ego's flashback at the end of Ratatouille. The same technique was applied here; one scene perfectly characterizing a previously unimpressive character.
Runner-up would be the scene where the rain starts pouring down as the bullets start flying. There's a little puddle of water, and at first it's undisturbed. At first one drop hits it, then two, then five, then twenty, then hundreds, and the gunfire intensifies in unison with the falling rain. It was clever and unexpected and it made me laugh.
The use of indirect characterization in this movie made me a bit more appreciative of it. Tom Hanks's character, John Miller, is pretty silent and reserved for most of the movie. His distant personality evidently left a mark on his comrades, because they've taken to betting on who will be able to obtain some tidbit of information on him; where he lives, where he was born, what he does for a living. They assume he is some sort of hero in real life too, but after one rather intense scene that threatened to dissolve the whole company, Spielberg uses an anticlimax more effectively than I can remember one being used in recent memory. Miller reveals his past, and it's not at all what they were expecting. This is payoff for the mild anticipation built up over the film, and it's also the moment when John is humanized just like the rest of the soldiers were. Most protagonists get developed early on and keep developing as the movie goes on, but Spielberg holds off his character-defining moment for a long time and works superbly.
The real surprise about the film is that the most dynamic character isn't Private Ryan or John Miller. It's Upham, the rather weak and cowardly soldier that Miller brings along as an interpreter. Miller develops slowly and gradually, Ryan develops a lot near the end, but Upham is one of the central characters in the story and he is constantly being developed. That's just another thing on a big long list of things this movie did right. By developing two major characters at appropriate points and also developing a supporting character constantly, the movie gives you a lot of protagonists to root for the whole way through.
Also, this movie is framed in the same way Titanic is. Saving Private Ryan begins and ends in the present, and the story in the middle is told in a big flashback. It worked for Titanic, and it works equally well for Saving Private Ryan. The movie could easily have ended with a conclusion to the battle over the bridge, but I think I and a lot of others would feel a little robbed. Seeing the main character in the present reliving the sacrifices made in that war is a fantastic way to end a movie that focuses strongly on character, and although this method seems to annoy some people, I think it works really really well when it's done right. And so far I've not seen it done wrong, so I'll continue to support framing as long as it adds that essential extra dimension to a movie, as it did with Titanic and Saving Private Ryan.
Well, I don't really have anything but glowing praise for this movie. My sister thinks it was a pretty good movie, but was bothered by the sometimes almost inaudible dialogue and the constant use of military terms. I admit, I'm no more familiar with military terms than she is, so they confused me as well. And the dialogue can be hard to hear at times. If there's not things blowing up and drowning out the words, then the men are mumbling and whispering, which can be equally difficult to hear. But aside from those minor flaws, I don't really have anything negative to say about this movie. For a movie that aims to be so many things to so many people, it doesn't stumble or fall flat at any point. Apart from being a surprisingly realistic depiction of war, it's also a surprisingly realistic depiction of those who participate in it. I've not yet met a person who openly hated this movie, or even disliked it. For a while I wondered how a movie could be so universally appealing, but having seen Saving Private Ryan at long last, I understand now. It's just a really great movie.