Saturday, February 14, 2015

AFI Top 100: #71 "Saving Private Ryan"

Tom Sizemore & Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Submitting this really late this week. I've been trying to get better about finishing these earlier, but alas, I keep getting distracted, mostly by work. But press on, we must! Some in our movie group dreaded coming to this week's film, even though it is considered one of the best war films ever made. We've gotten to #71 on our AFI Top 100 adventure, Saving Private Ryan. I understand where the hesitation comes from, of course. Director Steven Spielberg wholly outdid himself in his this endeavor, presenting an unfiltered, unromantic view of combat during the second World War. That, however, does not make it easy to watch.

Our film takes place during the Ally invasion of Normandy, France in June 1044, as we follow a company of American soldiers directly after they survive the battle on Omaha Beach. This battle opens the action of the filmit was the bloodiest campaign of the war and the single most important push to move Allied troops into Europe, known as D-Day. The true crux of this story begins at the War Department when a series of three death notifications are written all to the same woman, Mrs. Ryan, informing her that three of her sons have died in battle on the same day. When the Military Chief of Staff is notified that Mrs. Ryan has a fourth son who just parachuted into Normandy, he orders that a company is sent to extract and bring him home.

Back in France, upon reconvening to push deeper into the countryside after the slaughter on Omaha, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his Rangers are handed this unwelcome assignment. Then the resentment begins. Not knowing where this young Private Ryan landed during the air-assault, the company must move carefully from hamlet to hamlet in Nazi-occupied territory. The struggle to come to terms with risking their lives for a man that may not deserve to be saved, or may be dead already, is enough to faction this band of brothers.

It felt daunting just writing that plot description. Apologies for the cliches. There's something sacred about this movie, I feel, not necessarily because it's some masterpiece, but because of the historical relevance of what is portrays. I don't consider myself a history expert, so I'm going to avoid speaking to the accuracy of exact events. However, from my understanding, the attention to detail that Spielberg paid to everything from the level of the tide during the beach landing to the unconventional battle tactics and sniper activity in the small towns, is indisputable. A friend watching the movie with us, whom I consider much more of a history expert, thought it important to yell out "War crime!" every time something happened on screen that would certainly be presented to a military tribunal (i.e. shooting on medics or wounded men receiving aide). Educational to say the least.

This film also brings together my favorite group of soldiers ever portrayed on the big screen. The cast itself is spectacular. Ed Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, and my personal favorite, Barry Pepper, as the group's skilled sniper. Where have you been, Barry Pepper?? Seriously though, I've missed you. What the movie does so well is to establish the bond between the men, yet the stark differences between them. We're not subjected to their basic training like in Full Metal Jacket or a novice Cadette entering the tightly knit company needing to prove himself like in Platoon... No, these men have been together through everything, and they care for one another's survival. Each death that hits the company hits hard, and for those of us watching, it feels crippling. Of course, maybe I spoke too soon. We all feel kindred with the company, and identify with their frustration when a cartographer and interpreter gets thrown into the mix (Jeremy Davies), one who is too afraid to jump into battle.

War is hell, but it can also bring emotional triumphs. World War II was a different beast than Vietnam, and movies about those two periods in history reflect that. In Saving Private Ryan, they were truly fighting for a cause they believed in, and even being sidetracked to find a single man in the entirety of Normandy becomes a mission worth dying for. Spielberg weaves a story of highs and lows, of quiet reflection and visceral brutality. The action is traumatic to even watch, a sensory overload of sounds, bullets, blood, and chaos. It is masterful film-making.

Saving Private Ryan is the barometer to which all World War II movies are now compared. The expertise of putting a story like this together, one that resonates so deeply, has only been replicated since in the form of mini-series. To convey so much, to make the audience compelled to love these men, in so short a time... there aren't many films like it.

Many people remember this film for its brutal and traumatizing opening on Omaha Beach, and what waslogisticallythe most impressive sequence of film-making most had ever seen. That scene alone warrants it a spot on this AFI list, but the film has so much more to offer. Least of all the incredible cast, uplifting script, and horrific portrayal of a war that needed to be fought.

Rating:  ★★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © DreamWorks]

Check back next week for #70 on the list, A Clockwork Orange — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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