Saving Private Ryan

Poster
1998
Steven Spielberg

8/10 (completely illogical plot; admittedly sacrifices “strict historical accuracy for dramatic effect”)

“Saving” was far better than the winner of the 1998 Best Picture Oscar “Shakespeare In Love” (Pointing out the stupidity and irrelevance of the “Academy” never gets old for me. You?). But ironically, it wasn’t even the best war film in the running. That honor goes to Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” released a little later in the same year.

I loved “Saving” when it first came out. The first 30 minutes is literally awesome. The rest of the combat scenes throughout the film are only mildly disappointing in the aftermath. This may sound like a slight at first, but it´s actually an impressive achievement if you think about it. With this movie, Spielberg revolutionized war movies in general and combat scenes in particular. None were as realistic before and none have surpassed these since. The acting was fantastic as well. The Toms (Hanks and Sizemore), Ed Burns, Jeremy Davies, and even the snivelling Adam Goldberg are all in equal parts captivating. I left the theater really excited about how great the film was.

Then I saw it again a few years afterward, and the only thing I could think about was how the entire premise of the film was really stupid and ridiculous. I could not (and still cannot) believe for one second that a squad of the best soldiers would be sent on a wild goose chase in perilous enemy territory just in order to save one average soldier for his poor mommy. Even if said soldier lost three brothers in the war and his poor mommy was going to receive all three letters on the same day, I still wouldn’t believe this. (You can pause here for a moment to ponder the particularly Spielbergian coincidence of momma getting all three letters at once.)

And by “Spielbergian” I mean “outrageously sappy and contrived.” (See “Munich”) It just doesn’t make sense for anyone: for the commanders, for Captain Miller, or for any of the privates. It was basically throwing away the lives of 8 men for the slim chance of saving one, a not only hopeless but also an idiotic mission (here, Burns has the most sensible character in the whole film). In fact, the only reason the mission succeeds is that this is a war fantasy, and it’s directed by Spielberg. Anyone else (with more respect for reality) would have had to create a real bummer of an ending.

But in any case, before writing the review I researched this, because I didn’t want to run the risk of talking about how stupid the idea was only to find out later that it actually happened and inspired the film. Talk about embarrassing! But regardless, I found out that the movie was indeed inspired by true events, except that the events themselves were quite a bit less exciting. Per wikipedia:

Fritz (Niland) fought with the 501st all through Normandy and redeployed with his unit to England. After his arrival back in England and upon the notification of the death of his brothers, the Army tasked Father Francis Sampson, a chaplain attached to the 501st, to ensure Fritz’s return to the States.[2] Fritz was shipped back to England and, finally, to the U.S. where he served as an MP in New York until the completion of the war. Fritz was awarded a Bronze Star for his service.

Two of his brothers had been killed and one had been taken POW (to be released in 1945). Nowhere does it mention a poor mommy that will receive three death letters on the same day. But of course, the real story doesn’t exactly make for very interesting cinema. Instead of Barry Pepper sniping the shit out of some fucker in France, we would have a stern talk between Father Sampson and young Fritz in England. Instead of Matt Damon demanding to stay with his squad to blow the crap out of a bridge and fling sticky bombs at tanks, we would have Fritz Niland say “Okay” and go back to New York to be an MP. Not real edge-of-your-seat material there.

I understand having to spice up the story to make it interesting, but it’s not too much to ask for a reasonable premise. It’s actually very little to ask for. The movie could be about anything, as long as its believable. You could change the name to “Saving Captain Miller´s Shaky Hand” and you’d still be able to put in that awesome opening scene. But why create an unbelievable story, unless you’re just trying to manipulate the audience?

This is my only problem with the film, but it’s a big one. Normally, having a wildly implausible premise would totally ruin a movie for me (and score much less than an 8), but the impressiveness of this film is that it still brings so many other qualities to the table that it almost forces you to give it a pass. The magnificent battles alone make up for the glaring story problem, but on top of that it also has that outstanding, gritty cinematography, and tremendous acting. Some military guys have complained that some of the battles demonstrate egregious tactical mistakes on both sides. I can’t really say this bothers me since I know nothing about such things. What does bother me, though, is Spielberg’s response, where he said that “in many scenes he opted to replace sound military tactics and strict historical accuracy for dramatic effect.”

This is basically Steven Spielberg in a nutshell: willing to sacrifice truth and artistic integrity in order to manipulate the audience. He did the same thing in “Munich.” This, IMO, is the root cause of the story problem as well. Spielberg doesn’t care if something is realistic as long as it makes you feel a certain way.

20 March 2010

Other Reviews for “Saving”

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One Response to “Saving Private Ryan”

  1. Doesn’t quite match up to The Thin Red Line, however still a good movie. The beach landings scene is one of the best second world war action scenes I’ve ever seen.

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