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Vault: 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998) Dir. Steven Spielberg

Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Dennis Farina, Ted Danson and Bryan Cranston


Grossing almost $500m worldwide and renewing global interest in World War 2 and the sacrifices made, 'Saving Private Ryan' arrived out of nowhere and redefined the war genre...

After surviving the Omaha Beach landing of D-Day, June 6th 1944, Captain John Miller (Hanks) receives orders from US Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall (Harve Presnell) to find US paratrooper Private James Ryan (Damon) and withdraw him from active service.

Miller assembles the best of his men to make the dangerous journey to Neuville to begin the search. However the mission becomes more dangerous after Miller learns Ryan’s drop zone was different to the one he was told; actually at Vierville.

In a time of war that will dictate success for either Allied or Nazi troops, Miller and his men sacrifice more than is expected in their duty to prevent the German advance, reach Vierville at any cost and ensure Private Ryan’s survival…

As I not overtly an historical expert on the basis of World War 2 and the battles that took place, I know enough about the era, the politics and the sides of good and evil to appreciate and understand the power behind this monumental war film, the greatest war film ever made in my opinion. Serving as an educational tool and a harsh reminder to all generations just what our relatives fought for, and the horror that experienced, this will be a film that many will fail to top in the relation to realism, brutality and emotion.

Tom Hanks turns in a role that only he could; you forget him as the wide eyed Josh Baskin from ‘Big’, the loveable Forrest Gump and comedic Pep Streebeck from ‘Dragnet’. Here he is a soldier, leading a band of men without any false heroics to his name. Hanks is more human than ever here in the role of Captain Miller that embodies the thoughts and emotions of all those he leads; fear, doubt, compassion and hope. It’s also testament to the cast around him like Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi and Vin Diesel (pre FF fame) as his company of men who all have their own hopes and fears and motives for fighting.

Spielberg never lets you forget that when all said and done, we are watching the pain and sacrifice of ordinary men who simply wanted to go home to their loved ones after their duty is done.

As the narrative of the film is a simple “men on a mission” journey across enemy lines, we are treated to a number of bold battle sequences ranging from ones you see and even ones you don’t, and also nice character development without being obvious and a “who’s who” of the cast. What makes it stand out from other war films is the authenticity of it all. From the cinematography using harsh colours, ominous diegetic sounds and of course the openly visible war wounds and injuries, everything the soldiers do and everyone they encounter seem brilliantly real. There doesn’t need to be a loud bombastic soundtrack behind them because there wasn’t one in reality and this isn’t a film to glamourize their actions. The battles take place without music and we simply have the harrowing sounds of gunfire, explosions and battle cries, and even they are muted and realistic, not loud and OTT as fuelled by the usual blockbuster action set pieces with CGI enhances.

Of course the stand out 25 minute opening sequence of the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach is probably the greatest on-screen battle in cinema with his harrowing reality and brutality. Young bodies are torn apart by gunfire and explosions (all this happens in seconds; nothing is lingered on or enhanced by big sound effects or musical motifs), the landscape is war-torn and the diegetic sounds heard of the things of nightmares. You can’t take your eyes away from the relentless battle faced to take the German stronghold from the beaches and it has to be seen to be believed. There may be some inaccuracies in the portrayal of the landing, as with the film itself, but simply for the fact no-one involved with the film-making was actually there, I feel the footage we are provided will be one of the most accurate depictions of what our relations actually had to experience on D-Day on any of the 5 beaches.

Mirrored with the fictional Battle of Remelle at the finale of the film, this again is a long battle which takes its time to plot, execute and conclude. Spielberg doesn’t rush the battles to wrap it all up in a matter of minutes with an heroic ending, he makes sure we see how drawn-out and dangerous it really was from working with a small band of men in an environment littered with danger to stop an enemy just as tactical as you, and for that authenticity it comes across far more entertaining, if that is the right word, to watch the characters we’ve travelled with for the last 2 hours.

Spielberg has a crack team at his disposal who want nothing more than to deliver the most respectful and factual portrayal of war that is possible. John Williams gives us a beautiful score. Janusz Kamiński delivers both beauty and horror in his often haunting cinematography and editor Michael Kahn keeps the pace tight when it needs to be, the action furious and almost claustrophobic and moments of peace full of serenity. The attention to detail in terms of historical accuracy is to be commended, and so much has gone into the set design and location scouting that this journey across war-torn France really looks the part.

A film that will never be topped for accuracy, realism and brutality in depicting the turning point of World War 2, but also the war as a whole, this will be often imitated but never bettered. The dream film-making team that Spielberg assembled alongside the acting talent of Hanks gives us a truly powerful film now that respects the core message and reality of what it is depicting, never once succumbing to excessive Hollywood grandeur.

'Saving Private Ryan' is one of those films that will go down in history for all the right reasons. It pays great respect to those souls lost during World War 2 and also those who survived with this piece of work that defines the genre of war on film.

'Saving Private Ryan' is a co-production between Amblin Entertainment and Mutual Film Company

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