Retro Review: Saving Private Ryan

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Robert Rodat

Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore

Rated: R

Saving Private Ryan is one of the more popular WWII films to come out of the late 20th century. Since I hadn’t seen it yet (why yes, I do live under a rock), I was looking forward to finally getting around to watching it, since I had heard almost nothing but good things about the film. First impressions: I was not disappointed.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Aside from the standard gunfire and explosions of war movies, the movie features frequent blood splatter, anger-fueled beatings of individual (unarmed) soldiers, images of people burning to death, and several hand to hand fights, including one where a character is slowly stabbed through the heart with a knife. Graphic wounds are also shown, particularly in the movie’s opening scene, where disemboweled soldiers have their intestines lying next to them and others lose their limbs both on- and off-screen.

Language: People don’t tend to watch their mouths while on the battlefield, and the movie reflects this. Most curses I can think of are uttered at least once, with f*** being the most common.

Drug/Alcohol Use: An injured soldier is given shots of morphine.

Sexual Content: A soldier describes a woman’s breasts while retelling a story from home. Another soldier retells a memory that includes his brother in a sexual encounter. Both stories are somewhat graphically described.

Spiritual Content: A sniper habitually quotes Bible verses as he kills enemy soldiers.

Other Negative Content: The main characters take on a general air of hopelessness as they proceed on their mission, to the point that most of them at some point abandon any sense of morality.

Positive Content: The top army official is shown to care deeply about the loss of a mother who has lost three of her four sons to the war. War itself is consistently portrayed as horrific and tragic, never as glorious.

Review

Seventy-five years ago this month, Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in an event that came to be known as D-Day. This battle played a massive part in ending the Second World War.

Through the lens of history, it can be easy for us to see only the triumph and forget the cost of tragedy and sacrifice it forced onto many men and their families. Saving Private Ryan wastes no time dispelling this single-minded view. Upon its opening, we’re met with an atmosphere of palpable tension as the soldiers quietly wait to reach the shore. What follows is a brutal, unforgiving sequence of death and dismemberment as the front line troops are slaughtered by all manner of weaponry. The scene cleanly cuts off any romanticizing of what war is like and continues on long enough to let the discomfort and dreadfully sink in.

While this initial scene doesn’t directly tie into the rest of the movie’s plot, it does a grimly wonderful job of setting us up for one of the movie’s most emotionally powerful themes: namely, the characters’ casual acceptance of death, which becomes more and more apparent as the story goes on. Small things like shortening the length of a bet because they figure they might not live that long, or trading dead soldiers’ dog tags as though it were a game, all give off a haunting air of surrender around the squad as we follow them into enemy territory on a questionable and incredibly deadly mission.

The movie follows a cobbled together squad on a mission to find and bring back a family’s final surviving son, whose three brothers have already been killed in the war. This task requires them to enter into enemy territory in search of someone they’ve never seen and whose whereabouts nobody knows. While the characters routinely bring up the question of whether it’s fair or right to risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of a single soldier, I was more engrossed by how subtly chilling it is to watch them all lose their humanity in different ways as they face the horrific nature of war. The acting and writing flow together flawlessly to develop each character’s unique flaws and breaking points. The tone is masterfully tragic while always staying interesting.

In saying this, I should make it clear that the story is quite heavy on both theme and content, and often demands that the viewer reflect on the questions it poses. It’s very much a movie that’s meant to be engaged with rather than watched passively, so if you’re in the market for a lighter viewing experience, this one probably isn’t for you. However, if you have a fairly strong stomach and are willing to mentally and emotionally invest in the movie for its nearly 3-hour runtime, Saving Private Ryan offers a tightly-woven film experience where just about every scene has a long-lasting, powerful payoff.

Positives

+ Strong acting + Subtle yet powerful emotional impact + Well-written characters

Negatives

- Some important dialogue is difficult to hear - Ending feels slightly too abrupt

The Bottom Line

A deep and heavy film that's not for the fainthearted; but if you want something to emotionally and mentally engage in, nearly every scene offers a lasting and powerful payoff.

 

8.2

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Ian Hancock

Ian is a speculative fiction writer with an English degree from the University of the Fraser Valley. When he's not writing, he enjoys strategy games, sports, anime, and finding new ways to make fun of life.

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