Captain Miller walks towards a surreal destination where one man is worth three lives. Steven Spielberg directs a homage to the Greatest Generation and their sacrifice upon the altar of freedom, a visceral salute in blood and guts refusing to ignore the horrors of war. Unfortunately, Spielberg bookends the film with a sappy familial drama that drains some of the narrative frisson with a trite and condescending proclamation.
The Omaha beach sequence which begins the story is brutal and unflinching, with long tracking shots and precise editing which achieves a neo-realism that remains powerful even upon repeated viewings. From the roar of a crashing surf to the deafening crescendo of incoming artillery, from the crimson tide to a helmet full of blood, Spielberg captures intense imagery and shoots the action like an 88mm projectile. Utilizing slow motion, condensing time in a state of shell-shock, the invasion sequence evokes more passion through illusion than a documentary could hope to achieve. Spielberg’s attention to detail is amazing and but it is not without flaw: the astute viewer will notice the lack of detail in wide angle shots (where’s the invasion fleet?) and the redundancy of scenes shot from different perspectives. He also confounds with one of the worst match shots in recent cinematic memory.
The film is painted olive drab, drained of all primary color except the deep red of bleeding men, creating a documentary texture that both looks backwards in time like an old newsreel and evokes a prescient vainglory. The structure is made up of separate vignettes as the small group soldiers though each violent situation towards the sacrificial dénouement. Relying on stale characterizations becomes one of Spielberg’s trademarks and here it attains a heightened awareness; he has a juvenile understanding of human behavior and allows the acting to sink towards the lower depth of stereotype. Tom Hanks imbues Captain Miller with a modicum of fierce and imperfect individuality, protesting the narrative constraints imposed by a weak screenplay. His performance is the catalyst for much of the empathetic connection with the audience as his aging schoolteacher commands young soldiers like apathetic students, only this time the stakes are life and death. But even his dying breath sputters with an eye-rolling gesture which admonishes the viewer’s intelligence and becomes a blatant emotional riff. The soundtrack is thankfully subdued: for once, Spielberg allows the story a chance to breath and develop without the intrusion of John Williams’ saccharine strings.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is tainted by the director’s need to have everything work out, to show the nuclear family unit able to withstand any bombardment. Final Grade: (B)