Tuesday, October 25, 2011

1998 - Saving Private Ryan

As a waiter for a catering company, I am not usually called upon to do anything too tricky. I don't have to balance several plates along my forearm and I don't have to memorise a table full of orders. On the whole, the service is relatively simple. Occasionally, however, a client will request French service for their event, which requires a little more effort. Last night, I worked on one such event.

French service is inefficient, inconvenient and wholly unnecessary. Instead of sensibly serving plates with the food already placed on them by a professional chef, French service begins by serving empty plates to the guests. Then, the waiter carries a bulky tray of food and, while awkwardly squeezing between the seated guests, serves them individually at the table. In order to achieve this, it is necessary for the waiter to twist the fingers of one hand around two oversized serving utensils in a sort of demented chopstick fashion and scoop the food directly onto the guest's plate. It's awkward and uncomfortable for both server and guest. Just ask the lady into whose lap I placed a lamb chop.

The final nominee to review from 1998's Best Picture list is...

Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg
Robert Rodat
Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
5 wins, including Best Director

When three brothers in the same family are killed in action during World War II, the US Army decides to give a reprieve to the fourth brother in the family, Private James Ryan (Damon). But first they have to find him. Heading the mission to locate Ryan is Captain Miller (Hanks), fresh from helping to secure Omaha Beach on D-Day. To achieve his mission, he brings along a diverse mix of soldiers, including his second in command (Sizemore), three riflemen (Burns, Goldberg, Diesel), a sniper (Pepper), a medic (Ribisi) and a translator (Davies). As they close in on Ryan's location, they deal with other deadly skirmishes, causing them to question the rationale in risking all eight of their lives in order to save one.

After a brief prologue, Saving Private Ryan begins with some of the most riveting cinema available to experience. The D-Day scene plants the audience right in the thick of the action, and subjects it to a barrage of constant intensity that does not let up for at least twenty minutes. A genuine tour-de-force of filmmaking, all the elements are brought together to create a phenomenally gripping sequence. Historically replicated art direction, unrelenting cinematography, emphatic sound design, energetic editing and harrowing special effects. The result is simply mind-blowing.

Undeniably, the picture wears its emotions on its sleeve. Right from the start, the prologue sets a particular tone, clearly intended to elicit action from our tear ducts. Perhaps not unfairly, the film has been criticised for its sentimentality - and it is, indeed, dripping with Hollywood sentiment - but those familiar with this blog will know that sentimentality goes down well with me. Besides, it is difficult to deny Spielberg's mastery, specifically his understanding of how to present a scene. And when compared to that other World War II film in competition for Best Picture in the same year - and such comparisons are rife - there is clearly a stark difference. Whereas The Thin Red Line was a rambling tale punctuated with poetry, Saving Private Ryan has a very clear story that the audience can get behind.

Tom Hanks offers a fine performance in a role which saw him nominated for Best Actor, the film's only acting citation. The motley band of soldiers are a great mix of young talented actors, a lot of whom were relative unknowns at the time - Burns, Pepper, Goldberg, Diesel, Ribisi, Davies, Damon. The underrated Tom Sizemore is terrific in a role that could be described as the sidekick. And Paul Giamatti is a treat, showing up in a small role.


  1. My father passed away in 1987, a fairly long time ago. While there are many moments when children wish their deceased parents were still around to share in their lives, for me it also includes the occasional movie that has come out since. My father loved gangster and war movies, and I would have really enjoyed watching Miller's Crossing and Saving Private Ryan with him.

    Steven Spielberg managed to make a contemporary war film that was both patriotic and horrific. His imagery, instead of showing the beauty of nature that man was destroying, concentrated on showing us the destructive nature of battle on the fragile human body. It was visceral and effective.

    I have read many negative comments on Spielberg's decision to bookend the story in the cemetery. I'm of mixed feelings here. While the opening sequence could perhaps misdirect the viewer with regards to the identity of the old former soldier and the ending is no doubt quite sentimental, I kind of like not being thrown into the Omaha Beach sequence immediately, and having a coda. Besides these sequences gave me a chance to see Kathleen Byron, the batty nun from Black Narcissus, in a role at the end of her career.

    I think the story line of the movie is functional, without offering any great insights. It allows for those group bitch sessions that string together the skirmishes and battles. I'm not entirely sold on the Upham character. He serves as the conscience of the movie, yet some of his situations do stretch believability.

    Fine acting all around. I particularly liked Tom Sizemore's retro Sergeant performance. He's like the Aldo Ray of the 90s.

    Spielberg can certainly be proud of his WWII efforts of this decade. Both Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan depict the inhumanity of this horrendous war as it played out in Europe, while giving us stories of heroism.

  2. I completely agree on the D-Day sequence.

    While I like the movie as a whole, I am not as impressed with it as some. Once the D-Day sequence is done, the rest of the movie is one war movie cliche after another. Realize they are walking in a mine field? check. Someone comes by while people are still in the mine field? check. Refugees with children who may become a burden to the soldiers? check. Enemy soldier set free who may end up hurting them later? check. Soldiers trapped and having grenades thrown in at them that they have to throw back before they explode? check. Deus ex machina when all hope is lost? check.

    It's like Spielberg took every scene from all his favorite war movies and put them all together in this one. The result is entertaining, but not ground breaking.