Saturday, May 8, 2010

New on Blu: "Saving Private Ryan"

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan begins with one of the most deservedly famous sequences in all of recent film, a vivid and graphic recreation of the D-Day battle at Omaha Beach. He approaches the scene hesitantly, nervously, as the American troops approach the beach; when their landing craft opens up, the front wave of soldiers are immediately dispatched in a wall of gunfire, and Spielberg, in that instant, explodes our war movie mythology. The battle lines are not clean, and “our boys” are losing, badly. This is war—it’s messy, it’s dirty, it’s bloody, it’s brutal. “War is hell” may not be the most original message, but it’s rarely been so vividly illustrated.

In that first half-hour or so of Private Ryan, which features some of Spielberg’s most potent and shocking imagery (you can’t shake the way that bloody water drips out of Miller’s helmet, or that dazed soldier, wandering around looking for his own arm), we’re seeing something extraordinary: a good-time filmmaker who knows how to thrill us, casting off his little tricks and going for an effect of pure aesthetic power. There is no exposition (aside from a brief on-screen caption), no proper introductions, and the dialogue is all utility chatter, shouted over gunshots and explosions. For that first chunk of the film, this traditional, classicist director is flirting with a very experimental notion—the kind of “action as characterization” storytelling that The Hurt Locker went almost all the way with last summer. In that way, and in the sheer visceral punch of the sequence (and the one that mirrors it at the picture’s end) is thrilling—just not in the way we had come to expect from the creator of the Indiana Jones movies.

In the Omaha Beach sequence, Spielberg never steps wrong; it’s a shame how quickly he loses his footing when it’s over. Some of the expositional shorthand towards the end of it (like the tidy little cans of dirt in the bag of Tom Sizemore’s Sgt. Horvath, each neatly labeled with their country of origin) is a little too easy, but we’re disappointed to discover that Robert Rodat’s script isn’t taking the risks we thought it was with that long opening sequence—he’s merely reshuffling, postponing until after the battle the kind of sluggish exposition and historical pageantry we were so thankful that the picture was skipping. In a snap, we’ve gone from flesh and blood soldiers to speechifying wax figures, none more dull and lifeless than Harve Presnell’s General George C. Marshall, who recites (from memory!) the words of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, we need to introduce the proper plot—that of the three Ryan brothers, all killed in combat within the same week, and the directive from on high to track down the only remaining brother, Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), and send him home—but there’s got to be a more energetic and congruent way to do it than this.

Once Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his unit get going on their mission, however, the film regains its steam. Yes, the characters are types (the Brooklyn wiseguy, the tough Jewish kid, the Southern sniper), but as such, we can identify and engage with them quickly—and, a dozen years on, it’s actually easier to follow the characters now that the men who play them have all met with some degree of success. The eye for strong young actors here is really remarkable; not only do we have Damon, but Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, and Edward Burns fill out the unit, while Paul Giamatti and Nathan Fillion pop up in smaller roles along the way. It is a little jarring when more recognizable older actors like Dennis Farina and Ted Danson appear, but both actors turn in dialed-down, natural performances; as with Hanks, we are reminded that men of all ages and backgrounds were called upon to fight in WWII. With Hanks’s Capt. Miller—whose back story is such a secret, the men in his unit have a pool going for who can guess it correctly—his “everyday guy” manner and appeal meshes perfectly with the reluctant soldier, who confesses, in the moment of his greatest candor, “Each man I kill, the further away from home I feel.” That’s elegant writing, and Hanks’s unsentimental playing of it is absolutely right. So is the low-key acting of Hanks and Sizemore in the scene they share at a rubbled-out church (both are simple and unaffected), though Sizemore oversells the speech towards the end where he spells out the title. The other men each get at least a moment to shine as well—Damon (so young, so genuine) telling a funny story about his brothers, Goldberg taunting the German POWs, Pepper explaining his particular take on faith. (Only one of their scenes is fumbled: the bit with them coldly divvying up and joking about the dog tags is effective, but Spielberg strangles it by holding so long on the hurt faces of passing men that he belabors the point.)

When the unit finally tracks down Ryan, he refuses to go with them—his own ragtag unit needs him to stay and defend a bridge from an approaching German reconnaissance crew. The table is set for another difficult battle sequence, but we detour first for the quiet scenes of the men waiting for the Germans to arrive, a calm before the storm. Are these scenes (with the voice of Edith Piaf warbling from a handily abandoned Victrola) too conveniently evocative? Perhaps. But they doesn’t render them any less poignant (particularly when Miller tells Ryan, of a memory of his wife, “That one I keep for me”). The subsequent battle may not be quite as torturous as its first-act counterpart, but it is more emotional—we’ve grown to know these men, and to care what happens to them in terms of their humanity, and not just as human beings. As such, the way that he stops the sequence for that terrifying moment when Upham may or may not have come behind the stairway wall is just excruciating, and when Goldberg’s Mellish is in that torturous battle for his life, we’re holding our breath.

Saving Private Ryan isn’t a perfect picture—the symmetry of the so-called “Steamboat Willie” character is too obviously constructed, and I’m still not certain if those bookend framing sequences with the old man in the cemetery work, or are even necessary (though I’m pretty sure those last couple of shots were inevitable even when the film was released). But the picture’s emotional force is intense and relentless enough to overpower its missteps in our memory. At its best, it remains one of Spielberg’s greatest accomplishments.

"Saving Private Ryan" made its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, May 4th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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