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Saving Private Ryan Movie Review

miller beach spielberg german

1998 – Steven Spielberg –

Much has been made of the opening 25 minutes, as Steven Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, sound designer Gary Rydstrom, editor Michael Kahn, special effects supervisor Neil Carbould and stunt coordinator Simon Crane recreate the horrific D-Day assault on Omaha Beach, utilizing the Irish coastline of County Wexford and 850 extras from the Irish Army, many of them Braveheart veterans. The extras were organized into platoons, each with their own leader. Retired Marine Corps Captain Dale Dye was the chief consultant on the film (he also has a bit part as one of the War Department colonels). Before each shot of the beach invasion, Dye gave specific instructions to the platoon leaders, who then passed the information onto their men. Dye also addressed the actors via a loudspeaker system high on the cliffs. “It was extraordinary,” he says. “It was like being a battalion commander in combat and watching your troops maneuver while the cameras are rolling.” Additional realism was achieved by having several amputees fitted with artificial limbs that were then blown off during the battle scene. The visuals take their inspiration from the famous photographs shot by Robert Capa. “There was terror in each frame,” Spielberg notes. “Each frame was blurry, shaky and messed up, chaotic. They're frightening to look at, horrifically kinetic, and each photograph told the story of what it was like to be in combat. I thought, ‘Well, if I could do something like that at 24 frames a second, that would be interesting.’”

The carnage is graphically, coldly presented, shorn of the usual Hollywood glamorization of battle. It's the sort of grim, terror-filled chaotic nightmare never talked about by survivors, their psychic wounds too great. As the men attempt to reach the beach from their amphibious landing craft, they are caught in a withering cross-fire from the invisible German artillery positioned above them. Many soldiers never make it off the landing craft, and the foam runs red with the blood of dead soldiers bobbing in the surf with thousands of dead fish. Camera and digital sound capture bullets ripping and mortar rounds exploding into flesh and organs, maiming and killing at high speed, as the beach is quickly littered with the dead and dying. Shells clank off the iron hedgehogs erected by the Germans to deter an amphibious assault. Hand-held cameras capture the annihilation from the point of view of the terrified U.S. soldiers as they press forward and are mowed down. We first meet Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his Ranger squad as they are about to debark from the landing craft, as the camera focuses on his compulsively trembling hand. Somehow he and his men reach the bluff and destroy a German pillbox, opening an exit off the beach, and we are on are way to the heart of a war story masterfully told.

Screenwriters Robert Rodat and an uncredited Frank Darabont, utilizing sources such as Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose and the recollections of D-Day participants, capture the soldiers' intense physical and moral struggle to survive. War imposes continual ethical choices upon the men, between doing their duty as it is continually redefined (and may likely result in death) and survival. The men are confronted with choice at every juncture, deciding between self preservation and the necessity of a greater duty. Philosophically, the limited choices keep the story simple on an intellectual level, but deeply felt emotionally. Capt. Miller is the moral center of the movie, as Hanks brings to his portrayal a sense of solitude, private anguish, and decency, and a low-key but powerful devotion to duty. As a citizen soldier, Hanks gives Miller a sense of an ordinary man forced to become an extraordinary leader under the most pressing of circumstances. “Tom has the most memorable forgettable face in film history,” says Spielberg. “Tom could be any of us at any time.”

Upon surviving the beach invasion, Miller and his squad, a stereotypical ethnic hodgepodge, are assigned to retrieve paratrooper Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) from somewhere within the Normandy countryside, which is ripe with Nazi troops. Private Ryan does not know that three of his brothers have been recently killed in action, and the Army wants to send the lone surviving brother home to his mother. So Miller and his crew are given the luckless task of first finding Ryan and then getting him out alive. The squad includes Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore with a performance that anchors the film), the no-nonsense right-hand man who shares a tight bond with the Captain. And there's cynical Brooklyn boy Private Reiben (director/actor Edward Burns); Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), who proudly flaunts his Star of David before German prisoners; Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel), the extroverted Italian; Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), the southern sharp-shooter who says a prayer and fires away with astonishing accuracy; and medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), who feels the utter frustration of an overwhelmed healer. The group takes on a translator, Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies of Spanking the Monkey) , an intellectual pen-pusher who has never seen action. Why, the men ask, should we risk our lives to save one man? “This Private Ryan better be worth it,” grumbles one of the men.

As the men move inland, they encounter terrified civilians and U.S. paratroopers in disarray, as well as the occasional run-in with a German unit. When Private Ryan is finally found, he doesn't want to be rescued. He refuses to desert his depleted platoon, which has been ordered to defend a bridge in the bombed out village of Ramelle. Unable to persuade Ryan to leave, Miller and his squad decide to join forces with Ryan's platoon and await the inevitable German company. The final fire fight in the village, which was built by set designer Tom Sanders in a former plane-making facility 20 miles outside London, is equal to the Omaha invasion in its drama, quick cuts, jumpy cameras, and overall intensity. The battle is brilliantly choreographed and claustrophic in its confined spaces, as German tanks thunder through the town center and the outnumbered Americans resort to guerilla tactics to stop the superiorly armed Nazis.

Spielberg's triumph is using the conventions of the war movie in a fresh, vital way that evades a cliche look and creates a close-hand experience for the viewer. Both a tribute to the men who fought and a warning about the unforgiving nature of battle, Saving Private Ryan may just be the best war movie ever made.

Cast: Tom Hanks (Capt. John Miller), Edward Burns (Pvt. Reiben), Tom Sizemore (Sgt. Horvath), Jeremy Davies (Cpl. Upham), Vin Diesel (Pvt. Caparzo), Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Mellish), Barry Pepper (Pvt. Jackson), Giovanni Ribisi (Medic Wade), Matt Damon (Pvt. James Ryan), Dennis Farina (Lt. Col. Anderson), Ted Danson (Capt. Hamill), Harve Presnell (Gen. George Marshall), Paul Giamatti (Sergeant Hill), Joerg Stadler (Steamboat Willie), Max Martini (Corporal Henderson) Screenwriter: Robert Rodat Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski Composer: John Williams Producer: Steven Spielberg, Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn MPAA Rating: R Running Time: 169 minutes Budget: $65M Box Office: $126M (to date).

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