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Saving Private Ryan

Starring Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Ed Burns
Written by Robert Rodat
Directed by Steven Spielberg 

IN SHORT: Someone mop Cranky off the floor...

Cranky's dad explained the genesis of what is called the Sullivan Law, enacted after World War II, after a mother of four sons received word, on the same day, that each of her kidlets had been Killed In Action. The law that was passed, simply, gave an instant out to any sole surviving son. That approximates enough background to set up Saving Private Ryan, by director Steven Spielberg, in which 8 soldiers attempt to find a sole survivor and send him home . . .

That's what Cranky wrote before the lights went down on Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. 170 minutes later, your humble servant was doubled over in a fetal position, a shaking, quivering, sobbing hunk of meat. Cranky tried to write down what he was feeling, but he couldn't hold a pen in his hands. If ever there was a war movie whose net effect is to make you sick to your stomach of war, Saving Private Ryan is it. Don't misread the sentence. It's a good thing.

Steven Spielberg says he didn't want his movie to look like "a technicolor extravaganza about World War II." It doesn't. Extensive use of hand held cameras ostensibly makes the audience one of the infantry troops who battle beside Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks). Us old folk remember those rah rah John Wayne slash Gary Cooper WWII flicks (both black & white and technicolor) filled with slogans like "War is Hell" and the hard fought battle won. Frankly, Hell would be a vacation compared to what happens to the troops that inhabit Saving Private Ryan.

The first half hour sequence is the D-Day slaughter at Omaha Beach. That's right. Slaughter. If I remember the other press stories I've read, 5000 men hit the beach at Omaha. 400 survived unscathed. That's a slaughter.

Cranky apologizes to y'all right up front, 'cuz I'm going to break my pledge to never write like a "film student" on this one. I don't see any way around it. The good news is that Saving Private Ryan is an awesome piece of film making. The bad news is the problem of telling you readers how this awesome piece is going to rip their guts to pieces. How the effect of such shredding may keep you the heck away from the movie theater. It shouldn't, but this may be one of the few times that the intent of a film is so completely fulfilled that it keeps audiences away.

Since Cranky was once a soundman, let's begin with the work of Sound Designer Gary Rydstrom. (Remember, you're a troop now...) As your POV panics and jumps over the side of the Higgins Landing Craft at Omaha Beach, all sound vanishes because you are underwater. When what you hear is muted and muffled, there's a strange kind of beauty in the visual of a machine gun bullet displacing air through water as it hits the soldier next to you. The blood mushrooms, cloudlike, out of his chest as you break surface for air. Bodies litter the beach. The noise is so intense you can't hear battle orders you see coming from the moving lips of your captain. A soldier next to you makes the mistake of taking off his helmet, to see where the bullet ricocheted off of it. Bodies pop open like overripe melons, and this is just the beginning. When your ears have cleared the water, the explosions all around you make you deaf. By the end of the flick, there will be a ringing in your ears -- all mixed into the soundtrack, which is exceptional.

What is left of Captain Miller's unit is divided up. His top seven men (plus a replacement interpreter, who hasn't fired a gun since basic training) are sent to find one Private James Ryan of Iowa (Matt Damon) and bring him back alive, no matter the cost. You follow along as these troops get to know each other; as they try to complete their mission. As they try to stay alive.

That's the way of the military. That's the way of this movie. There's very little exposition in the dialog, outside of one scene where the new guy tries to bond with the established unit. You, lucky point-of-viewer that you are, pick everything up as you move along through the battle scarred French countryside. When Private Ryan is found, he is part of a unit holding a vital bridge, key to maintaining the Allied hold in France. His brothers are dead but he has a duty to his country. Which is more important? His duty to his country, or your duty to your country?

Of the troops in "your" unit, short of a preexisting recognition factor, you may not be able to tell one grunt from another. (The other "biggest" name is Ed Burns, with smaller parts for Dennis Farina and Ted Danson as Army Officers). Like Army life, you may identify them as "the coward," or "the big talker" or "the bookie." Do it whichever way you wish -- you probably won't be aware of the connections you're making with these guys. Once it all hits the fan, you'll be in too deep to stop the emotional destruction.

Saving Private Ryan is deceptively simple. That may be why the film, as a whole, has so much impact. Soldiers will die. Soldiers will live. When the end credits rolled, the preview audience around Cranky just sat there. Just like at the end of Schindler's List.

No, not just like. Cranky was crying at the end of Schindler's List. Cranky could barely walk out of Saving Private Ryan.

Saving Private Ryan is an awesome piece of film making. It is an emotional wipe out. It is not a happy summer flick. It may, actually, be too damned intense for it's own good. Having seen it once and knowing what will happen on screen, I can't honestly say that I'd want to see Saving Private Ryan a second time.

It's too damned powerful. On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Saving Private Ryan, he would have paid...


That's Cranky's standard Oscar® nomination level rating, 'cuz Tom Hanks'll get nominated again. And so will Steven. And the sound folks have got it locked, as far as this ex-pan pot pusher is concerned.

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The Cranky Critic® is a Registered Trademark of, and his website is Copyright © 1995  -  2015   by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.