Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Friday, June 6, 2014

Stepping Into The Fields Of Normandy

"Soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force. You are about to embark on a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you." ~ General Dwight Eisenhower, 1944

Today is the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, the landing of American, British, and Canadian forces on five beaches in Normandy during World War Two, and the turning of the tide on the Western Front. I thought I would review one film that takes D-Day as part of its subject matter. I would also recommend you find The Longest Day, or Ike: Countdown To D-Day for a more recent examination of the lead up to the invasion from the point of view of the commanding general.

"I don't gripe to you, Reiben. I'm a captain. There's a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don't gripe to you, I don't gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger." ~ Captain Miller

"You wanna explain the math of this to me? I mean, where's the sense in risking the eight of us to save one guy?" ~ Private Reiben

"Why do I deserve to go? Why not any of these guys? They all fought just as hard as me." ~ Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan is the 1998 war epic by director Steven Spielberg, following a squad of soldiers in the wake of the D-Day landings, as they set out on a mission into the French countryside. The film won Spielberg a Best Director Oscar, among several other Oscars and awards, and is a harrowing, graphic exploration of war at its most horrendous. While it tells a fictional story, the story carries an authenticity about the life of the soldier in the Second World War, exploring personalities of different men as they drive deeper into occupied territory.

The film starts and ends in Normandy five decades after the landing, with a veteran and his family walking through the military cemetery at Omaha Beach. We are then drawn into the bloody landing at Omaha Beach, following a number of soldiers off a landing craft as they storm the beach and German defenses. They're led by a captain, John Miller (Tom Hanks), and after men fall around them in the barrage against the landing, the squad breaches German defenses, achieving their objective. The first half hour of the film is a violent, brutally realistic view of the invasion from the boots on the ground viewpoint. That very same viewpoint will carry on through the rest of the film.

While Miller and his surviving Rangers catch their breath, the camera shows us a body on the beach. For the only time in the film, the story takes us across the ocean to the halls of power, where the identity of the body is brought to the attention of General Marshall, who learns three brothers have fallen in the line of duty in various theatres of war, and the fourth, a private who parachuted into Normandy, is unaccounted for. He insists that the private be found and brought back home. The mission is given to Miller, who picks the core of his squad to go with him. His right hand sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), rounds up a sardonic private, Reiben (Edward Burns), a sharpshooter, Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), the medic, Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), and two more riflemen, Carpazo (Vin Diesel) and Mellish (Adam Goldberg). They've all faced battle together, and while they might bicker and annoy each other, they know they can count on each other. Miller also brings in a cartographer from the staff, Upham (Jeremy Davies), because he knows he needs someone who can speak French and German. And so the squad sets out from the beachhead in search of a lone private (Matt Damon), who has no idea his brothers are dead.

The story was written by Robert Rodat, who first drew inspiration for it after seeing a Civil War monument about the deaths of eight siblings in that war. Rodat transplants the essence of that into the Second World War, giving the soldiers a mission, one they question the sense of, but one that we can be sympathetic with. A family shattered by the loss of three sons makes for a compelling reason to go after the last son. And while it's a fictional story, it certainly rings true. The Sullivan brothers, for instance, all died during that war when their cruiser sank during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Rodat's script is intensely character based- as much as the story follows a narrative through the ruins of occupied Normandy, it's grounded in these eight men, all of whom are explored in detail and given depth, and in the young man they're out to find, who doesn't believe he has the right to go home.

Spielberg used the work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski for this film, giving the tone of the film a gritty, devastated look, which perfectly fits Normandy at that time. They shot much of the film in Ireland and England, standing in for Normandy, but the setting looks like you might expect of France in the Second World War- ruined villages, damaged homes, destroyed countryside. The film has a washed out quality in the images, lending it a sense of time and place. Kaminski worked with Spielberg on Schindler's List, and that same tone of harsh realism permeates the entire film; his work would win the Oscar for Best Cinematography, and rightfully so. Colours feel muted, and the finished film has something of a newsreel sensibility to it, completely desaturated. The camerawork also adds to the sense of authenticity to the film- Spielberg chooses to film close and with tight angles, instead of at a distance. During the opening sequence, for example, it feels like the camera is the point of view of a soldier on the beach, including the carnage of war, the noise, and the bloodshed. It's intensely personal, this camerawork that really gives us that boots on the ground perspective. It was a wise decision. 

The sense of authenticity lends itself as well to the work of the crew. The uniforms take us back in time to the era, as do the weapons and vehicles. The same applies to civilian clothing and ordinary items- everything feels like it's drawn out of the past, as if we're walking through the carnage of Normandy in the days following D-Day. Attention to detail is, in a word, rendered with great care, and it really shows. The uniforms, for instance, feel lived in, and the actors look exhausted and drained, a testament, perhaps, to the fact that many of them were subjected to a rigorous boot camp to prepare for the film. The battle sequences have been acclaimed as realistic, and while violent, the purpose is to demonstrate the brutality and desperation of battle. In all that carnage, there never seems to be a gratuitous moment. As well, Spielberg's regular collaborator John Williams delivers one of his finest scores, one that is a stark contrast to much of his work. The music only shows itself in the quieter moments, rather than the epic sweep of battle. It gives the audience a moment to breath, and the music in and of itself gives a noble, stirring quality to the film.

There are a number of cameos scattered in various places. Dennis Farina turns up early on as Miller's superior, giving him the assignment. He doesn't like handing the mission to Miller, but stresses its importances. Paul Giamatti and Ted Danson turn up along the way as soldiers Miller and his squad meet on their way to finding Ryan. Giamatti's sergeant is a hardened sergeant among the paratroopers, playing the role as cynical. Danson, playing a fellow captain, learns of Miller's mission, urging him to find the private and get him home, and we sense he means it. All three actors play these roles with a sense of authority as they go along. Another cameo features an early performance by Nathan Fillion (Castle; if you haven't seen the series, you're missing a lot). He turns out to be the wrong Private Ryan, and serves as a brief red herring- the news that his brothers are dead is wrong, but you can understand his reaction. Harrison Young plays Ryan as an old man. When we first see him at the beginning, we don't know who he is, but he conveys the essence of a man who survived the war, and yet feels the sorrow and pain of knowing so many young men died and he got to live. When we catch up to him again at the end, Young's performance rings true to the performance of Damon, and comes across as one of the more poignant performances in the film.

Jeremy Davies occupies the role of Upham, playing him as an outsider. The character is perfectly happy as a staffer, and gets drawn into hazardous duty without really having a choice. He wasn't part of the invasion in the first place, and so hasn't seen battle. He finds himself trying to figure out how to fit in with the rest of the squad, all of whom have seen battle. He's an intellectual, and at one moment, a moral center for the story. At another moment, late in the film, he has an all too human reaction, freezing up in the midst of battle. It's a complicated character, which must make him compelling to play. Vin Diesel as Carpazo is perhaps the least developed of the core squad. Part of that has to do with his fate, and part of it has to do with the fact that Diesel's not that good an actor. He plays the part though as someone who can stay calm in the heat of battle, and yet wears his heart on his sleeve. Giovanni Ribisi plays the medic Wade, and we get to see more of him. He's ferociously angry at moments during the beach landing as his work gets undermined by hellishly accurate German riflefire. He's a young guy who, like so many other soldiers, misses being home. Adam Goldberg gives the character of Mellish a somewhat cynical air. Mellish talks a lot, is something of a wiseguy, and yet is very much aware of the German attitude towards his people. He taunts prisoners of war with the fact that he's Jewish. For him, the personal nature of the war has an added dimension.

Barry Pepper is one of those actors who, for the most part, tends to be interesting in whatever he's in (there are a couple of exceptions, but he's not to blame for disasters like Battlefield Earth and The Lone Ranger). He plays an exceptional marksman who quotes scripture while killing enemy targets, finds himself calm during battle, and suggests the war might end sooner if he was assigned to go after Hitler personally. It's not arrogance- the character simply knows how good he is with a rifle. Edward Burns is the sarcastic and cynical Reiben, plays him as a wiseguy who tends to talk back. Reiben is suspicious of the notion of wasting time going after one man, to the point of disgust when two of their own die, and yet acts protectively during the climactic battle for a private whose life he has held in disdain. Tom Sizemore embodies the sergeant Horvath just as you'd expect. He's a tough guy, feels like he's been in the army for most of his life, and carries himself like a soldier. He keeps the others in line, makes himself indispensible for Miller, and despite the tough exterior, can see the value of the mission.

Matt Damon hit it big before this movie was released with Good Will Hunting, but there's still a freshness in the performance despite being well known at that point. He plays the role as someone who's torn between his duty and the grief he feels for his brothers. He doesn't believe he deserves the right to go home, despite the fact that the order is coming down all the way from the top. He's quite defiant on the point that he must stay where he is until reinforcements can come up to the ruined town where he's posted. And at the same time, we see the agony of his grief moments later as he silently sits among his fellow paratroopers. And in the calm before the storm, we learn more about him, both in a story he tells that proves to be a darkly hilarious tale and in how Miller says that Ryan reminds him of so many students he taught down through the years. And the added touch, in that conversation, in which Ryan admits he can't visualize his brother's faces, rings true to anyone who's suffered a recent grave loss- the shock of the grief does that.

Hanks gives the central role of Miller the gravity and weight that it deserves. He leads his men forward into battle as a natural leader- despite the trembles he does his best to conceal. He manages the personalities of the men under his command. There is a weariness in the character that Hanks brings across, along with a quiet wisdom and an inner resourcefulness. There are moments of gallows humour in the character, but also the behaviour of a commander who knows he must show concern for his men. He feels the losses of fallen men intensely, though he can't show that to the men. And at a pivotal point when the mission seems to be at a  crisis, he is completely honest with his men, giving them insight into himself, and the audience a glimpse at the man inside. In doing that, he defuses the tension in the scene, and it's one of the most powerful scenes in the film.

Saving Private Ryan has established itself as a classic in the war genre, and a truly great film. It is both an epic and an intensely personal, character driven film that deals with the themes of the brotherhood of war, the meaning of courage, and the brutality of battle. It is harrowing and graphic, but it needs to be. It is a gritty, realistic look at the Second World War from the perspective of men on the ground, and is a masterpiece from the director. 


  1. One scene sticks with me...when Tom Hank's character is on the battlefield and all goes dialogue,no background noise, no music...fabulous.
    Jane x

  2. I saw this movie once and it nearly killed me. So sad!

  3. I saw an interview with a veteran of the Normandy invasion on TV this morning. He said he will never see this movie because he believes it will bring back too many painful memories.

    As always you've delivered a review as good as that of any professional reviewer, William. You should be getting paid for this!

  4. I only watched this movie once.
    My Uncle along with my Father fought in Europe and never talked about any battles or liberating the camps.
    Great review as always.

    cheers, parsnip

  5. Great review. At the time it came out, I remember a veteran seeing it and nearly losing it because it brought back so many memories.

    That war was the defining point for an entire generation.

  6. @Jane: that is one detail that also comes across as authentic.

    @Kelly: it is.

    @Norma: thanks!

    @Parsnip: thank you!

    @Cheryl: I can see the film having that effect.

  7. I've never seem this movie. I'm a wuss when it comes to tearjerkers. If people say the movie is sad, I tend to avoid it. War movies get me every time. From your review, this movie sounds really good. I might have to check it out.

  8. I remember being dragged to this movie as I am dragged to anything to do with war BUT your review of this film is epic-wonderful-thorough and respectful.

  9. If you don't review movies for a living, you should. i saw the movie when it first came out, thought it was excellent in all respects, and your review was great fun to read!

  10. I watched the opening scenes again yesterday. As usual, I cried.

  11. Ooooh I do remember this film. Very good and heartbreaking! Take care

  12. It was sad and heartbreaking movie. My husband watched it but I left it midway...

  13. A vey detailed synopsis, William. I did watch a TV special about the D-Day invasion as a friend's father was interviewed, i have never watched any of the war films because as accurate as some may be, it is not my video preference. That said, yesterday, we watched the 4hr film, Gettysburg, on a friend's recommendation in preparation for an upcoming visit.

  14. We are in DC this weekend and we saw the IMAX D-Day 3d show. It was awesome and I will definitely watch this movie again. Great cast!


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