Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Nineteen


#19 — Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)
During the first part of his career, Steven Spielberg made the sort of movies he could have dreamed up as a kid. Like may good artist finding his way, he was making what he knew. As fantastical as the stories were, they weren’t that far from the play of youth, populated as they were with scary sharks, space aliens and secret friends. Even Indiana Jones hopping across the booby trapped cave floor to retrieve a golden statue isn’t that far removed from the timeless act of bounding from one randomly strewn couch cushion to the next after the living room floor has mysteriously been transformed to molten lava. His context is his own imagination, shaped inexorably by the movies that filled the screen of whatever big console TV undoubtedly anchored the decor in the households of his upper middle class childhood. So when he began to turn his attention to weightier matters, it only makes sense that he continued trying to make sense of the world through the lens of his camera, and considering how earlier filmmakers did the same.

Saving Private Ryan is Steven Spielberg’s war picture, and it gets its potency from the friction between the director’s desire to embrace a more modern tough-minded accuracy and his comfort in adhering to the well-worn tropes of the genre. Beginning with the American assault on Omaha Beach, the film takes the familiar and infuses it with the shocks of the previously unseen and the woefully unconsidered. No amount of History Channel recollections or textbook documentation is preparation for the brutality of the scene, the plain statement of the randomness and agony of warfare. Fatalities and devastating injuries are the result of pure happenstance, following no discernible logic or cosmic justice. All the bullets in the air tear apart the patterns of storytelling, the expected procession of narrative. Movies have spent years training the audience to look for the acts of heroism and tragic twists of fate, the stories that help make sense of it all. Saving Private Ryan begins by refuting all that with the stark messiness of war, rendered with Spielberg’s characteristically lucid visual skill. It’s a stunning sequence, justly lauded as one of the finest in a career that has no shortage of candidates to choose from.

Then the film moves into its chief plot, which centers of a small troop charged with retrieving a soldier from the field because he’s the last remaining son of a family that is deep in mourning over his many fallen brothers. It is simple and clear, a mission assigned and executed. It seems conventional, right down to the mismatched nature of the men who’ve been banded together for this task, but the script by Robert Rodat keeps upending expectations. Moments of redemption and emerging nobility that are part of the common vocabulary of war films may be foreshadowed, but they don’t necessarily arrive. Life doesn’t work in accordance with patterns, especially when the misery of war has disrupted matters further. Spielberg cues off of this and strikes exactly the right tone. There’s no aggrandizement, no pomposity. Spielberg respects these soldiers, but doesn’t treat them like cardboard heroes, which is its own sort of condescension. They are simply men doing a job, and a rotten one at that. This, not lathering them with praise, is what makes their collective sacrifice more poignant. If Spielberg spends the first thirty minutes of the film making the audience feel the visceral impact of battle, he spends the rest of the running time considering the emotional and spiritual devastation it wreaks. It is a film that draws on Spielberg’s strengths, merges his command of cinema with his desire to scratch away until he unearths truth. It’s impact is well-earned.

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