One of the things that doing the "Shelf Life" series has taught me is that almost as often as watching old films changes your opinion about them, it also reconfirms and even strengthens those initial reactions and feelings. Saving Private Ryan is an unusual case where both ends of that love-hate spectrum are represented because I really liked it when I saw it, but saw problems that I couldn't ignore. And then subsequently, I found myself reading articles and reactions, including a noteworthy one by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, which colored my mixed feelings even as they strengthened some of my certainties.
The good folks at Paramount Home Entertainment released Saving Private Ryan on Blu-ray May 4, which is why the film's been on my mind. But having also recently watched Minority Report, a film which I felt decidedly more ambivalent about eight years later, it seemed like Steven Spielberg's '98 Oscar-winner (for Best Director, Cinematography, Effects, Editing and Sound) was in serious need of a revisiting, if for no other reason than to test my home theater with its presumably perfect picture and sound quality. (In spite of reports that there are audio problems on some copies, which Paramount pledged to fix, my particular Blu-ray delivered with flying colors – almost literally.)
In other words, Saving Private Ryan is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released July 24, 1998, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was an immediate hit upon release, earning more than $215 million during its theatrical run. Currently enjoying a 91 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it comes as little surprise that the film won numerous awards, including as stated above, five Academy Awards. Meanwhile, it is also regarded by many as one of the most authentic portraits of war ever captured on film.
What Still Works: As that portrait of the cacophony of war, it's true that there are few films in the history of the medium that capture it as effectively as Spielberg does here. The director's ability to create a sense of chaos and yet have a perfectly-defined sense of geography and narrative at the same time is almost unparalleled: the opening sequence feels like I can only assume it must to slog through sea water and sand and blood to find respite behind the dead body of a fellow soldier, and Spielberg never forgets the humanity and the emotional weight of enduring such an experience.
Similarly, the final sequence in which Tom Hanks' character and his men defend a bridge against an overwhelming wave of German soldiers is also riveting. Spielberg dexterously juggles both logistical and character details as the men hurtle forward through the battle towards their final destinies, upping the emotional stakes mostly without becoming too overpowered with sentiment.
What Doesn't Work: The first time I saw this film I felt like the framing device with Private Ryan was unnecessary, and now I think it's awful. Thanks to the initial transition from "present day" to Hanks in one of the U-boats as it descends on the beach at Normandy, it's safe to assume – for a while – that the film is in fact being remembered by Hanks' character, especially since he was there for everything that happens throughout the film. But at the end of the film when Spielberg uses CGI to transition young Matt Damon to old Private Ryan, the film is robbed of its first-person intensity. (Not to mention, the CGI trickery undermines the moment and cheapens what I suppose could have been a surprising pay off.)
All of which begs the question, what is the point of the story? Whose point of view is the film supposed to be from? The obvious answer, of course, is Hanks' character. But when he turns out not to be the person whose life frames the beginning and ending of the film, it makes no sense how or why Private Ryan would know about the Normandy invasion, the lengths Hanks' team went to in order to save him, and especially not the people who died before he met any of them.
Additionally, the film is much longer than it needs to be, although I would argue that even the "unnecessary" scenes are fairly entertaining. Goldman's expert deconstruction of the film's flaws, linked to here and above, details the ways that the film could have been shortened without serviceably affecting the story or even its emotional weight. For example, one could literally remove the "back home" footage of Private Ryan's mother receiving word about her deceased sons and the decision to save him, and you wouldn't lose a single iota of dramatic weight. The only thing that scene (and several other equally superfluous scenes like it) accomplishes is to pay tribute, over and over, to the veterans, and remind audiences of the grave but good intentions of the generals and officers who send soldiers into battle.
Repeated voice-over readings of letters from Abraham Lincoln only underscore ideas and feelings we already have, and insist upon the undeniable "importance" of the story the film is telling. And the connection of these scenes to a reluctant Private Ryan's rescue make him seem ungrateful for their efforts, much less their sacrifice, even if one can again assume that the filmmakers intended for the survivor to devote the rest of his life trying to be worthy of that sacrifice.
Speaking of which, the film's final two missteps – perhaps its most egregious ones – are Hanks' character's final line, "earn this," and Old Private Ryan's plaintive solicitation from his wife that he is a good man. In Hanks' case, again, to say such a thing only emphasizes the capital-I importance of their mission, but what's worse is that it sounds like something a person would say, well, only in a movie. But when Old Private Ryan asks his wife if he's "earned it," Spielberg is just gilding the lily, and then some. Admittedly, Spielberg often doesn't know when to quit when it comes to punctuating the emotional weight of his finales, but in a film that has so many things going for it, this seems fatally wrong.
What's The Verdict: Saving Private Ryan holds up but not nearly as well as one remembers, especially if your memory is unclouded by the kind of nostalgia that Spielberg exploited upon the film's release. When it came out in '98, even my grandfather – a WWII veteran who seldom if ever went to the movies – saw it, and the reports from him and other veterans indicated that the film was a respectful, authentic tribute to the men who died during that war. But the film's now-awkward combination of war's folly and the honor of the men who fought in it makes the entire thing seem treacly and manipulative. Because the truth is that outside the context of either knowing or being a person who was in the trenches and survived war in the way these characters do, the film is purely a dramatic, compelling story, and doesn't need all of the flourishes and repeated explanations and reiterated gravitas that Spielberg front-loads into every scene.
The bottom line is that Saving Private Ryan works best as a portrait of war, told humbly, and a showcase for a level of technical virtuosity that has inspired and influenced filmmakers in subsequent years. But I don't need to be told that a story is important in order to understand the dramatic (much less cultural) impact of a story I'm watching, which is why as many virtues as the film possesses, in many other ways, Saving Private Ryan needs most to be saved from itself.