You can almost draw a line in the history of war films, and divide them into two categories: before 'Saving Private Ryan', and after 'Saving Private Ryan'. The impact of Steven Spielberg's acclaimed 1998 drama was such that the cinematic rules on how to make a war film, or even how to show battle on film at all, were drastically rewritten. Its influence can be felt still. Battle had never before been depicted with such realism, such detail and such brutality. This kind of ferocity was the last thing anyone expected from the man who had created 'E.T.' and 'Jurassic Park'.
For its complex technical achievements, the story at the heart of 'Ryan' is surprisingly simple. Following the landing on Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his company are sent deep into occupied France to find Private Ryan (Matt Damon), a young man who has lost all three of his brothers, and under the orders of the U.S. Command, needs to be brought home. As Miller and his men move from skirmish to skirmish across the battered French landscape, they begin to question whether the life of one man is worth that of so many of their team.
In some respects, 'Saving Private Ryan' earns its place in film history thanks to its opening sequence alone, still one of the most visceral and assaulting ever committed to film. Recreating the landing on 6th June 1944 in horrifying detail, its documentary-style approach throws us into the experience of war in a manner the likes of which we had never been before. The sequence has been imitated so often now that it has become part of the cinematic language, influencing everything from traditional war films to epic fantasy films - but even now, it has lost none of its power. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski throws us into the battle with the rough immediacy of handheld photography, often being blown out of focus by constant shell explosions, or obscured by the lens being muddied by dirt, water or blood. This immediacy places us directly in the action, and Michael Kahn's furious editing renders the experience almost surreal, never allowing us to take in the scope of the event; rather we're forced to confront those details directly in front of us. There are no sweeping money shots, no pull-backs to show the scale of the landing, only close-ups, men's faces and broken bodies, dirt and blood raining down on them, with the seismic thunder of exploding shells. This isn't war as entertainment or sensationalism, and Spielberg never shies away from graphic realism. This is filmmaking concerned with imagery as opposed to narrative, and a young man clutching his erupted stomach while calling for his mother, or the surreal sight of an armless soldier holding his dismembered limb, are sights that linger in the mind long after the film ends. Suddenly, war was not something exciting or cinematic, but something visceral and putrid, human beings rendered as nothing but hunks of torn flesh. We often forget this amidst his glorious flights of fantasy, but Spielberg is also an uncompromising filmmaker, and isn't afraid to be brutal to his audience. Omaha Beach is, without doubt, one of his finest achievements as a director, and one of the most important sequences in film history.
The opening of 'Ryan', in a way, is both its greatest achievement and its greatest downfall. It leaves you so shaken and stunned that the film never recovers from it. How can you possibly top off something that remarkable? By comparison, watching Miller and his company in their search for Ryan seems unsatisfying. This is certainly not a fault of the filmmaking. Spielberg continues to push the war film genre to its limits and beyond for the rest of the film, never relinquishing the documentary form he establishes in the opening. Perhaps it lies in Robert Rodat's screenplay, light on narrative and seemingly fixated on presenting the humanity of Miller and his company with lengthy scenes of exposition. These are men we learn about through talk as opposed to action, and often this throws off the rhythm and tone of the film. 'Ryan' is a very different kind of war film, much more meditative and human, but somehow the balance between action and inaction feels skewed. Or maybe it's just that, after the flawless landing sequence, the film just never quite tops it. Thankfully, Tom Hanks holds everything in place with a sturdy, quiet and determined performance. His moments of emotional breakdown are perfectly pitched, and his refusal to play the hero give the film a genuine sense of humanity, rather than one created through monologues. It is through Miller that we see the central question of the film play out, whether the lives of one are worth the lives of many, and his grappling with that question gives the film its emotional drive.
'Saving Private Ryan' earns its place in film history thanks to its opening sequence alone, still one of the most visceral and assaulting ever committed to film.
Spielberg's fascination in the Second World War has continued to develop, culminating in perhaps its finest incarnation, the HBO series 'Band of Brothers' (2001). Here, that balance between character and action is perfected, acting as a thrilling expansion and companion piece to 'Ryan', while maintaining the film's revolutionary style. In 2010, he returned once again to the war, exploring the American-Japanese conflict with 'The Pacific'. Spielberg has always been a very personal filmmaker, and his WWII works have allowed him to connect with and explore his own family's histories with the conflict. It is this personal connection that, perhaps, makes his contributions to the genre so memorable and affecting.
Regardless of its narrative or rhythmic flaws, 'Saving Private Ryan' is a staggering achievement. It always seems as if we want to doubt Spielberg, that we want to find fault in his skills as a director, that he can't be as good as his reputation claims, only to be silenced by yet another example of just why he is one of the most important and successful directors of all time. For 'Ryan', Spielberg earned his second Oscar as Best Director, and not a single frame of the film suggests that he deserved otherwise. Even now, over a decade later, it has lost none of its power or ferocity. Cinema today is most certainly living under its monumental shadow.