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For the last quarter-century, Steven Spielberg has been recognized as the most accomplished director in the world. From his popcorn movies (Jaws, Jurassic Park) to his deeply riveting dramas (The Color Purple, Amistad) the quality of his films has never waned. Opening last summer and recently re-released to remind Academy voters of it's excellence, Saving Private Ryan is comparable only to Schindler's List as Spielberg's greatest triumph.
The film opens with a man looking for the grave a war friend. Upon finding it, he nearly breaks down and begins to recall the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-Day. The next 24 minutes may be the most graphic ever shot on film. Along with cinematographer Januvs Kaminski, Spielberg is able to create an ambiance of realism that has never before been seen in a war film. Without knowing it's a movie, one might even think it was actual footage shot during the war. Hundreds die the instant they reach land, many in a fashion so gruesome that some members of the audience are liable to become shocked by the vivid candor.
Leading his group of men is Captain John Miller (played to perfection by Tom Hanks). While advancing on land, he is sometimes halted by the deafening explosions that go off right next to him. He may lose his hearing for a few seconds and stop to look at his comrades, most either dead, dying, or looking around for an appendage that was blown off. Captain Miller is able to survive the invasion, only to receive a new mission hours after the invasion has ended.
He now meets with the group that he will be leading from now on. Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) as his second in command, Private Reiben (Edward Burns) as the tough-guy from Brooklyn, Medic Wade (played by rising talent Giovanni Ribisi), The religious sharpshooter from the South Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), The burly and hard Italian Private Caparzo (Vin Deisel) Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) as the tough wise-cracking Jew, and Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) as the incongruous intellectual. Their mission is to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers have been killed, and bring him home.
As the men commence their hunt for Private Ryan, they begin to struggle with the importance of the mission. Even the war-hardened Capt. Miller begins to ponder the significance of risking the lives of eight men to save one. "Ryan better be worth it," he tells Sergeant Horvath. "He better go home and cure some disease or invent a new, longer lasting light bulb."
Unlike the Vietnam War films, Spielberg's film is able to convey a sense of patriotism that is bereft in even the classic and most renowned war movies. Where as the Vietnam movies (Platoon, Casualties of War) had the main goal of the men to simply get out alive, Saving Private Ryan seems to depict a more jingoistic feel, with the men fighting a uniform cause and their antipathy for the enemy visible in their eyes.
The culmination is the last battle scene, lasting about the same amount of time as the first, and no less horrific. Spielberg was criticized for not ending Schindler's List in a dramatic fashion, but rather showing concentration camp survivors putting flowers on the grave of Oskar Schindler. Spielberg has never been one to pay any attention to his naysayers, and he chose the ending to Private Ryan that thought most fit, and many viewers will be pleased. Unlike the visually enthralling, yet plot absent Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan will be remembered as the greatest war movie of our time, thanks to the greatest director of our time.
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