A good director.
Like Steven Spielburg.
I could (with almost chilling ease) spend an obscenely large portion of your time and mine discussing the vast myriad of ways in which Mr. Spielburg kicks the collective directorial ass of anybody else out there (well, if we remove Terry Gilliam from the list, but that's a rant of another colour). But I'm forcibly restraining myself, partly because I doubt that even a handful of you would find it remotely interesting, and partly because this is a MOVIE review page, and technically speaking, ranting about obscure nuances in the director's style doesn't quite qualify. So, with that in mind, I shall make a conscious effort to digress as little as possible.
I shall begin my review of Saving Private Ryan with this very simple statement. I like it. However, as with most things simple, we find that underneath the surface, we have an intricate and complex catacomb. In this case, this is preluded by a very important word ...
Saving Private Ryan is a good movie, but it suffers from some ridiculously contrived plot elements. Allow me to briefly go over the plot for those of you who missed one of the gagillion trailers and commercials for this flick.
The setting is France in the turmoil of World War II, with the story actually starting with the invasion of Normandy. Somewhere out there, in the chaotic turmoil of a war-torn countryside, there's this private by the name of, you guessed it, Ryan. Now guess what the object of the film's protagonists is? If you said "to save him", you don't actually get anything for it, because that was so blatantly set up, I won't insult your intelligence with a reward.
Okay, so far so good, but here comes the pill that's difficult to swallow. The reason that these valient boys in green-and-brown are risking their lives to track down one lone man is that the federal government ordered it. You see, Private Ryan's mother has three other boys, and they've all become statistics. This in and of itself is tragedy enough, but a particualarly observant clerk notices that the mother will be receiving notification of these three deaths all on the same day. The federal government dispatch Tom Hanks and his team out to find the remaining Ryan boy and send him home to his mother.
I'm now going to pause and allow all of this to sink in.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Back with us? Good.
Oh, where to start in shooting holes in what must have been the treatment for the bloody movie? Well, let's begin with the first problem that struck me in the film, and that was in the clerk discovering poor Mama Ryan's destroyed day in the first place. From the onset of the movie (the flashback, at least), you are almost struck dumb by the utterly senseless waste of human life that is war. And by struck dumb, I pretty much mean "blugeoned into fetal, gibbering idiots". This notion is carried on to the scene in the clerks office (and, indeed, throughout the film, but more on that later), where you are entreated to rows upon rows of busily typing woman, all doing their patriotic duty to the war effort. While it isn't clear at first just what exactly they're doing (although, if memory serves, there may be voice overs as you truck by them, but don't hold me to that), you soon realize that these are letters to the soldier's families, informing them of his untimely demise. Our aforementioned typist finishes her letter, stares at it for a moment, and digs though the pile next to her desk and fishes out a matching sheet. She compares them and then rushes off to one of her co-worker's piles and fetches another sheet.
Yup, you guessed it. This one woman, amid a sea of other women all doing the exact same job, managed to get the death letters for two of the Ryan boys. This deserves a special bit of attention.
I won't even dwell on the unlikely event of this one singular woman not only getting two of the three letters, but getting them so close together that she remembered seeing the previous one. However, what I would like to know is, just how the hell did she realize that these two boys were related? Last time I checked, the surname of "Ryan" wasn't so uncommon as to stand out in a person's mind. "Perhaps address clued her in?" you might be asking yourself. Well, when we see Mrs. Ryan receiving the first of these letters, she's in a farmhouse, WAY the hell out in BFE. I doubt very much that things have changed all that much in the mail service these past 50 years. I answer cable for people who live in places just like Mrs. Ryan's, and I assure you, their address is no more memorable than "Route 3 box 41." And here's another question that occurs to me. My history is a bit rusty, but I'm fairly certain that the Normandy Invasion didn't occur right off the bat, which means that America was losing its men at fairly regular intervals before that time. Psychologically speaking, I would imagine that the woman typing these letters, quite likely wives and mothers themselves, had to detatch themselves from the personal nature of them before too terribly long. Stop thinking about the poor woman whose world was about to shatter with this piece of paper that she was typing, about the fact that every single one of them would bring its recipient untold pain. Personally, I find the fact that this one clerk was both attentive enough and lucky enough to get two Ryan letters quite farfetched.
Don't even ask me how the hell she knew that her co-worker had, and some time ago, judging by how far in the pile she had to dig, typed the third Ryan letter.
Okay, that aside, let's move onto the preposterous idea that the United States government, deep in the midst of war with Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers, would pull a commanding officer (one who, if we are to believe the portrayal of the Normandy Invasion, was instrumental in securing the area) and his best men OUT of a newly aquired, critically important position, to find one singular man, somewhere in France, just to be nice to his mother?
Now having said that, rumours that this is based on a true story have reached my ears, and if it is true, then in essense, I understand the government even less than I thought I did.
Now believe it or not, I reiterate, I DID like this movie. Once you get over these very basic plot flaws, we have a wonderful movie here, and I say that as a person who, on the whole, is not fond of war movies. I promised to not dwell too much on what Spielburg did to this (suffice it to say that, as a person to whom plot and story are second only to characters (and there wasn't even one character that I endeared himself to me enough to make the movie), you have to have something damned special to make me not only overlook but ENJOY something which I find such fault with), but ... wow. I don't think I have ever seen a more powerful 40 minutes than Spielburg's Invasion of Normandy sequence. I'm pretty much left speechless to describe it - words won't do it justice. Admittedly, it's not for the squeemish (the whole movie pretty much falls under that catagory), but if you can stand some good ol' fashioned real-life based Hollywood gore, then I cannot recommend this sequence enough. It's the sort of thing that is so intense, it literally leaves you drained when it's all over ... and history had already dictated the outcome. That, my friends, is a gift. Ahh, but I run the risk of digressing, so I'll stop there.
The rest of the movie runs pretty much like you'd expect for a war movie. Lots of volence, lots of death, a bit of character development and soul searching along the way, until we reach the climax of the film and its end, which, to me, was wholly satisfying ... a rare thing in movies these days. There's even a little twist tossed in at the end, for those of you who, like myself, instantly groaned the second you saw it was a story told in flashback.
To sum up, if you're big on techincal merit in a film, go see this movie. If you like an engrossing story (and can ignore the niggling voice in your mind that screams about how this doesn't make sense), go see it. If, however, you have a tender tummy and don't like blood, give this one a miss. War is hell. And Steven Spielburg will show you every single inch of it.