This movie was hyped in a good way. Speilberg and company didn't have to blitz the commercials and news shows to get the word out. They didn't have to show half the movie in the trailers. It was a good enough movie that it created its own buzz.
This is a war movie, but for the first time with no holds barred. Men are killed in droves. Violently. Graphically. Early word-of-mouth was the the first half hour was the worst, but there was plenty near the end, too.
In the opening scene, when the LST (landing craft) drops the ramp and the machine gun bullets start spraying down the length of the boat, you wonder how anybody could get through that alive. Speilberg changes the POV to the German machine gunner and you get to see what a perfect target the front of the open LST makes. The soldiers that do get out are pinned on the beach, where many more are maimed and killed. Again, the German gunners have an incredibly clear view of everyone, and it seems a miracle that anyone survives. Basically, there were just so many targets that they didn't have time to kill everyone.
And when the Americans do get the upper hand, you see German soldiers scurrying through trenches as the GI's run up and start firing down at them at point-blank range.
This a movie about war. Bringing out the worst and the best in mankind. The killing is the worst, and you see a lot of it in this movie. But if you're going to go to war then it's imporant to be able to count on your fellow soldiers. That's portrayed by the Pvt Ryan character. And it's important to know when to stop killing. That's portrayed by Tom Hanks' character.
Hanks is the concience of the squad. He's a Ranger Captain, and in the opening scenes we learn that he's very competent. In the incredible confusion of a beach landing he's able to recognize what needs to be done, then rally his men and issue orders so that it happens. But we also learn that the killing is getting to him. In periods of calm his hands shake. One of the signature lines is, "Each time I kill another man I feel like I'm a little farther away from home." He shares with his Sgt that he knows how many people under his command have died, and shares his rationalization for their deaths. And without saying it out loud, shares that he recognizes that he's rationalizing.
Speilberg used an interesting technique during most of the fighting scenes. He achieved a hyper-real sensation, I'm guessing by using a high shutter speed and pushing the film to over expose it a bit. That, in a handheld camera, made the picture grainy, yet super-sharp. It jumped around and you never could see what was going on as well as you felt you should be able to. Sort of what it must feel like to actually be in battle.
One thing Speilberg did not do was play down to the audience during the battle scenes. Orders are barked out quickly, as though everyone involved knows exactly what they mean and what is expected of them. No narration nor exposition to tell the audience what's going on. Similarly, we don't get to dwell on each person killed. There's a battle going on, and it keeps going despite the losses. We're not given the long realization shot with depressing music when a buddy gets killed.
This is a movie about war. It's chaotic and nasty. I used to play a game called Squad Leader. As the name implies, each of the little pieces around the board represents a squad of ten men. We used to point at a piece and say, "This guy is going to shoot that guy over there with the HMG (heavy machine gun.)" With a good dice roll, the result might be a KIA. We'd say, "That guy's gone." But it wasn't just one guy. It was an entire squad. During the final battle scene, there's a point where a 20 mm gun takes out a group of men in the space of about two seconds. So now I know what losing a "guy" really looks like.
This movie didn't hit me as hard as Schindler's List. I think that's because for the most part I could see what was coming an instant early, and that dulled the impact quite a bit. But I think a lot of people still don't have the imagination to go from laser designator images of a smart bomb impact to the real life destruction that ensues. Even more than the images of the aftermath at the road to Basrah, I think this movie will educate people on the horrors of war in a way that really sticks. And I think that's what stands out about this movie. While they do set a context for the heroic aspects, the horrors are pretty overwhelming.
On my brother's Total Movie Value Scale, this movie rates Full Price. The most realistic movie about ground warfare yet created.
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