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In this episode: Saving Private Ryan | A Note About Upham

Man, everything you've heard about this one, violence-wise, is true. This is a very gory movie. And yet, if you look at what some of those stupid (and some of the maybe not-so-stupid) horror flicks dish out, you'd see stuff very similar, and sometimes even worse, than this. So what's the difference? That horror stuff is all supposed to be cartoony, silly violence. But Saving Private Ryan is real. You know this did happen. Thinking now that this makes it more gruesome to watch, I halt myself. Isn't it more gruesome to see bodies blow up and legs get torn off if you're sitting there going, "Yeah! Awright! Huh huh huh! SNORT!"? It is more frightening to me that that sort of thing is acceptable without question. But that's a different topic, and not really a review of Ryan, now, is it? No.

Saving Private Ryan is an incredibly intense movie. It is incredibly violent, brutal, dark, and messy. Now if only it had also been well-written and not so predictable, it would have been a great movie. As it stands, it's just a very good movie.

The most intense parts of this film are, as you may figure, the battle scenes. There's the if-not-now-than-will-be-by-next-year famous opening scene, a re-staging of the invasion of Normandy in 1944. The most powerful single shot comes from this sequence. It is as the boats hit the beach and the ramps are lowered. That's all I'll say, but the shock and surprise of that moment define what this entire experience must have been like. (I say that, of course, out of ignorance.) It also prepares you for the next 2:40.

Steven Spielberg pulls some nice touches out of his hat, technical stuff that intensifies this battle: strobed film, looking similar to real WWII movie footage; muted colors; palpable film texture; a brilliant use of sound and/or lack of it; wisely-used and wisely-edited shaky handheld footage. (Note to Mr. Bay: You can still use these techniques and get something both confusing/distracting and comprehensible. Learn, you freak!) Watching this sequence, you really do begin to understand the human cost of war.

After such a barrage to the senses (I have never seen bullet holes shot into people with such ugly, thunking severity), the movie, of course, calms down, and we get into the story. This is where you can start to see the script showing. There are some very good sequences and plot points, but then the movie misfires just as much. Explain, please, the whole thing with the little girl and the family in the blown-up house. Huh? The purpose of this, mainly, was to... skip a little if you don't want to know, but I won't give away too much... Okay, the purpose of this odd dramatic element was to get Vin Diesel shot. That's fine, because a big theme—HELLO!—in the movie is the useless and unexplainable sacrifice made during war. This gives us our first personal sense of loss in the film, meaning Vin's a singular, known character in the film as opposed to hundreds of anonymous soldiers. But the French family? Still there? In a useless house? Why? And why would Vin care if the little girl looks like his niece? Doesn't work. Takes us out of the movie.

Instead of citing more examples like that, which could spoil some of the points, I'll move along. Oh, look, over here! A paragraph about...

CHARACTER. It is usually a complaint in a film to say, "Hey! The main character has none!" I refer to Tom Hanks' Captain Miller. He is a cipher. It is even a joke in the movie, and one of the smaller plot points that works. Who is he? Where did he come from? What did he do before the war? We don't know. Sure, we find out part-way through, but only in explication. So it is amazing to me what Tom Hanks has pulled out of his hat here. Though he may not be a sympathetic character in the full sense of what the sense of the sense of that means, you can see why he remains distant. Tom Sizemore's Sergeant Horvath is distant, too, but in a more "heroic" way. Tom H. instead lets his introspection ooze out of him, if indeed introspection can ooze out. You can feel the necessity of his coldness. And you maybe wonder if that's what you'd have to do to yourself to survive hell.

The sympathetic character in this movie is... no, not Private Ryan, but Corporal Upham. He's the never-seen-action office boy thrown into the fray when he's needed on Miller's mission to find Ryan. Cliché? Yup. But Jeremy Davies, who plays Upham, is fantastic. He's a nerd who somehow gets your sympathies, even through the trite writing of his character. Jeremy's brilliance comes through in the final battle sequence, when he can not figure out who he is supposed to be in this madness. He's gentle, a literate softy, but he has to become a killer. He can't combine these two, and his lack of strength nearly (or definitely) ruins him in the end. The sequence on the stairs is amazing... you'll see what I mean (or you already know).

[NOTE: Since I sent this review out, I've found that a majority of people thought Upham was an unforgivable coward. I offer this as more proof of how superb the character is. Of course people would rather have had Upham mount those stairs and save his comrade, but that is not what Upham is all about. In fact, Upham is your regular guy, the guy who is thrown into the violent fracas before he has a chance to steel himself. A majority of the majority who proclaim Upham a coward would themselves have crumpled under such extreme circumstances, and that's a hard thing to admit. So instead, Upham gets skewered as a character. It is that scene on the stairs that prepares Upham for his final emotional deadening. It is seeing the German soldier they let go shooting Miller that finishes the process. No one should ever have to suffer such an emotional arc, and Upham is even worse off having to go through that arc in 30 minutes. Upham's a fantastic character, and Jeremy is a fantastic actor.]

The other characters are good, as well. They are stable and reliable, and flesh the film out. So how is ol' Matt Damon as Ryan? Fine. But, because his character is mostly in the writing, he's merely okay. No great shakes. Matt does what he can. (I mean, compare his trouble at remembering his brother's faces with Christian Bale's trouble remembering his mother's face in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. No comparison...)

The final battle? Intense, again, and horrible. The questions arise, like always: Why? What is this for? Who cares? Is it worth this? Is this the only way? The writing's stupidity intrudes a few times (why in the flying hell weren't those blasting box wires at least partially hooked up already?), but when Steven S. gets to let the action happen, all is good. Or, at least, all is grim. The hell keeps hitting and hitting, and you wonder if it will stop.

That's how this movie is, in a way. It just keeps presenting atrocity after atrocity, and you begin to understand how damaging war can be. You begin to understand Miller's silence. You understand Upham's conflict. And you wonder what it must be like having fought in this—or any—war. All reports so far indicate that Saving Private Ryan is the most accurate war movie so far, at least in terms of this type of warfare. It's just unfortunate Spielberg couldn't have gotten better writing for his money. Jesus, he's Spielberg! Then again, he's always been prone to overstatement. Unfortunately, the very end of this one is no different from, say, Schindler's List's silly "I could have saved one more with my lovely, lovely ring!" denouement. In Ryan, a sappy last few minutes drains the some of the potency out of the movie. It had me! The tears were ready! But then, as had happened in Ryan several times before, the tears were forced back into my head by the melodrama.

NOTE: I am attempting to make the time to catch up on my reviews. For brevity, though, I will probably end up putting several together, in more brief little reviewlettes. Maybe I should trademark that term, eh? Steve's Reviewlettes. All the Review I'll Lettes You Have! (THUD.) Here's what you can expect: Out of Sight (Go see it now, before my review!), There's Something About Mary, and Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss.




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©1999 Steven Lekowicz