Before I begin complaining, let me first clarify that the opening half an hour of Saving Private Ryan is a wonder of modern cinema. Similar to Gladiator in its powerful depiction of the terrors of battle, this hits the viewer even harder as we realise this
was our grandparents' generation, laying down their lives for our freedom. The emotional proximity affords most of the affect here, but credit must also go to the cinematic prowess of director Stephen Spielberg, frequent focus of this blog.
Nevertheless, I am mainly going to complain - and no, not about the total absence of British and Commonwealth troops in this film (let's face it, we're used to Hollywood monopolising on World War heroism). Rather, I want to encourage you to consider the depiction of the Nazis in this film. I've discussed elsewhere the convenience of utilising this group as cannon fodder in action films, but I found this simply unacceptable in this film which purports to being "saying something" about the dehumanising nature of war. Repeatedly we're offered supposedly "deep" ideas about the loss of individuality and identity in war, such as through terrified (American/ and one German) soldiers, and the discovery of Hitler Youth dead. However, this is swiftly undercut by the way the film encourages us to side so unreservedly with the Americans. Obviously I am not suggesting leniency towards the Nazis or their cause: what I'm saying it is that if you're going to attempt to say something about how war doesn't account for humanity, don't then go and strip your characters of humanity. In all the action sequences the American deaths are tragic, and the German losses a victory. Understandably this binary perspective is hard to lose, but no allowance is made to consider the tragedy of the individual German deaths, something which the film claims to consider in other sections. As ever I will not give spoilers, but towards the end there is a revenge narrative that makes me really uneasy - in fact, I was quite angry. If you know the bit I mean I'd be interested to hear what you thought.
Although Tom Hanks, and indeed all the cast (which includes an on form Matt Damon) do an impressive job with a relatively unimaginative (although sometimes poignant) script, I found this film fell rather flat given its contradictory messages. Filmmakers, if you're going to focus on action, then fair enough, go for it (Saving Private Ryan really does do its action well). But, if you're going to aim for insight, get your story straight first.
In short, I'll give this film a general recommendation, but I'd have preferred Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat to have spent more time at the drawing board.