Watched Saving Private Ryan in honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day yesterday.
I still remember when I first saw this in the theater. I live in a retirement area with a huge senior population.When we went to see this the theater was full, and it was a sea of white heads in every aisle. My wife and I were some of the only young people there.
It was harrowing. That opening sequence, no one had ever done anything like it before. For 20 minutes you’re assaulted with graphic violence and noise and fury that relentlessly pounded your senses. By the end of the sequence, you were out of breath and tired of being battered and just wishing for a break from the sensory overload. The result was that for the rest of the movie, any time gunfire started you went right back to that same feeling again. You began to dread war scenes.
But far more difficult to endure was the audience. Grown men, strong old guys with bones tough as old oak, sobbing all around us. Sobbing because so many of them were there, had fought in the war, had seen friends die and had taken lives themselves, and because they had never before seen the reality of what they went through brought to life in this way before.
And then later, watching it at home for the first time, alone in the bedroom as I watched, and weeping as the medic bled out, calling for his mother and wishing he could go home, and wondering why the hell I was watching this again.
Saving Private Ryan doesn’t have the visceral impact it used to. Too many movies have cribbed from it in the nearly 15 years since it was released. The dizzying way Spielberg filmed combat now borders on being a cliche. Plus, multiple viewings over the years have softened its impact.
But damn if it isn’t still a great movie with some truly moving moments. The opening sequence no longer leaves me exhausted and begging for it to be over, but the film itself retains its strange sense of breathless claustrophobia despite the predominantly outdoor settings. It still shakes. It still moves. It still reminds us about the sacrifices made all those decades ago.
It’s a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, really, a spectacle you can’t look away from. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s still one of the few war movies that dazzles without ever feeling like entertainment. When you watch this, you’re not merely getting adventure. It’s bigger than that. It’s a war movie that never feels heroic. It kind of makes you feel small.
And sometimes that’s a good thing.