At the end of 1998 a battle erupted in the film world as to which was the better WW2 picture, Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line. It was a battle that went all the way to the Oscars and still wasn’t settled, because the award that year went to Shakespeare In Love (which some people argue won because the two war films split the vote).
As it happened I would see the two films over two nights. The first night I saw Terrence Malick’s hypnotic and trippy adaption of James Jones’ Thin Red Line on the biggest screen on Long Island and was blown away. Here was a psychological descent into the minds and hearts of the fighting men. It was a film that Malick was screening for critics even as he was cutting it, with the result that many of the big stars (like John Travolta) barely appeared. To me the stars didn’t matter, the film did, and it left me battered and bruised and stunned. Seeing it on the big screen with no way to look away I felt I had been at war. See the film on a big screen if you get a chance, simply for the sequence in the tall grass.
The next night my brother and I went to see Private Ryan, and in an effort to duplicate the experience of Thin Red Line we sat way down front.
To me (and my brother), Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was a major disappointment. Yes, the technical virtuosity of the opening and closing battle scenes shook my teeth, but at the same time the film isn’t really much of anything. The trouble is that stripped of a modern sound and vision the film is little more than a copy of the myriad of the war films the studios turned out during the war and after.
There is of course nothing wrong with being a copy of a studio programmer; hell, I have cases filled with DVDs of just such films. The trouble is that the film doesn’t do anything different with the conventions at all, with the result that you know exactly how it's all going to go. Look at the cast of characters, which is your typical Hollywood mix of Italian, Jew, Midwestern guy, etc. They go on a contrived mission that takes them through a variety of situations, where each of the guys proves to be heroic, and it ends with a big battle, a noble sacrifice, and an uplifting speech. To me the only thing different than say Battleground or Sands Of Iwo Jima or Ski Troop Attack is the blood, the loud sound, and the fact that it's twice their lengths.
To me it's not all that remarkable. It's even less so when you compare it to the TV series Band Of Brothers, which was also made by Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Here is a series that doesn’t hit any of the clichés, and that has real emotion and real feeling. It's not predictable (except we do know who wins the war...). To me everything that Ryan is trying to be, Band Of Brothers is. Had Band Of Brothers battled Thin Red Line for an Oscar there might have been a horse race.
This isn’t to say I hate Ryan...I don’t. It's just I don’t think it's all that great.
What amazes me now is that I find that most people I know who regularly watch Private Ryan do so because they want the big sound of the battle scenes. It’s a demo disc for their home theater system. As a film it's just another war film. The film isn't the be all and end all that some people have labeled it.
I kind of suspect that the film's high esteem in some circles is not so much the film itself, which impressed initially on the technical level; rather I think it gained some sort of stature in the days, weeks, and months after the events of September 11, 2001, when the simplicity of the film's story, coupled with its message that we all have to earn our freedom, was taken to heart by those looking for solace. If you compare this film to Spielberg's Munich, a film that had equally good reviews when it came out, you find that Private Ryan has kind of fallen out of favor and isn't quite so highly regarded.
To me Saving Private Ryan is a technical marvel (which I will curse because of the introduction of "shaky cam" during battle scenes which is now the norm), but it isn't really a great war film beyond that.