Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my general thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. This week’s film is #71 on the list: Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Five years after (deservedly) winning the Oscar with Schindler’s List, Spielberg returns to WWII, and in some ways, Saving Private Ryan takes a similar approach to its more bombastic story by contrasting gritty naturalism with melodramatic formalist touches, though the latter holds it back from being in the same category as the Oscar winner. The opening sequence is its most notorious, depicting the battle of Normandy in chaotic, gruesome detail. The battle sequences, especially this early one, are what makes the film a standout. Like the harrowing depictions of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, Spielberg frames the horrors of war with a focus on realism, and it gives the film lasting power. The flip side of the coin is his ever-present need to please a crowd. The operatic music swells and frequent uses of slow-motion are implemented to underline moments that don’t need underlining. By trying to make the material more palatable or familiar, he ends up dulling its strength. At times, the film feels like two different movies in one, and though the battle sequences are stunningly shot, they only constitute a portion of the nearly 3-hour package.
Does It Belong on the List?
Spielberg has plenty that I think belong on the list, but this isn’t one of them.