Saving Private Ryan (1998)
It's been more than a decade; I remembered the feeling, but barely the specifics of the plot at all. And on this rewatch, in which I wasn't as bowled over and my impression downgraded slightly, I see why.
The opening Omaha Beach sequence and the ending Battle at Ramelle are still two of the most harrowing viewpoints into war ever made, eschewing music and sticking closely to various characters' raw experience. Camera hurtles alongsides them, disorienting effects emulate the feeling of shell-shocked, glimpses of violence are unsparing but never gratuitous. Spielberg employs everything in his directorial arsenal to try placing the audience in these soliders' views, succeeding the tricky task of inducing the feeling of utter nausea and overwhelming panic without devolving into outright incoherence.
In a way, it's interesting to see how Spielberg's use of violence evolved throughout the 90s; always respectfully, but going into the stories that require it more and more, until it arguably reaches the apex in Saving Private Ryan. This decade also seems to pave the way in how he will incorporate this kind of intensity, which sometimes ramps up to the point of almost nausea, into his popcorn fare in the 2000s and beyond. Be it Minority Report's breathlessly grim fun, even some elements in the climatic action of Tintin, but most notably War of the Worlds, in which it feels like he reconfigures his Saving Private Ryan style into a more PG-13-blockbuster-friendly, but no less thematically grim and dark, spectacle.
However, if it has only been about the combat experience, we might have a sure masterpiece on our hands. Instead, this is more plotty than it probably warrants. Two bookending scenes set in the present are widely despised, whereas I am a bit more ambivalent about them. I still think it is more cynical than given credit for and rather thematically fitting -- a man asking desperately if he has lived up to the wartime propagonda, set up uncaringly from the higher power, that has cost many lives in his name. But there is no denying that the execution comes off as too sickly sweet by half.
In between the two all-timer setpieces, we also have a search-and-rescue arc, full of arresting details, reasonably sympathetic characters, and haunting passages of query into the nature of morality and sacrifice; all very compellingly by-the-number. The reason might be this is the first time that Spielberg hasn't leavened his non-blockbuster work with some counterintuitive crowdpleasing sensibility; this is wholly serious all the way through. As such, the drama doesn't cut as deep as his past works; even the inferior The Color Purple somehow feels thornier. But it says a lot about Spielberg's command of the medium, and the humanity he wrings from his actors, that despite all that, the juxtaposition of two grave war sequences, the problematic but meaningful bookends, and "Earn this", still has some heartbreaking power and reverberate long for me after it ends. 8/10