Saving Private Ryan (1998)

saving-private-ryan-1There’s something remarkably moving about the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. I’ve only felt it a few times in my own lifetime whether it was family members recognizing names on the Vietnam Memorial tears in their eyes or walking over the sunken remains of the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.  It’s these types of memories that don’t leave us — even as outsiders — people who cannot understand these historical moments firsthand.

And that’s why Saving Private Ryan is a truly breathtaking, at times horrifying, and wholly visceral experience. Words cannot actually describe the visuals on the beaches of  Normandy at Omaha. The utter chaos, death, and tumult engulfing the scene — above and below the surface of the water.

The cast includes a number of memorable players including Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Matt Damon, and even Nathan Fillion. And yet it’s not about any one man or even a singular act of valor. Even Private Ryan is only a starting point of a far more universal tale.

It’s also easy to say that this is a film cheapens life in the number of bodies that are blown to bits and slaughtered seemingly needlessly on screen. However, it’s even more difficult to acknowledge that in one sense life is cheap — transient to the extent that our bodies are not indestructible. We are fallible beings and breath so easily leaves our lungs and no time is this more evident than in the wake of war.

One sequence that springs to mind involves two surrendering men who, on first inspection, look German and sound German. The men under Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) command gun them down and they do it with smiles on their faces. This, after all, is the enemy, pure and simple. Except they were not “Nazis.” They weren’t even Germans, but Czechs (based on what they say). Men who historically had been captured by the Nazis and press-ganged into military service. And in the end, they get shot by Americans. Even the undertones of this scene point to the fact that their lives were so easily snuffed out, without even a second thought.

So, yes, life seems cheap in this film in the physical sense, even from just one example. But it is granted a great deal of depth and richness in many other ways. Families and brothers. Comrades and compatriots. Personal convictions and disillusionment in war revealed through the many characters we come to know. All of that bleeds out of this film along with the blood from the bodies.

In that sense, it’s all difficult to watch and Spielberg never intended this to be easy going.  I cannot speak for others but within the intense moments of bloodshed, the lulls in the action, and unrest within the ranks, there’s a solemnity developed.

War is at times the everyday. It’s indescribable and inscrutable. But Saving Private Ryan’s suggests that there are certain things that we hold onto. High and lofty things such as liberty and freedom that are often so easy to discount. They seem easily besmirched, dragged through the mud by all of our human inadequacies and evil. But perhaps that makes them even more important to hang on to, because just like life, these ideals are worth the fight, though they might so easily be lost. It doesn’t make the wrong right or cover up all the pain, even found within this film, but it latches on a tiny bit of good within a whole lot of messiness.

It goes back to the basic implications of the film’s main conceit — the task of saving one man — Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). It’s  representative of not only the entire war but each and every one of us as we traverse roads of tribulation. Every story, whether wartime or our own, deserves an ending with some type of salvation. Because Saving Private Ryan is imbued with so much more meaning. Our human experience is wrapped up in it. There is no greater love than a man giving his life for his friends. But imagine if you are dying for the freedom of others or even the preservation of someone who you hardly know? That’s what happens in this story.

That’s why when elderly James Ryan comes back to Normandy so many years later, there’s a gravity to the situation. This is by no means a corny piece of Hollywood drama. It’s the ultimate act of love that he has received and he can hardly comprehend it, just as we as an audience must grapple with it too. In that way, Saving Private Ryan is indubitably affecting not simply as a war drama but an epic human narrative. It pertains to all of us.

The profound and terrifying thing about this gift that he has received through the sacrifice of so many others is that he cannot “earn it.” Because, in this sense, life proves to be far from cheap. There is no way to earn that back. There is no way for us to live a wholly “good” life or be completely “good” people. The whole entirety of the film tells us otherwise. Still, we can live our life with a sense of freedom knowing that cannot be expected of us. A life of purpose is all that can be asked of us. It’s that kind of purpose that makes Saving Private Ryan continuously compelling.

5/5 Stars

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge_of_Spies_poster.jpgSteven Spielberg is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock in many ways. True, he’s not as much of an audacious experimenter, but he most certainly knows the movie making craft. He understands suspense, good storytelling, and strong production values. Because he still is one of the most entertaining filmmakers to date, maintaining a grasp of all the integral details that make a Hollywood film interesting.

Hitchcock famously made two Cold War thrillers of his own in Torn Curtain and Topaz that were unfortunately rather disappointing. In this respect, Spielberg may have just bested the Master with his own espionage thriller Bridge of Spies. The secret is that he too grabs hold of an everyman story, utilizing one of his most magnetic collaborators Tom Hanks, but he also has an immense appreciation for the historical subtext. This is as much a historical drama as it is a human drama or a spy thriller. The fact that it functions on multiple levels gives it a greater degree of depth.

The film starts with a rather ordinary fellow (Mark Rylance) who we don’t know anything about, except he is rather old and likes to paint. Soon the FBI is on his tail and we quickly remember that this is 1958 — the Red Scare is real — the Cold War is freezing over. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are fresh on everyone’s mind as Rudolf Abel  (Rylance) is imprisoned on multiple accounts of conspiracy.

This is a big deal and the whole country is watching, nay, the whole world is watching including the Soviets. The job of defending Abel appears a thankless one and so the buck gets passed to an insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks). Whereas everyone else sees this as a sorry position to be in, Donovan understands it’s a stellar opportunity to reflect the ideals that the American justice system are founded on. Not everyone is so keen with his ideals, especially when it involves a Communist. It is in these early scenes where we understand the fear of a nuclear threat is real. Yes, the Red Scare is real. You begin to understand how it could take root in the American public. After his face is seen in the papers, Donovan receives the ire of the public and it affects his family.

Meanwhile, no one knows it but the FBI is proceeding with a highly sensitive mission in Soviet airspace. Any slight screw-up and nuclear war seems inevitable. But of course, the long-remembered Gary Powers is shot down in a U2 plane taking recon footage and all of the sudden things have gotten a lot hotter.

The second leg of the narrative follows Donovan as he tries to broker a deal between the two superpowers for a prisoner swap. Both countries are intent on keeping  a lid on their national secrets. If Donovan’s task was just an exchange between Gary Powers and Abel it would be, shall we say, simple, but there has to be an added wrinkle. There always is. We get at least a taste of what the Berlin Wall truly did in creating a fissure between families and friends in Germany. However, crucial to this story, it also trapped an American  student named Frederic Pryor in the GDR. Now Donovan has two men to try and retrieve, one bargaining chip in Abel, and two powers he must deal with. The Soviet Union are the main priority along with Powers, but his contacts in the GDR are still miffed about not being recognized by the U.S. They are not about to be pushed around.

Really we can break Bridge of Spies down to just a few men, but these seemingly simple actions and interactions are blown up and magnified to the nth degree on a highly political scale. If this is actually, in essence, how this war played out in real time then it is almost a ludicrously crazy ordeal.

Still, as Spielberg always does, he reverts his story back to the human component and Donovan, the man who put his vocational talents to good use in ways that had global impact. Imagine, he was a civilian, a man who was hardly given any authority by his own government, and yet his fortitude was ultimately rewarded. Then, at the end of a hard day’s work, he returned quietly to his wife and kids with the jar of marmalade he had promised to bring home.

Spielberg does well to evoke nostalgia, with the coats and the ties, the hats and ’50s sensibilities. And though we can guess the outcome of this biography before we get there, that doesn’t make the historical climate or how we get there any less gripping. That’s where this story succeeds. Furthermore, Mark Rylance’s performance is thoroughly grounded and his scrupled man of honor truly reflects socialism with a human face, all the while wielding a droll sense of humor.

It’s easy to look at the past events of world history with a more tempered eye. We can see the rationale of Donovan, the blind paranoia of the American public, and the unyielding tensions on all fronts. The day and age may have changed, but just have a look around. There are still tensions rising to this day. We still need the common man to enact change, now as much as ever. It’s that type of sentiment that really separates Spielberg from Hitchcock. His every man comes with heart.

4/5 Stars

Charlie Wilson’s War (2008)

charliewilson1With Aaron Sorkin’s script as a road map, Charlie Wilson is a character that Mike Nichols can truly have fun with. You can easily see him getting an undue amount of delight in this man who was able to do such a momentous thing while simultaneously walking on the wild side. It had to be a good story to warrant the director’s cinematic swan song.

It’s a film that’s surprisingly overflowing with talent, headlined by the big three: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, Amy Adams, a young Emily Blunt, and even the old veteran Ned Beatty pop up. Hanks is the undisputed star and Hoffman is the other standout among all the other players. Most of the female roles feel decidedly unsubstantial which is not too surprising given Wilson’s lifestyle. However, Charlie Wilson’s War also is a necessary piece of storytelling because it attempts to understand a period of history that for some reason is often absent from film. From 1980 to ’88 during the Carter and Reagan administrations, a lot happened — even as Dan Rather remained through it all.

charliewilson2In the opening moments, it becomes obvious that Charlie Wilson is not so much an easily corruptible representative as he is a sexed-up man who enjoys charming female company. He’s “Good Time Charlie” for good reason. He surrounds himself with pretty young things, doesn’t mind playing around a bit, and even has a cocaine charge hanging over him after a potentially objectionable night in Vegas. In fact, the attorney looking into his case is, interestingly enough, one Rudy Giuliani.

But the one thing that he had driving him was the desire to end the Soviets total obliteration of Afghanistan with their helicopters, and so he tried to spearhead the most extraordinary of covert wars which ultimately had considerable consequences. His keen ally Joanne Herring (Roberts) is resolute to get support for the oppressed people of the Middle East because it’s a religious issue. Meanwhile, CIA officer Gust Avrakos (Hoffman) battles with him over acquiring more funding. Although he’s not necessarily a great man, people like Charlie and it serves him well.

This film is fascinating, in a sense, for the implications it had for the cultural moment in which it came out. Could Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring have had any idea that these weapons used to fight the Soviets might have fallen into the wrong hands — the hands that orchestrated 9/11? That’s certainly a big jump and perhaps an utterly unwarranted presumption, but it’s a thought that nevertheless creeps into a skeptical mind. If nothing more it suggests that all history is so intertwined and interconnected. You cannot talk about the roots of the Cold War without starting with Word War II beforehand or you cannot attempt to get at the War on Terror without acknowledging the waning years of the Cold War that preceded it.

It’s troubling in a sense that we turned these things into a righteous war. Though it is understandable to want to do what is right, and oftentimes God is used to justify certain actions, it gets difficult when there is far greater ambiguity. It’s not always as easy as good vs. evil. We are all besmirched by greed, corruption, and the like. There’s no simple way to get around this fact, even bringing to mind Bob Dylan’s classic indictment “God on our Side” right about now.

This film carries those same undertones of religion and God that feel misguided since politicians and whoever else utilize him as their ultimate justification — their ace in the hole. Gus ironically feels the most honest for his general disdain for the practice. The war against the Soviets and the War on Terrorism are undoubtedly far more complicated matters, just as a discussion of God is a complex issue in its own right. Like the famed fable of the Zen Master, all we can really say is “We’ll see.” It takes a wise person to acknowledge they don’t know the end of the story, just like they don’t know all the answers to the big questions. They can only try their best to understand what will happen and act in the most sagacious way possible.

3.5/5 Stars

That Thing You Do! (1996)

thatthing6Recently I’ve seen a lot of films about music, musicians, and the like. There’s Llewyn Davis, who seems to have talent and yet gets little recognition for what he does. There’s the street musician in Once, who also has a lot of talent and we like to think that he makes the big-time, although the film leaves his fate open-ended. One is steeped in melancholy and the other has a raw beauty. Tom Hanks directorial and screenwriting debut That Thing You Do! seems to have very little in common with those films except in that features music. But that deserves some explanation.

Hanks’ film is a nostalgic trip for anyone wanting to get sent back to the 1960s via the 1990s. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable little romp that revolves around a group of typical teens in Pennsylvania, who go from a small-time talent show to one-hit wonders touring the state. But that’s exactly it. They’re one-hit wonders, who lack the talent of older more experienced musicians. In reality, they’re just a group of kids, still wet behind the ears, and just excited for the ride they are about to embark on. Even over the course of the film, their one smash hit, the eponymous “That Thing You Do!” can feel repetitive, and it is easy to realize that this is not the type of music that real connoisseurs want. It’s for the masses. The shrieking girls and the guys who want to dance with the shrieking girls. It’s certainly superficial, and yet there’s something quaint and at the same time infectious about it.

thatthing2We can readily get behind this little band christened The Oneders and modified to The Wonders for easier pronunciation because they’re a lovable bunch. Their members include appliance seller-turned flashy drummer Guy (Tom Everett Scott), lead singer and serious-minded Jimmy (Jonathon Schaech), the jokester Lenny (Steve Zahn), the “other guy,” and, of course, the ever-present Faye (Liv Tyler).

In many ways, they shadow The Beatles. They ditched one drummer for a better one. They both lost their first bass player. Their first hit took a ballad and sped it up to great effect. The little similarities are undoubtedly put there by Hanks, but with all the similarities it only serves to point how different these boys are. They’re not going to end up music royalty like the lads from Liverpool. And that’s okay.

thatthing3We can get satisfaction out of their first airplay on the radio or the genesis of a romance that we were always expecting. In a way, this film is like a lesser American Graffiti even going so far as giving its characters an epilogue. It takes us back to that time and place, makes us feel good, and gets a few of us nostalgic for the olden days. Although, the old televisions and dishwashers don’t exactly look like fun now.

But let’s get back to that romance. The film Starter for 10 had a similar enigma when it came to the blond or the brunette. I suppose you could call it a trope, but on one side you have the primped and provocative Charlize Theron and on the opposite side of the spectrum is Liv Tyler, who acts as the honorary fifth member of the Wonders. She is constantly faithful and encouraging in the boys rise to the top, and they are better because of her. That’s the kind of girl you’re supposed to get and the right guy gets her.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: I watched the version of the film with 39 minutes of added footage and what it really did was develop these characters a little further so you grow to appreciate them even more. Otherwise, I’m sure the original cut gives you the same narrative so either version is probably fine.

Catch me if You Can (2002)

Catch_Me_If_You_CanDirected by Steve Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCapprio, Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken, the film chronicles the exploits of Frank Abagnale. As a boy int he 1960s he grew up with an American father and French mother but after they get a divorce Frank flees home for good. As his money runs out Frank begins to pull confidence scams and he goes so far as impersonating a Pan-Am airline pilot.

He slowly moves across the country and cashes forged checks adding up to millions of dollars. Soon the FBI catches wind of him and agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) begins to track Frank. By now Frank has masqueraded as a doctor and a lawyer while also finding time to get married. Hanratty starts to close in again and this time Frank heads to Europe where he uses more of his forged checks.

Frank has a run-in with the French authorities but Carl got him out of it only to have Frank escape once more into the U.S. This time he is caught for good and given a 12 year sentence despite his youth. But thanks to Carl, Frank is offered a job with the FBI to lend his talents to check fraud. And from that point on Frank’s life was relatively normal.

I really enjoyed this story line, DiCaprio is good, the soundtrack is great (Come Fly with Me!) and the title sequence is unique. All in all this is an entertaining cat and mouse game that is well worth the time.

4/5 Stars

The Best Films of Tom Hanks

1. Saving Private Ryan
2. Forrest Gump
3. Toy Story 3
4. Toy Story 2
5. Toy Story
6. Apollo 13
7. Catch Me if You Can
8. Captain Phillips
9. Bridge of Spies
10. Big
11. The Green Mile
12. Road to Perdition
13. Cast Away
14. Saving Mr. Banks
15. A League of Their Own
16. Sleepless in Seattle
17. Philadelphia
18. Splash
19.You’ve Got Mail

Review: Forrest Gump (1994)

950b6-forrestgump1If you want to start out on the broadest level possible, the film is a lesson in 20th century American History. It charts the turbulent course of mankind including assassinations, counter-culture, Vietnam, Anti-War Rallies, The Cold War, Watergate and much much more. The substantial soundtrack dials back the clock to fully immerse the audience in that time and place.

It is the dream movie for pop culture fanatics and history aficionados. That’s why I enjoy it. However, much like the feather that flutters in the breeze drifting this way and that, Forrest Gump is a character who floats through history as it is made. It begins with his leg braces which give inspiration to the Elvis phenomenon. Ultimately, he plays football for Alabama, sees the school desegregated, and becomes an All-American who meets JFK.

Soon it’s off to Vietnam, followed by a Medal of Honor, and a trip back home thanks to a million dollar wound. Forrest gets a taste of the nation’s capital and soon becomes an accomplished ping pong player, makes it big in the shrimping business, and heads home back to Alabama once more after buying Apple stock. All these moments are absorbing to be sure, but that alone would make the film just okay as a historical drama.

Tom Hanks‘ Forrest Gump is the important piece in the entire equation because of the people that gravitate towards him. Forrest himself only has an IQ of 75, but he is so unlike many of the characters we are used to. Not because he is “simple” so to speak, because he is far from it. Perhaps it’s the fact that he is wholly genuine, loyal, and innocent. That’s almost unheard of these days. He seems to stand at complete odds with the history that is happening all around. Sometimes it looks very different from his eyes or he is completely oblivious to what is happening.

However, in some ways, he seems to have things figured out better than most. He loves those close to him, does what he loves, and never loses his positive spirit. His observations on life might be plain, but they are nonetheless powerful to those around him. To Hank’s credit, he infuses the character with a slow-witted charm and gives him a deep southern drawl. He’s Forrest, Forrest Gump. That’s all he needs to be.

Sally Field has a relatively short screen appearance, which is still extremely important because Forrest’s mother is the one who helps guide his whole outlook on life. She encourages him to make the best of what God has given him and to realize he is no different than other “normal” people. Her love, cultivation, and homespun knowledge is what seemingly allows Forrest to lead a full life, though pithy sayings only go so far, at some point you just have to live.

Jenny (Robin Wright) is another character who is perhaps a greater drifter than Forrest himself. She is constantly trying to find her way through the turbulent times while Forrest’s feet always seem firmly planted on the ground (Rather ironic since he is always running). She is a prodigal and always prone to return to Forrest who always welcomes her back with open arms no matter the circumstances. It might be a stint in a nightclub, living the hippie life, joining the Black Panther Party, or being with other men. Forrest is forever loyal and protective of her. She cannot always handle having him in her life, and she wishes to find her own way. He is always there for her, though, even up to the point of taking care of a son.

Bubba and Lieutenant Dan are Forrest’s best good friends and both men are greatly impacted by Vietnam. Bubba dies and Lt. Dan loses his legs (not to mention his self-respect). Forrest is fiercely loyal to both comrades, starting up Bubba Gumps Shrimping in honor of his late friend and giving work to Lt. Dan when he needs it most. He is a friend for the ages and he takes the title seriously.

Calling Forrest Gump just a historical drama or even sentimental tripe might be partially accurate and yet it cohesively adds up to more than its parts. 20 years have gone by, true, and some of the luster may have gone away, but certainly not all of it.  Though it might be far from perfect, it is a story that is worth any shortcomings, because it has heart and a fantastical telling of American history that is still worth watching.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

c1b38-saving_private_ryan_poster

Telling an amazing story of bravery, Saving Private Ryan is both inspiring and moving. Beginning with the invasion of Normandy on D-Day June 6, 1944, the film follows a group of American soldiers as they look for a Francis Ryan. Since all three of his brothers are dead their mission is to find him and send the private home . Despite the dangers and the subsequent deaths of many comrades, they finally complete their mission after one last heroic fight. The movie flashes forward to the present day Ryan as he kneels at the graves of those brave men who saved him. Unsure he asks his wife if he lived a good life because those soldiers payed the ultimate price for him. With director Steven Speilberg, Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and other good character actors, this is a powerful war film with great battle sequences as well as amazing heroism.

5/5 Stars

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

13b45-saving_mr-_banks_theatrical_posterThe name Disney is universal, and if you ask people if they ever saw Mary Poppins as a kid they will probably give you a nod and break out in song. Mr. Banks is the film about the film, and it stars Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the difficult and complex author of the source novel. She is balanced out by Tom Hanks, who takes on the role of the larger than life Walt Disney. 

The year is 1961 and for 20 years now he has been prodding Mrs. Travers for the rights to her work. Each and every time she refused him, but now the royalties are only trickling in and so she reluctantly agrees to head to Los Angeles, very sure the endeavor will fail. She is a difficult lady and very hard to please whether it is the airplane, her talkative personal driver, the gifts in her hotel suite, and most of all her literary creation. She won’t have her Mary Poppins frolicking about and there will be no songs, no animation, and certainly no Dick Van Dyke. Disney is willing to make concession after concession in order to bring the story to life since it is very dear to not only him but his daughters as well. Mrs. Travers begins work with the Sherman Brothers and the screenwriter, but she is constantly displeased and calling for changes. It seems that nothing will satisfy her. Though some breakthroughs are made and Disney continues to be patient, Travers is distraught to learn there are to be animated Penguins. Just like that, she heads back to England.

However, that is only one-half of the storyline. The other occurs in flashbacks scattered throughout the film. Travers was a little girl in Australia with a playful father who was a banker. He encouraged her to never stop dreaming, but he also struggled with alcoholism. His problems cause all sorts of problems for his wife, for his bank, and most definitely his girls. Only later would Helen Goff, aka P.L. Travers, realize the impact of what had happened. She watched her mother nearly commit suicide, and she saw her father die because there was no thing and no one to save him. 

Back in the present, Walt Disney finally figures out a little more about Mrs. Travers, and he personally travels to England to talk it out with her. They have a heart to heart, and he assures her that Mary Poppins is not only hers but his and many others, who have enjoyed the magic and hope that came off the page. The fact that Mary came to save Mr. Banks gives comfort to her own tragic story, and with this realized the Mary Poppins film became a reality that numerous fans have enjoyed for nearly 50 years now. 

This film is made enjoyable by the back and forth of Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. Thompson is especially good in her initially prickly but then softhearted portrayal of P.L Travers. Ralph the kindly driver and Colin Farrel as Travers Goff were also integral pieces of the film. The nostalgia and period look that is created of the 1960s is also pleasant to view. Initially, I did not care much for the flashbacks that fill the entire film, but I will concede that they are important to understanding the inner workings of P.L. Travers. All in all, this is a great sentimental picture that should leave us with a smile on our faces and a desire to sing some ditties like “Chim Chim Cheree.”

3.5/5 Stars

Apollo 13 (1995)

Directed by Ron Howard and headlined by Tom Hanks, this film opens with the landing of Neil Armstrong on the moon. It then leads up to the Apollo 13 mission led by Jim Lovell (Hanks). We see his life, his colleagues, and the hard work that goes into such an undertaking. There are several hitches in preparation but the takeoff is smooth, beginning a supposedly routine mission. However, after a malfunction the situation turns dire very fast and the men who looked forward to walking on the moon now must struggle just to get home. They make difficult decisions and Lovell keeps them level-headed while Houston scrambles to problem solve and bring them home. This film is powerful and ultimately cheering with a good accompanying score. Howard does a wonderful job transporting us back to that time however I would have liked more back story on the astronauts leading up to their mission.

It seems only fitting that I would see this movie for the first time the same day that Neil Armstrong passed away. This film certainly would not be the same with out him because even though he did not play a major role, he impacted space exploration forever.

4/5 Stars