Saving Private Ryan Vs. Band of Brothers

There are many great films about World War II, but two that stand out in my mind is Spielberg’s masterpiece Saving Private Ryan and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. I find these works to be good companion pieces, because whenever I watch one, I am reminded how great the other is as well. They cover roughly the same period of the war, and both are clearly passion projects for Spielberg and Hanks. Here are some of my favorite elements of both films (contains spoilers):
Compelling casts: Both have impressive casts featuring a lot of actors we’re not used to seeing in these kinds of projects, like David Swimmer as the pain in the ass Captain Sobel or Ted Danson who briefly appears as the other Private Ryan’s commanding officer. Everyone is stellar in both works, but there are some stand-outs for me.
Saving Private Ryan- Tom Hanks: I’m a big Hanks fan but I think this is my favorite performance of his. His portrayal of the Captain who was an English teacher back home but remains a mystery to his fellow soldiers is a subtle performance, which explains why he was snubbed at the 1999 Oscars, losing best actor to Roberto Benigni. I appreciate subtly, the Academy does not. He’s a man changed by war, and while he’s eager to return home, he’s worried about finding out how different he really has become.
Band of Brothers – Ron Livingston: Known best for his work in the workplace comedy Office Space, Livingston was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance of Captain Lewis Nixon. While clearly a good solider, by the end of the series he has had his fill of army life. He’s sarcastic, often drunk, and sees no glory in any of it anymore, but he continues to throw himself out of planes. His friendship with Major Dick Winters (Damian Lewis who won a Golden Globe for his performance) is an important element of the series. Winters is a model soldier and they often provide conflicting views on the war. When writing letters to families back home, informing them their loved one had been killed, Nixon is at a loss over what to write. Winters tells him to say they died heroes, but Nixon doesn’t know if he believes that anymore.
Comic Relief: One thing that gets overlooked when discussing World War II is that these soldiers were kids who were completely unprepared for what they were getting themselves into when they signed up. Companies of men were forced together for long stretches of time, creating a family type unit (or a band of brothers- get it). You get enough 18 year old boys together, there’s going to be some goofiness, even under thedirest circumstances.
Saving Private Ryan- the other Private Ryan. Captain Miller and crew find a Private James Ryan and inform him that his brothers are dead, only to find out it’s the wrong man. This other Ryan (played by future space captain Nathan Fillion) is a blubbering mess and desperate to know how all his brothers could have possibly been killed, seeing that they are all under the age of ten. Miller realizes the error and assures him he’s sure the little guys are fine, but is more than a little annoyed about all this.
Band of Brothers- Sgt George Luz : This guy steals every scene he’s in, as Easy Company’s resident expert impressionist. From tricking Captain Sobel during a training exercise, to having a smart answer for every stupid question, this radio man rarely lets on that he’s one false move away from instant death. He gets bonus points from because he’s played by Rick Gomez, who was also big Pete’s number one bully “Endless” Mike on Pete and Pete.
Heartbreaking scenes: You never forget these movies are about war. World War II was an extremely traumatic time for America. Everyone knew someone who was fighting and many knew a kid who lost their life. World War II also featured one of the most villainous characters in the history of mankind, Adolf Hitler, who was responsible for some of the most gruesome atrocities the world has ever known. Both films beautifully capture the horrors of war.
Saving Private Ryan- Giovanni Ribisi crying for his mother: When their medic is shot, the troops hurry to try to save him while he tries to guide them. Knowing the severity of his injury, he begins to call for his mother and wishes he could go home. You can’t help but think of how many boys died in the middle of a battlefield so far from home. This scene is enough to make you wonder “Is any cause worth this?”
Band of Brothers- the finding of the Concentration Camp: It’s easy to forget that America did not know about Hitler’s death camps until the tail end of the war. While they were aware the Nazis were trying to rid Germany of their Jewish community, it was not yet known how complete this obsession had become. When Easy Company stumbles upon a concentration camp, they are stunned at what they have found and have to piece together exactly what they’ve uncovered. Even Luz is speechless. Even more devastating, they learn they can’t even feed these starving people, because if they eat more than their withered bodies can handle, they will die.
While not everyone would find a World War II movie marathon to be the best way to spend a weekend, if you haven’t seen these films, I strongly urge you to rectify this immediately. They are both beautiful representations of one of the darkest times in world history, with surprising performances, brilliant scripts, and amazing special effects that completely capture the trama of war.

  • Big

    Big was a movie that got a lot of play in my house when I was a kid. The giant piano scene is particularly etched in my memories. However, it’s a very different movie when viewed as an adult. There’s things that you don’t pick up as a child because you don’t completely understand what’s going on, that become crystal clear once you reach adulthood, mainly the fact that a grown woman inadvertently has sex with a twelve year old boy . Also, I’m pretty sure my attention span as a child had a hour long limit, so it’s very possible I didn’t see anything past the sixty minute mark until I was a teenager.
    Josh Baskin, fed up with the limitations of being twelve, wishes on a carnival fortune teller game that he could be big, only to wake up the next morning a thirty year old man (Tom Hanks). Unable to explain what has happened to his family, he goes to the big city to make it on his own. He quickly gets a job at a toy company and becomes a star employee. He sets up a life for himself, renting an apartment and stocking up on everything a kid can dream of, and even catches the of one of his co-workers (Elizabeth Perkins). However, he misses his family and the uncomplicated life of a child and must find the fortune teller game again to wish for his old life back.
    Tom Hanks is great as a child trapped in a man’s body. To truly capture the child’s perspective, director Penny Marshall had the actor who played Josh at age twelve run through scenes so Hanks could see how a child would approach the situation. While Hanks had all ready starred in a string of films, I think this is the first film of his that hinted at the powerhouse he would later become.
    As an adult I find the romance between Hanks and Perkins’ character disturbing. Who wants to guess how long Susan was in therapy after realizing she had sex with a little boy? The originally ending had Susan wishing she could be a child again, which may have made their hook-up a little easier to stomach. I mean, I know you never have confirmation that they do it, but it’s heavily implied. Maybe I’ve become overly politically correct in my old age but I just don’t think it’s necessary to have them seal the deal and to me it kind of taints the sweetness of the rest of the film.
    John Heard, who’s mostly known as Kevin McCallister’s dad in the Home Alone movies, plays Susan’s ex who sees Josh as a rival at the toy company. Peter has lost all trace of his inner child and is obsessed with money and winning. However, he shows he’s more immature than a child by resorting to cheating in order to beat Josh at squash. He does a great job playing someone filled with hate.
    Overall, Big is a charming movie showcasing one of the most beloved actors in American film history. It’s a great reminder of how we’re in such a hurry to grow up and, once we do, we realize how good we had it.

    Catch Me If You Can

    I often forget about Catch Me If You Can. I own it on DVD but really only watch it if I catch it on cable. It’s a shame because this film has amazing performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, and Christopher Walken and is among Steven Spielberg’s best work. I think what makes this movie so hard to remember, is that it’s so unlike anything we’re used to by these titans of the medium. The film tells the true story of how Frank Abagnale Jr survives on the run by forging checks and creating multiple fake identities, only to attract the attention of FBI agent Frank Hanratty, who makes it his goal to capture the kid.

    This film is about growing up. We all had a moment in our childhood where we learned an adult we admire was less than perfect, so we can relate to the pain Frank Jr feels when he learns the truth about his father and sees the collapse of is parent’s seemingly perfect marriage. Frank Jr’s reaction is to run from the pain and create new realities for himself. It isn’t until he meets and falls for the troubled Brenda (Amy Adams) that while it’s been fun watching him elude the FBI and convince many he was a pilot, a doctor,  and a lawyer, but he’s still a boy who wants his family back together.

    Divorce is a common theme in Spielberg’s work. In an entirely fictional scene, Frank Jr visits his father and attempts to impress him with all his manufactured success. The real Frank Jr loved this addition because he often dreamed of making his father proud and finding a way of bringing his parents back together. It isn’t until he discovers his father has died and his mother has had a child with her new husband, that he allows himself to be caught.

    While Leonardo DiCaprio is clearly the star, the supporting cast really knocks it out of the park. Tom Hanks clearly had fun making this film, getting to use an exaggerated accent and disguise his famous face. The role reminds me of Hanks’ earlier work, when he played less heroic men. It’s interesting to watch as the relationship between Frank Jr and Hanratty evolves. While they start out as rivals, they slowly begin to care for each other because neither has anyone else in the world.

    Christopher Walken is great as Frank Sr, who obviously passed on his ability to bend the truth to his only son. While he plays himself up as a great businessman who has the perfect marriage for his son, it is quickly revealed that he has not been completely honest on his taxes which leads his wife to leave him for one of his friends.  Though he destroys his family, it’s hard to not feel sorry for the guy. He isn’t a malicious person, just a guy who wanted to be respected and maybe wasn’t so good at paying his taxes. Walken so frequently does ridiculous stuff, it’s nice to see him in a quality project.

    The film has a really fun tone to it. If you haven’t seen this mostly forgotten gem, I would encourage you to check it out.