More than any of his other films, and that includes "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" won't leave you alone. To see it is to need to talk about it, to wrestle both with the formidable impact of its unprecedented strengths and the surprising resilience of its niggling weaknesses. A powerful and impressive milestone in the realistic depiction of combat, "Saving Private Ryan" is as much an experience we live through as a film we watch on screen.
No one needs to be told about Spielberg's ability as a popular culture taste-maker: Seven of Hollywood's 20 top-grossing films bear his mark as either director, producer or executive producer. But because his skills as a filmmaker are so great, because he can and often does get away with working at a fraction of his capabilities, "Saving Private Ryan" is a startling reminder of exactly how spectacular a director Spielberg can be when he allows himself to be challenged by a subject (in this case World War II) that pushes against his limits.
The son of a combat veteran, Spielberg says the first movies he made as a child dealt with that war, and many critics feel that the 40 minutes showing 1941 Shanghai under Japanese attack that open "Empire of the Sun" rank among the best footage he's ever shot. Spielberg is most effective when he doesn't flinch, when his respect for the material compels him to be as honest as he can, and that is largely the case here.
It's not that "Private Ryan's" story (written by Robert Rodat) of an eight-man squad detailed to find and rescue a soldier in just-invaded Normandy doesn't provide opportunities for conventional movie heroism. It does, and Tom Hanks as laconic squad leader Capt. John Miller gives an indelible performance as an elevated everyman, our ideal vision of how we all hope we'd act under the duress of combat.
But Capt. Miller is not a casually heroic John Wayne knockoff. He's despairing about his role in leading men to slaughter, troubled at the person the war has turned him into, and the periodic trembling of one of his hands reveals he's dangerously close to coming apart.
In this determination not to trivialize the nature of war and what it does to people, "Private Ryan" is often a darker and more pessimistic look at combat and reality than we are used to from either Hollywood or Spielberg. This is a war where American soldiers mock virtue and shoot surrendering Germans, where decent and altruistic actions tend to be fatal, where death is random, stupid and redeems hardly anything at all. Even the usually vivid American flag is, in Janusz Kaminski's remarkable cinematography, bleached out and desaturated.
More than in its attitudes, more even than in its surprising focus on the nature of cowardice, "Saving Private Ryan" reveals its determination to be accurate in the way it presents combat action. Using a trio of superlative operators (Mitch Dubin, Chris Haarhoff, Seamus Corcoran) and relying on the newsreel look of hand-held cameras, "Private Ryan" gets as close to the unimaginable horror and chaos of battle as fiction film ever has, closer in fact than some audience members may want to experience.
After a brief prelude depicting an old veteran, we're not sure exactly who, returning with his family to the American cemetery at Normandy, we flash immediately back to that beach and a shot of Capt. Miller in his landing craft on D-day, June 6, 1944. During the next 20 or so minutes, we are shown the invasion of France with a violence and an intensity that is almost beyond describing.
The slaughter starts immediately and does not let up. Men are enveloped in flames, ripped to shreds by bullets, dead as soon as they set foot on the beach or, in an agonizing mixture of horror and beauty, dying in slow-motion as they are dragged underwater. One man's leg is blown off, another loses an arm and tries awkwardly to pick it up with the other, a third lies in agony as his intestines graphically spill on the ground. Panic, pitiless fear and bloody pandemonium are everywhere; we see the raw terror on everyone's face, and for once we know exactly why it's there.
A great deal has been made about the violence level in "Saving Private Ryan," and though it is horrific, it's a world apart from the pandering, anything-for-a-rush blood sports that characterize business-as-usual Hollywood. There's no attempt to make the violence fun and games, and special pleading is completely absent. Instead, the visual tone is the dispassionate, pitiless one of an all-seeing but uninvolved deity, inviting us to look on this awful destruction and despair.