War is bad. We knew this. Steven Spielberg wants to show us why.
"Saving Private Ryan" seems to be two movies at once in its stately annihilation of fervid young soldiers in the throes of anguish. Spielberg has somehow compounded Sam Fuller's angry, vivid tabloid style with David Lean's fulsome pictorialism for the attention-deficit video-game generation. But "The Big Lean One" it is not. Fuller's "The Big Red One" was a flawed poetic masterpiece of autobiographical recollection transformed into throat-grabbing art that bears comparison to "Saving Private Ryan." Fuller's 1980 film dealt with the storming of the beaches, and a squadron of infantry led by stoic sergeant Lee Marvin. Ultimately, the story leads to the liberation of the camps. (It was cut by its distributor; a five-hour version remains unseen.)
The moments that sting the eyes in Spielberg's movie are the ones that sing with the authenticity of the memories of the soldiers who were there. Screenwriter Robert Rodat has benefited from the oral histories collected by World War II historian Stephen Ambrose, such as his best-selling "Citizen Soldiers." (Ambrose tells the New York Observer he signed on as a consultant to the film after it had been completed.)
The movie opens in a military cemetery. An old man visits a grave. The ranks of the infantry are now represented by rows of bone-white crosses and Stars of David. Quickly, we are dispatched to war, awash on a pitching sea, surrounded by vomiting soldiers, tossed up onto the beaches to plunge into slaughter.
The opening thirty-five-minute assault on Omaha Beach is loud, bravura, epic carnage. (I've seen gunfire and I've seen brains). Spielberg and his camera crews convey the disorientation, the sudden death, through assured, limber filmmaking. The futility is pitched on a Sisyphean scale. It is a nightmare of bloody vivisection. It ends. For those who remain in the theater, we then follow a patrol of kibitzing men that gets purposefully lost, to find Pvt. Ryan, the last of four brothers who have survived battles across the vast war.
Where Spielberg was circumspect in visualizing the snapshot of the Holocaust presented in "Schindler's List," even using black-and-white to deracinate that horror, his eye is unblinking here, offering up the blood spray, loosed viscera and chunky brain matter that is the corporeal reality of warfare.
Janusz Kaminski's trademark mismatched exposures are augmented by the use of lenses diminished in quality to the standards of more than fifty years ago. The movie is muddy and grainy and dim, yet there are pretty moments– such as a glorious parched gray-green sky hanging over Omaha Beach once it has been taken, looking down on enormous ships and flurries of men on the beach and weather balloons sturdy in the wind.
From the evidence we are given, the characters are the sum of their actions, or more properly their pain. For much of the film, we know nothing of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), the film's ostensible hero. Late, we learn what he has at risk, what he would leave behind back in the U.S. if he were to fail the mission. When we return to the cemetery, meeting the man for whom the patrol might sacrifice everything, we see only that he was fruitful, he multiplied, he lived to a great age.
Spielberg says the film is about "decency," asking, "How do you find decency in the hell of warfare?" But the film is also about patriotism and the notion that one must be prepared to sacrifice all, one's identity, even one's life, to those who rule. If you live, you live, but you must be ready to sacrifice for no expressed philosophy beyond flag, God, country (oh, and Mrs. Ryan back on the farm). The missing five decades of Private Ryan's life puzzled me as the credits rolled. I knew who he was in seconds: living the suburban life of Roy Neary in "Close Encounters," always feeling unworthy, never deserving of accolade or sacrifice, feeling some kind of pain that is inexplicable, inexpressible, one that is not dramatized here. Who has died so that I might live? It is crushing guilt, even for a dramatic cipher such as Ryan.
Some scenes are inspired: a face-off between two snipers, even with one sniper's eye finally exploding into a gush of ruby; a French child slapping her father tearfully after he has exposed her and the patrol to great danger.
The casting is strong, too. Tom Hanks is no Lee Marvin or James Stewart; he's, well, Tom Hanks. The other actors in the patrol are good, both as well-cast faces and as performers who maintain reserve in their what-do-they-bring-to-the-patrol variety of geographical and ethnic types - simmering Tom Sizemore, Brooklyn wise-ass Edward Burns, Jewish kid Adam Goldberg, Italian kid Vin Diesel, dreamy medic Giovanni Ribisi, cowardly translator and perhaps future writer Jeremy Davies. When Ryan is "saved," Matt Damon's appearance as a bland, twinkle-eyed boy-man is perhaps the one casting disappointment. The harder you look, the more he seems to vanish from the screen.
Spielberg's ambition is grand. He strove to make the breathless roller-coaster movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark"; the Holocaust horror movie; the African slave Diaspora drama. He has crafted his own personal genre since "Jurassic Park": the melodrama of the just. There are even hints of it in the two dinosaur tales. Tragedy occurs to make us cry, and then feel good about ourselves. Nothing is so horrible if we may weep together.
So, have we seen a well-crafted commercial artifact from an ambitious artist with a gifted eye? Or splatter uplift? I believe it is both.