Early in Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg recreates the beginning of the end of World War II, the 1944 D-Day landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy. Be forewarned: Nothing you have ever seen in any other war movie will adequately prepare you for this glimpse of hell on earth.
After a brief prologue in a military cemetery, the movie begins in earnest aboard a crowded landing craft, with nervous U.S. soldiers preparing themselves for an assault that is just seconds away. A few young men are frightened - or seasick, or both - and start to vomit into their helmets. For an instant, we feel a rush of reassurance as we recognize Tom Hanks, perhaps the world's most engaging superstar, as a platoon captain. But then we see the captain can't quite manage to stop his hand from shaking. The front of the boat drops open, the enemy gunfire rips into the first wave of soldiers - and we are brutally shoved into the chaos and carnage along with Hanks and his men.
After so many years of seeing movies that reduce violent death to video-game spectacle, audiences may find it difficult, if not impossible, to cope with what happens during this shatteringly brilliant sequence. Throughout 24 minutes of excruciatingly sustained terror, there are no heroic gestures, no defiant wisecracks. Rather, there are desperate men fighting and dying for each step, each inch, they advance forward. Bullets rip into flesh and ricochet off metal. Fatally wounded men spill into the water, until the tide runs dark with blood. Screams of the dying often overwhelm the sound of explosions. Medics frantically tend to casualties - until they, too, are cut down by German troops in nearby bunkers. A soldier grabs a fallen comrade, tries to drag him forward - then realizes there isn't really much left of the poor guy. The captain turns to issue an order, and finds a huge hole where the face of another man used to be.
Not since Samuel Fuller transformed his own wartime experiences into The Big Red One (1980) has any filmmaker given us such a vividly detailed account of a battle in what some have called "the last great war." Like Fuller, Spielberg aims to offer an unvarnished and deglamorized view of men in war, to show how survival instincts and mortal terror, not political aims and lofty idealism, are what motivate soldiers in their day-by-day, moment-to-moment struggles. Francois Truffaut once claimed it is impossible for anyone to make a true anti-war movie, simply because, as soon as a director chooses to film something, he automatically appears to "approve" of whatever he records. It is not the least of Spielberg's achievements here that he definitively demonstrates Truffaut was mistaken.
Another remarkable achievement: Saving Private Ryan is every bit as involving and unsettling after the D-Day landing is finally completed. Capt. Miller (Hanks) and his men barely have a chance to take a breather before they're given another assignment. A private named James Ryan (Matt Damon) has been separated from his unit after parachuting into the French countryside. The bad news: Ryan's three brothers have been killed in combat. The worse news: Gen. George Marshall himself wants Ryan found and returned to his mother back home.
Even if that means risking the lives of several other men on "a public relations mission."
After surviving the bloody business on the Normandy beach, Capt. Miller and his men are understandably skittish about wandering along unfamiliar roads and through bombed-out villages where German forces may lie in wait. A new member of the unit, the inexperienced Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies), tries to encourage his comrades and mask his own fears by talking about duty and honor. (He even quotes Tennyson - "Theirs but to do and die!" - which, under the circumstances, seems singularly insensitive.) But the others, including the cynical Pvt. Reiben (Edward Burns) and the grizzled Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), are not impressed by noble sentiments. Even Capt. Miller, a basically decent fellow who has turned himself into a hard-ass to survive, refuses to accept the mission as anything but another piece of hell he has to endure to get back to his pre-war life.
Hanks gives a masterfully subtle performance as the first among equals in an exceptionally strong ensemble. But the real star of this masterwork remains on the other side of the cameras. Saving Private Ryan is a great American movie by a great American moviemaker.