Though much of popular culture looks back over history for inspiration, blockbuster films of late seem to be stuck looking toward a future full of pre-millennial tension. With the stately Saving Private Ryan, the only film of the summer to warrant blockbuster status, Steven Spielberg presents a moving history lesson, looking back at World War II, not only for his inspiration but for our own, probing an event that has receded into the haze of our media culture but continues to form the basis of American ideals and behavior.
After surviving the hellish gauntlet of the Normandy invasion, Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squadron are assigned to a public affairs missionto rescue the last remaining son of the Ryan family (Matt Damon). Each of Private James Francis Ryan's three brothers has been killed in combat. Determined not to deliver a fourth telegram to Ryan's mother, Pentagon brass resolve to save Ryan's life at all costs, even if it means risking the lives of the eight men sent behind enemy lines to save him.
Captain John Miller assembles what's left of his men and stoically sets off across the fields of occupied France, searching for the needle in the haystack. Among the squad of eight are Private Reiben (Ed Burns), the wise-cracking Brooklynite; Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), the Southerner whose deadly aim is directed by Biblical quotations; Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), the true blue veteran soldier; and Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), a Jew who knows his stake in the war too well. It's a motley but not contrived group that creates an ever-tightening nucleus around the story.
Spielberg is a master manipulator, weaving back and forth across the line between style and substance to reach the desired effect. Sometimes style gets the best of him, as with the dinosaurs who trampled any signs of character development beneath their feet in Jurassic Park. While Ryan's effects are superb (in that they don't seem like effects), the stylistic element that most comes to the fore is the filmmaking itself.
After a brief interlude in the present day, the film plunges mercilessly into the Normandy invasion. The taking of the Omaha beach is not given the slow-motion treatment. There's no stilted choreography, and no indulgent, swelling strings punctuate the scene. Stark, gritty, and horrifying, it admirably proves the connection between war and glory.
Beginning with a tight shot of Miller's shaking hand as the Higgins boats approach shore, the audience becomes a very active participant in the gruesome, heart-wrenching action. The camera refuses to allow its viewer the safety of distance. We are dragged along overboard, out of the terrifying whiz of bullets and bursts of bombs into the silence underwater where soldiers struggle to free themselves from heavy packs before rising up to rejoin the ranks as they clamber towards shore. Then we are launched headlong into battle with unnerving force. Shells hurtle by. Rocks, sand, and limbs fly through the air. The surf runs red with blood. And the documentary-style hand-held camera ducks, bobs, and lurches with all the terror that we feel, conveying each gruesome detail with a crispness that sears it on the memory. Each battle scene is given this carefully spontaneous treatment, compellingly portraying the chaos of war.
The only vivid color throughout the entire film is the red of blood. Everything else suffuses into greens and grays. Even the opening and closing image of the gently undulating American flag is washed out, tired, colorless, having been through hell and back. It serves as the curtain that lifts and closes, revealing the murky world of war where nothing is truly black and white.
Hanks' Captain serves as the film's centerpiece and ultimately gives answer to Ryan's query about value of life. His performance as the stolid, enigmatic commander who deflects potential insubordination and inquiries about his personal life with equal ease is typically straightforward. But his mysterious reserve is touchingly offset by his recurrent trembling hand, a trait that is intimately highlighted throughout the film.
Jeremy Davies, as Corporal Upham, steals the show as the timid interpreter who must leave his typewriter behind to take up a gun as he joins in the search for Private Ryan. Much like the audience, he is plucked out of his chair and thrust into a terrifying situation far beyond his ken, responding first with reason and compassion and finally with violence, learning a different lesson about the value of life than his comrades.
Spielberg's choice to bookend the film in the present day is his only misstep. The sentimentalism of a present-day Ryan revisiting the battlefields of Normandy (with his entire blonde, corn-fed family in tow) detracts from the moving grittiness of the body of the film. Although the story itself is a sentimental one, the film never indulges it. Wrapping the threads up in too neat a ball, such romanticism casts a cloying pall over the whole.
Saving Private Ryan misses the high-watermark of Schindler's List, but Spielberg has still delivered a film to shake us out of our complacency, where easily avoidable inner cities and impossible asteroids are only the monsters under the bed of our collective imagination.