A man whose arm has been severed goes back to retrieve it, as
if reluctant to leave a part of himself behind. Another man is
literally blown in half. Yet another lies on the beach with his
intestines spilling out, crying for his mama, reminding us that
most of these guys werent men at all but kids barely out of high
school. The water lapping at the shore turns deep red with blood.
Spielberg has taken a lot of flak for the violence and gore in
this movie, but according to those who were there on that terrible
day at Omaha Beach, this is exactly how it happened. Theres nothing
gratuitous about it, and Spielberg is absolutely justified in
sharing with us the nauseating reality. (However, the parents
I saw in the theatre with pre-teenage children are guilty of abuse.
This stuff is difficult enough for grownups to endure please
dont inflict the film on those too young to handle it.)
If your stomach can make it through the first half-hour, youll
be okay. After that, the carnage is toned down a bit. Or maybe
its just that we become so accustomed to it that we like the
soldiers have shut off the part of our brain that reacts to
With Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg is finishing the job he began
with Schindlers List. Hes already shown us why World War II
was fought; now he shows us how. Cinematically it is brilliant,
making Spielberg almost a shoo-in for a Best Director Oscar. Most
of the battle scenes are shot from low angles with shaky hand-held
cameras and slightly speeded-up film, a deliberate imitation of
newsreels made during the war. Color is diluted to make the landscapes
appear even more bleak. The meticulously staged battle sequences
are mind-boggling in their complexity and could only have been
achieved by someone with Spielbergs prodigious experience and
abilities. Yet despite the films ambitious scope, the director
doesnt attempt to give us the big picture. Instead, he shows
us the war through the eyes of a small group of men.
Lets face it: Shooting and blowing things up is shooting and
blowing things up, whether its done for a noble purpose or its
in a godawful piece of shit like Lethal Weapon 4. The violence
only matters when it affects characters whom we care about.
For that reason, the person most responsible for this movies
success is not Steven Spielberg but Tom Hanks (who could also
be up for another Oscar). As Captain Miller, he makes the decisions
that determine where the action goes next and often determine
who lives and who dies. He is a decent man who forces himself
to be ruthless, though its not really in his nature. Hed rather
not be where he is, but he commands out of a sense of duty a
fact not lost on his men. Miller strongly believes in not fraternizing
with the troops; hell be a more effective leader if they dont
know him too well. So secretive is he about his personal life
that the men place bets on what he actually does for a living.
He also believes that the troops should never see him as fearful
or indecisive, and he puts on a good show of it, tackling difficult
assignments matter-of-factly and without hesitation.
But Miller pays a price. The strain manifests itself in other
ways an uncontrollably trembling hand, and weird moments when
he temporarily spaces out and becomes detached, as if viewing
events from under water. Only once does he give in to the tears
that can no longer be forced back, and even then he keeps glancing
over his shoulder to make sure no one is watching. This guy is
clearly a candidate for post-traumatic stress disorder, assuming
he survives and makes it home.
But without men like Miller, who put their duty above all else,
victory in that war would not have been possible. When the captain
sees the opportunity for an unexpected side mission that could
benefit the Allies, a soldier reminds him that their objective
is to save Private Ryan. Our objective, he says incredulously,
is to win the war.
Within that larger goal, however, he is under orders to find and
bring home a certain James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). Why? Because
all three of Ryans brothers have been recently killed in battle,
and it would be embarrassing to the U.S. government to have an
entire family wiped out at once. Miller accepts this mission unquestioningly,
though his men want to know why this particular soldier is more
worthy of rescue than any other. A legitimate point, he tells
them, but irrelevant as far as theyre concerned.
After several missteps and a potential mutiny, the squad stumbles
across the mysterious Private Ryan. But theres an unforeseen
twist: Ryan, too, is a man of duty, and he refuses to leave his
post. So Millers men stay to help him defend a French bridge
against the Germans, and another bloody battle ensues.
Damon isnt given much to do he has one excellent scene with
Hanks, and thats about it but the other soldiers keep the story
moving. Theyre a colorful (and expendable) bunch, all right
like the Bible-thumping sharpshooter (Barry Pepper) who prays
to the Lord before taking aim. But the camera dwells most on Corporal
Upham (Jeremy Davies), a wimpy, bookish translator who was added
to the squad solely for his linguistic skills and has never been
in combat. He serves much the same role as Noah Wyles character
did during the first season of ER: Everything is new to him and
therefore traumatic. When the battle comes, Upham is paralyzed
with fear, and you just want to slap him.
But you also wonder how youd react in that situation: Would I
freeze up, too, or would I be one of those heroes who takes a
bullet for another man? Unless weve been there ourselves, we
shouldnt be judgmental.
With Spielbergs graphic rendition, youll feel as if you have
been there. Some are calling Saving Private Ryan the best war
movie ever made. Perhaps it is. But its still a war movie; its
not an important film in the same sense that Schindlers List
was (the latter should be required viewing for every person on
In the end, Spielbergs message is that war is horrifying yet
sometimes necessary. And that may be true. But I still prefer
the message gleaned from Peter Weirs 1981 masterpiece Gallipoli:
War is stupid.