Saving Private Ryan

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Steven Spielberg

REVIEWED: 08-03-98

In the late '70s and early '80s, Steven Spielberg became famous for movies that used the plot device of suburbia in peril to reaffirm the comfort and warmth of American life. In E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, for example, the young protagonist Elliot learns to recognize stability and comfort in his suburban home only after he encounters an outer-space being who's trying desperately to return to his own home on some planet far away. The alien landing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind begins as a terrifying nightmare, but it becomes a transcendent experience when people use their shared social and spiritual heritage to make a leap of imagination.

In more recent years, with Schindler's List, Amistad, and now Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg has chosen to reach back to pivotal moments in history, searching for the roots of the freedom and security that his earlier films fundamentally assumed. His sense of wonder has matured into an awestruck reverence for the inexplicable particularities of history that lead to you, me, and the world we call home.

Saving Private Ryan reaches back into World War II's relative moral certainty to reveal the ambiguities and insoluble dilemmas of war in any age. Eight GIs, led by Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), are ordered by top brass to find a single paratrooper somewhere in the confused, disorienting, incommunicado Normandy invasion. Private James Ryan's three brothers have all been killed in action within the space of a few days. Ryan, played by Matt Damon, is being sent home to spare his mother the possibility that her entire family might be wiped out.

Miller's tiny company sets off across the French front after surviving what, for many Americans, was the salient event of the entire war: the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. The first half-hour of Spielberg's film is an infantry-level view of the unceasing carnage and utter confusion of that operation, and it is revolutionary filmmaking. Blood flecks the camera lens while horrific, strangely anonymous images appear and disappear like ghosts. No matter how often the viewer looks away, there is no way to gain any distance from what's happening onscreen; the battle seems to be happening in our guts. But Spielberg gives us a focus, a safe harbor, in the familiar face of Tom Hanks. And Hanks' character, Miller, gives the movie its thematic focus when he takes charge with the barest information and almost no resources to secure the beachhead. For the rest of the film he'll lead by making decisions based on the simple fact that indecision is death.

The great theme in Saving Private Ryan is the terrible calculus of war. Every soldier, and especially every officer, has to weigh somehow the short- and long-term goals of war with the moment-by-moment risk to life and limb. On Omaha Beach, to stop and reflect on the infinite value of one human life means failure; all Miller and the other survivors can do is carry on. But on the mission to save Ryan, the worth of one unknown soldier is equated to the known value of comrades in arms and proven friends. It makes as little sense as anything in war, and Reiben (Edward Burns) is the spokesman for this absurdity. But every moment demands a new accounting: A machine gun post must be assaulted to save troops advancing from the rear, while a little French girl can't be protected because she puts the mission in jeopardy. No constant neither individual survival nor the salvation of the world can justify all these calculations.

Tom Hanks has become our Jimmy Stewart, a man whose comic gifts illuminate his heroic ordinariness. He's the man we all hope to be when the moment comes to prove ourselves, rising to the occasion humbly. Hanks' performance here validates the many honors he has received throughout the '90s; he provides a perfect emotional center for this highly emotional story. The men he leads are the standard collection of war-movie types, but they're wonderfully played by some terrific young actors, notably Adam Goldberg as Mellish, a Jewish soldier who hates the Germans with an understandably personal rage, and Jeremy Davies as Upham, a would-be writer under fire for the first time.

The film has flaws, but somehow they make it seem all the more human and humble, and therefore embraceable. If Spielberg couldn't bring himself to restrain John Williams when the composer tries to pin up a fragile emotion with a sentimental trumpet flourish, we forgive him, because after what we've been through, maybe we want movie magic despite ourselves. If Robert Rodat's script gives in to self-conscious monologues after an hour of flawless characterization, we understand it as an homage to war-movie conventions.

And if Saving Private Ryan doesn't live up to the absolutes of blurb writers, we need to remember that it never claimed to be "the greatest war movie ever made." It does, however, take the entire genre of war moves, from All Quiet on the Western Front to Apocalypse Now, as its context. Spielberg adds to those films his own remarkable skill at listening to history and retelling its stories: He views the fight against Nazism in the same context as the fight against Communism, observing World War II from the wasteland beyond Vietnam.

Unlike Oliver Stone, who thinks he can eradicate our naivet by rubbing our noses in brutality, Spielberg understands that we learn best when we're told a compelling story. A movie might be a perfectly realistic depiction of war's horrors and inhumanity, but if it doesn't come in a watchable package, it will have no effect because no one will pay attention to it. Spielberg gives us an entertaining story, but not as the spoonful of sugar to help the truth go down; rather, he believes that the truth is in the story. In Saving Private Ryan, he tells the truth not only about war, but about every viewer's past. We owe our lives to a great cloud of martyrs, no matter what they understood as the motive for their deeds, and every moment of our lives should pay that debt.

--Donna Bowman

Full Length Reviews
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan

Capsule Reviews
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan

Other Films by Steven Spielberg
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Columbo (tv)
The Lost World

Film Vault Suggested Links
Rob Roy
The Man in the Iron Mask

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