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Spielberg Wins Battle, Not War

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 1998

  Movie Critic

Saving Private Ryan
Tom Hanks stars in "Saving Private Ryan." (DreamWorks)

Steven Spielberg
Tom Hanks;
Tom Sizemore;
Edward Burns;
Matt Damon;
Vin Diesel;
Jeremy Davies;
Adam Goldberg;
Barry Pepper;
Giovanni Ribisi
Running Time:
2 hours, 48 minutes
For profanity, sex talk and some of the most graphic, bloody battle scenes ever re-created on film
Director; Sound; Cinematography; Sound Effects Editing; Film Editing
The first 30 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" contain some of the most intense footage you will see this year-quite possibly the most bloodcurdling images of war, in all its hideous brutality, you have ever seen. How any film could live up to this searing introduction is almost impossible. What follows in the rest of the Steven Spielberg-directed drama is powerful stuff indeed, but its relatively minor imperfections seem more glaring when compared to the near flawlessness of the film's lyrical, scorching start.

After a brief, contemporary prologue in which a family-to the schmaltzy orchestration of John Williams-strolls through a forest of white, military grave markers, the screen and the music fades out to another time and place-D-Day, just off Omaha Beach on the coast of Normandy in northwestern France. Immediately, Spielberg's shaky, hand-held camera places you in the middle of things alongside the first wave of soldiers waiting nervously inside a military Higgins boat-basically a glorified tin can, one of many used to dump hundreds of American boys on the shore of Europe.

It feels claustrophobic, and the gut-clenching terror on the faces of its cargo of grunts is palpable. Everyone who knows World War II history knows what happened next. Mowed down by the merciless mortar and machine-gun fire from the concrete pillbox fortresses of the German defenses, the vanguard of the Allied invasion suffered heavy casualties before gaining a toehold on the beach.

But that's history, statistics, dull words written on the page of a textbook. With the verisimilitude of a combat cameraman, Spielberg brings the horrific battle to life from the vantage point of the sand and splashing surf itself as Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) leads his men ashore.

Most of the ensuing dialogue is unintelligible, shouts lost in a dense roar of weaponry and crashing ocean water. The only notes that jump out from the sonic chaos are the unrelenting ping and thud of bullets hitting metal and flesh. Spurts of blood blossom like dark flowers underwater. Faces and limbs are torn asunder by exploding shrapnel.

Finally, it ends, and calm descends like the deceptive eye of a hurricane, as the real fiction-and the film's real problems-begin. Remember: There are still over two hours of movie left to go.

From stateside, Gen. George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) issues Miller a new and equally dangerous order: to find and rescue Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), the last surviving member of four enlisted brothers. After parachuting behind enemy lines and becoming separated from his unit, Ryan is now lost somewhere in the French countryside. From the tattered remnants of his command, Miller assembles a platoon of seven men to risk their lives in the search for one.

They are a motley and superbly cast bunch and, with the exception of Tom Sizemore as Miller's right-hand man, Sgt. Horvath, and Edward Burns as the wisecracking Brooklynite Pvt. Reiben, none of the actors are household names. Barry Pepper plays Jackson, a country-bred sharpshooter who prays to Jesus for his deadly accuracy; Adam Goldberg is Mellish, a Jew for whom the war is all too personal; Vin Diesel is Caparzo, whose Achilles' heel is his softheartedness; Giovanni Ribisi is Wade the medic; and Jeremy Davies portrays Upham, an unseasoned pencil pusher whose skills as a translator are needed on the mission.

This flawed, bickering and yet cohesive crew has the touch of the common man, which leads to the film's first failing. As Miller and Ryan, Hanks and Damon seem too pretty-boy clean, too movie-star handsome to be deeply convincing. Hanks plays Miller with an off-the-rack tic, a spastic hand whose trembling gets worse as the film and its tension progress. But it feels like a shtick that-along with the actor's furrowed brow-is meant to add gravitas to a role that demands more depth than the bantamweight can muster. When they find Ryan guarding a remote but strategic bridge in the rubble of a bombed village, he appears as a beardless and unblemished cherub compared to his dog-faced comrades. Albeit he is a teenage Iowa farm boy, but he is in a war zone, miles from nowhere. Why does Spielberg seem afraid to put a smudge, scratch or bit of stubble on him?

It's not just the two leads but the director himself who, apart from the brilliant D-Day scenes, seems unwilling to get his hands dirty-emotionally dirty, that is. Remarkably realistic as a whole, "Private Ryan" nevertheless shies away from the very messy question it begs: What is the value of human life and why is one man worth risking eight?

It is a weakness of Spielberg that has been noted before-his compulsion to pasteurize even the mud of battle and his reluctance to confront the complex and the contradictory, especially when there is no satisfactory answer. Unlike such classic war movies as Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" and "Full Metal Jacket" or even Spielberg's own "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan" opens a wound but then hesitates to investigate it.

It must be said that the film is well worth watching all the same. In it, Spielberg goes a long, long way toward overcoming his tendencies toward the shallow, but the visceral punch of his not-quite-masterful film is softened by an almost neurotic slickness that keeps getting in the way of the important, explosive issues it raises.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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