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Saving Private Ryan

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Saving Private Ryan

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: R
RunTime: 160 Minutes
Release Date: July 1998
Genres: War, Action, Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Once again, Steven Spielberg proves that as a constructer of movie images, he's unbeatable. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz reports in the July 8 issue of New York Press that "Spielberg is the most consistently inventive, passionate and precise director in American cinema....It's a rare shot in a Spielberg film that isn't beautiful." While we'd have a tough time describing scenes of total warfare as beautiful, we would have to admit that as a forger of indelible images, Spielberg has accomplished his principal goal in the making of "Saving Private Ryan." He has demonstrated the sheer reality of war as no other filmmaker before him has done. His latest film does not move us as did Lewis Milestone's 1930 film "All Quiet on the Western Front." Milestone's 68-year-old work is cloaked with a powerful antiwar message based on Erich Maria Remarque's pacifist novel about German boy's experiences as soldier's during World War I. "All Quiet" hones in more effectively on the war's meaning to a single individual. "Ryan" is more of a piece with Ken Annakin's 1962 epic, "The Longest Day," featuring an all-star cast in a retelling of the Allied invasion of Normandy--a re-creation of historical events emphasizing the actuality of battle more than an exploration of the lives of its combatants. "Ryan" is no "Schindler's List," still Spielberg's greatest accomplishment, because its characters do not undergo radical changes of behavior. As portrayed by Spielberg, Schindler was a man of particular interest because he was such a flawed character; a businessman whose principal goal at first was to become a millionaire using cheap Jewish labor, who proudly wore a Nazi insignia in his jacket and loved his brandy, night clubs and finely-tailored suits. "The Saving of Private Ryan" includes no such complex personality. We know little of its hero, subtly played by Tom Hanks, save that he was an English teacher in a small town high school and who, despite a pronounced tremor in his right hand has no distinct imperfections. Characterization is what made "Schindler's List" mong the most moving films of all time. Imagery, on the other hand, makes "The Saving of Private Ryan" remarkable.

You need not wait long to perceive this. While the story is framed by a contemporary scene in much the way that Spielberg concluded "Schindler's List," the attention of Janusz Kaminski's frequently hand-held camera shifts to the landing of troops on Omaha Beach, situated in a northwest corner of France just east of Cherbourg. It is D-Day, June 6, 1944, the opening day of the Allied invasion of Europe and the men who are about to hit the sands are not a platoon of gung-ho Zorros preparing to battle evil. Some are throwing up, others pray in a variety of tongues; orders are barked as though the men were hearing the proposed strategy of the campaign, which was effectively kept a secret from Nazi intelligence. The Omaha campaign, a pyrrhic victory for the Allies, was bungled from the start. The Americans appear to lose ten men for every German killed, hitting the beach amid a flurry of bullets from the enemy who are situated high above them as though lobbing kettles of hot oil from the tower of a medieval castle. In the confusion of the adrenalin- pumping scene, the American forces cannot be blamed for some acts of stupidity and self-destruction, foremost of which is that of one G.I. whose life is saved when a bullet richochets from his helmet. He removes the helmet in surprise, stares at it in wonderment, and promptly receives a fatal bullet in the head. Spielberg is a master at representing carnage in a believable, indelible fashion, spinning his camera to the sea which has become incarnadine with the blood of American victims. The stereophonic sound sound of the theater envelopes up in the endless rat-tat-tat of machine guns accompanied subtly and only intermittently by John Williams's score. Little music is needed to manipulate our emotions.

While "Saving Private Ryan" succeeds each time it portrays combat, it is less successful in developing its characters, and particularly uninventive and superficial in verbalizing ethical questions. The storyline hinges on an order received from the very top brass, Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, to search out and bring home one James Francis Ryan, the sole surviving member of a family of five. On a single day Ryan's mother receives news from the war office that three of her sons were killed in action. To save Mrs. Ryan the tragedy of losing her last surviving boy, the general has ordered a dangerous mission: a team will comb the area of France to which Private Ryan (Matt Damon) has parachuted, find the soldier, and escort him home. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is chosen to lead the search party, made up of his right-hand man, Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore); an intellectual pulled from his desk job as a language interpreter, Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies); a Jewish soldier from Brooklyn, Private Mellish (Adam Golberg); and a medic, Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), who must try without sterile equipment or even gloves to save the lives of men who receive bullet wounds in the field. Ethical issues are raised in short order, as the small legion question the appropriateness of risking the lives of eight people in order to remove a single soldier from his company. Further debate focuses on whether James Ryan should be singled out for release from combat since "we all have mothers," from which two additional issues emerge. What if removing Ryan from the battlefield will cause a hardship in his own unit, which needs him badly to fulfill a bridge-blowing mission, and what if Ryan himself does not want to desert "the only brothers I know," the men in his unit he has grown to love?

Though the story is driven by the search for one man, the glory of the movie is in portraying a succession of combat scenes which materialize almost without letup, without giving the audience much time to breathe. The rapid-fire sequence of bloody encounters maintains the tension throughout the 170-minute film but do not allow for much insight into the lives of the individuals in the unit. Aside from the initial portrayal of the Gallipoli-like bloodshed at Omaha Beach, Spielberg extracts the horrors of war from some noteworthy panoramas. In one instance involving hand-to-hand combat between a large, powerful German and a hapless member of the search party, the German gains a dominant position over Private Mellish, his knife slowly descending toward Mellish's heart as the American impotently calls out "stop!" In another, a German unit is successfully ambushed by the Americans and wiped out save for one German, who is ordered to dig a grave for his dead buddies. The Nazi soldier, desperately trying to save his hide, insists "I love America," tries pathetically to sing the Star Spangled Banner, curses Hitler, and forces Captain Miller to make a decision amid appeals from the scholarly Upham that killing him "is not right."

Tom Hanks's performance is visceral. You can imagine him as the beloved, small-town English teacher who takes up arms when duty calls. You see Matt Damon as the all- American farm boy whose loyalty to his troop is more exalted than his fondness for hom. You empathize with Edward Burns who as Private Reiben is so enraged by the seeming absurdity of the mission that he is prepared to desert. And you can understand the screwups of Jeremy Davies who, as a language interpreter with only the barest of arms training, rains havoc on his own men until he gains the courage of the battlefield.

The immediacy of the drama is furthered by the use of a hand-held camera, stripped of protective lens coatings to give the film the look of a 1940s war picture. The unit's success in impressing us with the horrors of war is due largely to the use of Stephen E. Ambrose, author of "D-Day: June 6, 1994," as historical consultant. Credibility is not hurt by the training which a company called Warriors Inc. gave the actors; a boot camp involving ten days of rigorous weapons drills, close combat, individual manuevers, and World War 2 lingo and hand signals. Spielberg insists that everything, down to the actual language the men used in the field, is the 1940s McCoy, and though you can count on your fingers the number of curse words the men utter, you can have faith in the great director's word. After all Spielberg has made the world believe in the authenticity of a rich array of films in all genres--the mystical experience of "Close Encounters," the feverishness of "Sugarland Express," the wildly imaginative "Indiana Jones" series among others--that if you've been lucky enough to avoid front-line service, you can with absolutely safety be right up there with Captain Miller's daredevil unit.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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