"War is hell." No one questions the veracity this statement--over time,
it has become less a saying than a truism--but rarely does anyone ever give
serious thought to what exactly it means. The opening 25-minute sequence
of Steven Spielberg's _Saving_Private_Ryan_ should change all that.
Depicting the invasion of France on D-day, June 6, 1944, as seen through
the eyes of Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), this section has a startling
visceral intensity that is cheapened by text descriptions. To merely
describe the brutal, graphic violence, such as the severed limbs,
eviscerations, and the free-flowing and -gushing blood, is to discount its
sensory and emotional power; to describe it simply on those latter terms is
to diminish the bravery and honesty Spielberg exhibits in not shying away
from the raw carnage. This bravura opening set piece is cinema in the
purest sense--the melding of audio, visuals, and all other individual
aspects of filmmaking into a greater whole: an experience whose effects are
not easily shaken, its memory not easily forgotten. After the
well-intentioned but stately-to-a-chill _Amistad_, this explosive opening
announces that Spielberg has rebounded in a big way with this World War II
drama, a stunning piece of work that aims and hits the audience square in
The "Private Ryan" that must be "saved" is one James Francis Ryan, the
only survivor of four brothers in active duty in the war effort; as some
type of humanitarian mission, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall (Harve
Presnell) dispatches a squad led by Capt. Miller to find Pvt. Ryan and send
him home as comfort to his grieving mother. The mission, of course, is not
without its complications, not the least of which is the disinterest of
Miller and his squad, who are not terribly keen (to say the least) on
risking their lives for that of one man--a man they do not even know.
Not surprisingly, the lives of some Capt. Miller's men are sacrificed
before they finally locate Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), but their loss makes
only a moderate impact. _Private_Ryan_'s main weakness is the rather
one-dimensional crew with whom writer Robert Rodat surrounds Miller: Sgt.
Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Pvt. Reiben (Edward Burns), Cpl. Upham (Jeremy
Davies), Pvt. Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Pvt. Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Pvt.
Jackson (Barry Pepper), and Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). Only the wimpy
kid Upham comes off as close to a fully-realized character, but most of
personality he exhibits can be attributed to Davies's vivid, anguished
performance. The other actors do well, but their roles are more shallowly
written and developed, half boiling down to single characteristics: hothead
(Reiben), Jew (Mellish), Bible-quoter (Jackson); the remaining are
nondescript. Maybe it was a conscious decision by Rodat and Spielberg to
objectify the squad much like how most who serve in military combat are
seen as walking statistics, but it makes the risk of their lives a gambit
curiously low in emotional involvement.
Compensating for the faceless squad members is the squad leader, Capt.
Miller, _Private_Ryan_'s anchor in every way, ably leading his men and
serving as a strong, sympathetic emotional center amid the chaos. Brought
to life in a well-modulated turn by Hanks, Miller is a consummate
professional and leader, but he is not immune to the psychological ravages
of war, which have now manifested themselves in the physical form of hand
tremors. There are a couple of haunting wordless sequences where Miller
blankly watches the mayhem surrounding him like a lost child, bringing to
light a subconscious reason for his carrying out the "rescue" of Pvt. Ryan.
It's not so much to follow orders and win a ticket home, as he says, but
rather to graft a purpose onto the senseless human toll, to put into
tangible human form the nebulous reasons behind the fighting--and his role
in all of it.
By the film's end, _Saving_Private_Ryan_ reveals itself to be a rather
ironic title. If he is indeed "saved," he is actually more damned--alive,
yes, but living with the burden of the men who sacrificed and were willing
to sacrifice themselves for his life, and the lingering doubt that the life
he would go on to lead would fully amount to the ones it cost. Ultimately,
it's not Pvt. Ryan's salvation that Capt. Miller and his crew are fighting
for--it's their own.