War is hell and nowhere is that more apparent than the battle sequence Steven Spielberg uses to open "Saving Private Ryan." The much-lauded 20 minutes are brilliant and harrowing as we watch the terrified Allied soldiers push their way up Omaha Beach past a hail of German machine-gun fire. It’s June 6, 1944—D-Day—and we’re there in the thick of battle like we’ve never been before at the movies.
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There have been good war movies ("Wake Island," "The Bridge Over the River Kwai," "Platoon") and there have been great war movies ("Full Metal Jacket," "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Gallipoli"), but until now, there has never been a motion picture combat experience quite like "Saving Private Ryan." In the space of that beach assault, Spielberg re-invents the war genre, with a battle that is at once large-scale and intensely personal. I gripped the armrest with white knuckles as Spielberg showed me what great cinema technique is all about. With hand-held camera footage, slowed motion and sound effects so real I was ducking bullets, the battle is gut-wrenchingly real. Spielberg has created a miniature masterpiece here as we follow Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) and his company of soldiers up the beach and their heroic assault on the German machine-gun bunker.
But "Saving Private Ryan" is not just about movie technique. It’s about men and how they behave in combat, banding together despite their differences. In the eight men on this mission, we get a composite of the American soldier—the bravado, the fear, the courage, the tenderness. Spielberg has set out to teach us not only about World War II, but also about ourselves and how we might think and feel when we’re face-to-face with death.
If "Saving Private Ryan" had ended after the first 25 minutes, it would be a satisfying (albeit unsettling) motion picture experience. But there’s more, much more, to this relatively simple story. A small, hand-picked group of soldiers is given the mission to go deep into enemy territory to find a paratrooper whose brothers have all been killed in combat. The Pentagon brass doesn’t want Mrs. Ryan to get another black-edged telegram. And so, eight soldiers risk their lives for the sake of one person who may not even be alive or, if he is, may not even be worth saving. As one of Miller’s men gripes, "Seems to me, Cap'n, this mission is a serious misallocation of valuable military resources." The men understandably resent being sent on this public relations mission—especially after what they’ve just gone through back on Omaha Beach. They don’t want to save Americans, they want to kill Germans.
The film uses what appear to be conventional characters who barely dodge the stereotype bullets, thanks mainly to some of the best ensemble acting to come along in years. Spielberg put Hanks and the rest of the actors through a mini-boot camp prior to filming in an attempt to build esprit de corps between the crew. From the looks of it, he succeeds. I never doubted for one minute that these soldiers (actors) had dug foxholes together, shared C rations and maneuvered as a fighting team.
Each of the young actors is great, but special praise goes to Jeremy Davies as Corporal Upham, the clerk who’s requisitioned for the mission because he can speak German and French. Upham is a bundle of nervous chatter as he sets out with the rest of the squad, but by mission’s end, he’s come to know the true nature of his character. One of the most gripping scenes in the movie comes when Upham cowers in a stairwell, paralyzed with fright as one of his fellow soldiers meets a slow, agonizing death in the next room. Davies’ performance haunted me for weeks.
And then there’s Tom Hanks, the modern cinema’s equivalent of Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper—the American Everyman. Hanks is so natural in this role you almost overlook the complexity of his Oscar-worthy performance here. As a soldier-by-proxy, you immediately put your trust in Capt. Miller, just by virtue of the fact that it’s Hanks’ face under that helmet. Here is a true leader—decisive, courageous and yet humanly vulnerable. Hanks’ greatest moment in "Saving Private Ryan" comes after yet another of his soldiers has died. He walks away, finds a private spot behind an embankment and starts to cry, though he does his best not to allow his weakness show in front of his men. You can really see the struggle Hanks is going through as he tries to stifle his emotions.
There are several small moments like that in "Saving Private Ryan" (in fact, it’s the little details that always add up to greatness in Spielberg’s films):
*Moments after securing Omaha Beach, First Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) scoops up a handful of the sand, dumps it into a tin and adds it to his knapsack which is full of other tins labeled "Italy" and "Africa."
*A bullet passes through a soldier’s helmet. Stunned but unharmed, he takes it off, looks at the bullet hole, grins at his good luck, then—BAM!--another bullet hits his unprotected skull.
*Soldiers take a break from preparing for the final bloody battle to listen to a recording of Edith Piaf. As the French chanteuse’s voice floats through the streets of the village, the soldiers stop what they’re doing to savor the opera aria. For some, it’s the last music they’ll ever hear.
These are just a few of the threads woven into this great tapestry of war. To list more of them would be to risk destroying the powerful effect of this movie.
"Saving Private Ryan" serves as a fine companion to Spielberg’s other World War II masterpiece, "Schindler’s List." In his earlier film, we see what the Allies were fighting for; in "Ryan," we get to see how they do it: with dignity and courage.
(A note about the special limited edition of the video: the "bonus footage" is just a 25-minute special about D-Day. It cobbles together interviews with the actors, historian Stephen Ambrose and World War II veterans. None of it really adds much to the "Ryan" experience. Call it History Channel Lite. The most valuable footage of the special tape comes when we get to see clips from two of Spielberg’s earliest films—home movies he made when he was a teenager. Even at that age, when he was coercing the neighborhood boys into playacting Allies and Germans for his camera, it’s possible to see the genesis of his genius.)
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