Grace under fire In 'Saving Private Ryan,' Steven Spielberg doesn't flinch from showing us war as it really is: bloody, scary and loud. And the stuff of heroes.

July 24, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Saving Private Ryan," the highly anticipated World War II drama by Steven Spielberg, may be the director's masterwork, even outpacing the accomplishment of "Schindler's List." It is unquestionably the purest film Spielberg has made since "Jaws."

The movie pulses with raw, vital power from its very beginning, which takes place on June 6, 1944 -- D-Day -- at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. A boatload of Army Rangers is heading toward shore, watchful and tense, praying, throwing up. Their leader, Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), watches the horizon, his right hand shaking almost imperceptibly.

It's a doomed journey, suggested by the miasma through which the men seem to be photographed -- is it the death-impregnated air around them that's gray, or are the shadows the reflection of their own seasick, terrified pallor?

When they land, they hurl themselves into a bloodbath, and Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski present the battle in excruciating, breathtaking detail. Filmed mostly with a hand-held camera, this nearly half-hour passage is also shot in deep focus, a technique that results in superb -- almost surreal -- clarity, and an unsettling stop-action effect. Every bullet is felt -- and its consequences seen -- with a concussive punch.

Spielberg doesn't flinch from immersing viewers knee-deep in the viscera, truncated limbs and shredded flesh of the young men they watched on the boats just moments before. Helped enormously by the sound editing by Michael Kahn (one of the film's unseen stars), Spielberg captures the mud and blood of war, as well as its deafening noise and even more terrifying silence.

Spielberg has marshaled every narrative and technical skill at his disposal to create a singularly powerful cinematic experience. Even more important, "Saving Private Ryan" is the first Spielberg film in a long time to trust filmgoers fully and to manipulate them honestly -- with movie magic and strong characterizations -- rather than back them into emotional corners.

Captain Miller manages to gain some purchase in Normandy, but soon he's called to a special mission. In one of the most quietly effective scenes, a military secretary discovers that three Iowa brothers named Ryan have recently died in Europe. A fourth brother, a paratrooper named James, is somewhere in France. Wanting to save his mother another, and totally devastating, loss, the Army brass assigns Miller to go after him and bring him home.

"Saving Private Ryan" is a classic war picture, one that combines the best of stock types: the male-bonding movie, the spy-adventure, the humanizing journey through a war-torn landscape. The final third is a hold-the-bridge action thriller, a tautly orchestrated climax set against the poetically skeletal backdrop of a bombed-out church.

As Miller and his men -- portrayed by Tom Sizemore (the Karl Malden of our era), Ed Burns, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies and Barry Pepper -- tramp through the French countryside, they happen on snipers, shellshocked fellow soldiers, a lone German radar man and a French family desperate to get their child out of harm's way.

Each encounter presents them with an opportunity for action, but also for conscience. Do they take the child with them or leave her with her parents? Kill the German or let him go free? Throughout their journey, pockmarked with red herrings and wrong turns, the men debate the ethics of what they're doing: Is one man's life worth all of theirs? Is this just another one of the Army's hypocritical P.R. jobs?

"Saving Private Ryan" will be commended, rightly, for its technique -- its handsome blend of expressiveness and verisimilitude, its dazzling battle sequences that somehow never lose impact over the film's three hours. Hanks will earn deserved huzzahs for his diffident, inward-turning performance as Captain Miller -- a cipher to his men, with no hometown and no past life to speak of (the moment when he reveals his identity packs an unexpected emotional wallop), a leader who is haunted by the death he's seen and caused, a man on the verge of existential collapse.

Similarly, the supporting performances are terrific: the usually lightweight Burns is good as the Brooklyn toughie who hates the idea of going after Ryan, and Goldberg plays the group's Jewish member with bristling swagger. Davies ("Spanking the Monkey") portrays a sensitive writer with weedy, jumpy intensity. A standout among these able performers is Pepper as a Southern sharpshooter with an eagle-eye and a brave heart. Matt Damon, who turns up two hours in as Private Ryan, handles his duties with aplomb, although his trace of a South Boston accent is woefully out of place in an Iowa farm boy.

By now we expect this level of performance and narrative competence from a Spielberg film. But what makes "Saving Private Ryan" a watershed is its emotional maturity.

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