Saving Private Ryan” relates the kind of wartime stories that fathers never tell their families. A searingly visceral combat picture, Steven Spielberg’s third World War II drama is arguably second to none as a vivid, realistic and bloody portrait of armed conflict, as well as a generally effective intimate drama about a handful of men on a mission of debatable value in the middle of the war’s decisive action. Grim, sometimes moving and just occasionally windy film is unusually demanding and serious for a mainstream midsummer attraction, as well as a questionable bet for some women and more conventional thrill-seeking teens. Backed by strong reviews, DreamWorks’ gamble could as easily pay off handsomely as a shrewd piece of counterprogramming as it could land in a commercial middle ground.
Plunging the viewer headlong into battle in a manner akin to some of the more intense Vietnam films, such as “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Hamburger Hill,” but quite rare for a World War II drama, Spielberg wrenchingly presents combat from the grunt’s p.o.v. as it is fought inch by inch, bullet by bullet, in all its arbitrariness and surreality. Whatever else there is to say about the picture, what remains in the mind is the transforming fear, the sound of ammunition ripping into flesh and other metal, the sight of bodies being blown apart, the relentlessness of the pressure and tension, the immense suffering, the feeling of always being on the brink. In retrospect, qualities such as heroism and bravery can be ascribed to the actions of soldiers, the film suggests, but in the moment there is only necessity.
After a brief prologue featuring an older man silently leading his family into the vast military cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy, pic drops the audience onto a U.S. landing craft getting ready to unload the first GIs to hit the beach on June 6, 1944. From the opening moments, the anxiety and fiercely discomforting conditions are underlined, and as soon as the gate opens, the German artillery comes raining down.
Many men are mowed down before they can take three steps, but Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad — Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Pvts. Reiben (Edward Burns), Jackson (Barry Pepper), Mellish (Adam Goldberg) and Caparzo (Vin Diesel) and Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) — painstakingly make it past the many obstacles and are finally able to take one of the enemy’s concrete pillboxes on top of the bluff. Nonstop action lasts 24 minutes, and every one of them is infinitely more intense than anything in the standard work on D-Day, “The Longest Day.”
But no sooner have Capt. Miller and his men paused for a smoke then they are ordered to try to locate a certain private, James Ryan, who parachuted into France the night before. The reason: His three brothers have all recently been killed in combat, and government policy dictates that he should return home lest his family be deprived of all its male offspring.
Robert Rodat’s original screenplay thus transforms to a mission format. Taking on a skinny, timid translator, Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies), who has never seen combat, the group, which has previously seen action in North Africa and Italy, treads gingerly through territory that is still riddled with Nazis, as they discover when they come upon a bombed-out village and the first of them is killed.
After the rest of them slaughter a bunch of Germans, there is a bit of down time in a church for the men to argue the merits of their needle-in-a-haystack mission. Why, one argues, should several men risk their lives in the outside chance of saving a single man, even if he is the last left in a family? How is one to judge the value of some men sacrificing their lives for the sake of saving many others?Such tentative attempts at philosophizing and stabs at profundity succeed in raising some issues that aren’t often considered these days, but they still don’t begin to lend the film the kind of weight in the intellectual arena that would match the action of its purely physical sequences. Unquestionably, the picture strives to delineate a morality of decency and righteousness in a context defined by hate and inhumanity, but the speechifying here can’t compare in power to the brute force of warfare, which is sufficient commentary by itself.
Even if its thematic elements are not as richly developed as they might be, and the story itself somewhat irksome in its far-fetched, even contrived nature, the film packs a heavy emotional punch at many moments, as the tenuousness of life and the abruptness of loss assert themselves. A key skirmish occurs at a German radar station, resulting in another American death and a fractious argument over what to do with a Nazi who has surrendered and begs for his life. To the disgust of some, Capt. Miller lets him go, a decision that, unsurprisingly, has fateful implications later on. Interestingly, this soldier is the only German shown up close and given any kind of personality throughout the picture.
Finally, nearly two hours in, the squad locates Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), who complicates the mission even further by refusing to return, insisting that he has orders of his own to continue fighting. As it happens, a devastated village nearby contains a bridge that must be held, and Miller orders Ryan to stay by him as they try to prevent the Nazis from taking it. What follows is yet another ferocious and protracted battle sequence, small in scale and numbers but gripping in its details, surprises and the way the chaos of fighting is strikingly conveyed. Epilogue connects once again to the personal tribute being paid by the contemporary visitor to Normandy.
Using his technical virtuosity to the utmost, Spielberg is pushing here to claim new ground for himself and for a revival of the World War II film, and scores strongly on both counts. Opting out of the black-and-white of “Schindler’s List” and the long-standing images of the war, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have desaturated the color in a way that strikingly emphasizes the pale greens of the uniforms and landscapes, blue-grays of the water and skies, and flesh tones; in this context, the red of the blood always jumps out. Frequent hand-held shots add to the intimacy and impact, while a shuttering device makes some of the action appear a bit jumpy, even pixilated, creating an effect that is both ultra-vivid and somewhat jarring. Essentially, Spielberg has made an amazing piece of pure, visceral cinema, akin to a great silent film, in which the words are basically superfluous.
Of almost equal note is the sound, which emphasizes the frightening noises of war but occasionally shifts gears to blot out anything realistic in order to create subjective impressions of disorientation and detachment. Michael Kahn’s editing maximizes the power of the story and visuals, while John Williams’ score is sparing, with music avoided entirely for long stretches but coming into its own elsewhere, notably over the final credits. Production design, costumes and wartime ambience are all on the money, and extra effort has clearly gone into the explosions, stunts and military details.
In a performance that has parallels with James Stewart’s move into more complex, conflicted and bitter characters — in his case, after his World War II experience — Hanks impressively flexes his acting muscles once again. His Capt. Miller deliberately conceals most personal information from his men, as well as from the viewer for most of the running time, yet one comes to see clearly a decent man of the sort that America was theoretically meant to produce , and perhaps did during the generation in question.
Of the supporting cast, which consists largely of young actors generally associated with independent films, Sizemore best fits with one’s idea of a gritty, tough and capable Yank soldier of the era, while Davies impresses as the proverbial brainy weakling who is toughened by facing up to battle and difficult decisions. The others all have their moments: Pepper as a lean-and-mean Southern sharpshooter, the kind of guy you definitely want on your side; Goldberg as a personally motivated soldier who likes to flaunt his Jewishness at captured Nazis; Diesel as the likable Italian-American hulk; Ribisi as the considered medic; and Burns as the cynical New Yorker. Damon forcefully handles his limited but crucial scenes.
Perhaps realizing that there was no avoiding the old truism that war is hell, Spielberg decided to underline, italicize and boldface it in startling terms that no one could miss. No further commentary is needed when the raw brutality of combat is presented as indelibly as it is here.