By Debbie Gilbert
AUGUST 3, 1998: A man whose arm has been severed goes back to retrieve it, as if reluctant to leave a part of himself behind. Another man is literally blown in half. Yet another lies on the beach with his intestines spilling out, crying for his mama, reminding us that most of these guys werent men at all but kids barely out of high school. The water lapping at the shore turns deep red with blood.
Spielberg has taken a lot of flak for the violence and gore in this movie, but according to those who were there on that terrible day at Omaha Beach, this is exactly how it happened. Theres nothing gratuitous about it, and Spielberg is absolutely justified in sharing with us the nauseating reality. (However, the parents I saw in the theatre with pre-teenage children are guilty of abuse. This stuff is difficult enough for grownups to endure please dont inflict the film on those too young to handle it.)
If your stomach can make it through the first half-hour, youll be okay. After that, the carnage is toned down a bit. Or maybe its just that we become so accustomed to it that we like the soldiers have shut off the part of our brain that reacts to the unthinkable.
With Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg is finishing the job he began with Schindlers List. Hes already shown us why World War II was fought; now he shows us how. Cinematically it is brilliant, making Spielberg almost a shoo-in for a Best Director Oscar. Most of the battle scenes are shot from low angles with shaky hand-held cameras and slightly speeded-up film, a deliberate imitation of newsreels made during the war. Color is diluted to make the landscapes appear even more bleak. The meticulously staged battle sequences are mind-boggling in their complexity and could only have been achieved by someone with Spielbergs prodigious experience and abilities. Yet despite the films ambitious scope, the director doesnt attempt to give us the big picture. Instead, he shows us the war through the eyes of a small group of men.
Lets face it: Shooting and blowing things up is shooting and blowing things up, whether its done for a noble purpose or its in a godawful piece of shit like Lethal Weapon 4. The violence only matters when it affects characters whom we care about.
For that reason, the person most responsible for this movies success is not Steven Spielberg but Tom Hanks (who could also be up for another Oscar). As Captain Miller, he makes the decisions that determine where the action goes next and often determine who lives and who dies. He is a decent man who forces himself to be ruthless, though its not really in his nature. Hed rather not be where he is, but he commands out of a sense of duty a fact not lost on his men. Miller strongly believes in not fraternizing with the troops; hell be a more effective leader if they dont know him too well. So secretive is he about his personal life that the men place bets on what he actually does for a living. He also believes that the troops should never see him as fearful or indecisive, and he puts on a good show of it, tackling difficult assignments matter-of-factly and without hesitation.
But Miller pays a price. The strain manifests itself in other ways an uncontrollably trembling hand, and weird moments when he temporarily spaces out and becomes detached, as if viewing events from under water. Only once does he give in to the tears that can no longer be forced back, and even then he keeps glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one is watching. This guy is clearly a candidate for post-traumatic stress disorder, assuming he survives and makes it home.
But without men like Miller, who put their duty above all else, victory in that war would not have been possible. When the captain sees the opportunity for an unexpected side mission that could benefit the Allies, a soldier reminds him that their objective is to save Private Ryan. Our objective, he says incredulously, is to win the war.
Within that larger goal, however, he is under orders to find and bring home a certain James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). Why? Because all three of Ryans brothers have been recently killed in battle, and it would be embarrassing to the U.S. government to have an entire family wiped out at once. Miller accepts this mission unquestioningly, though his men want to know why this particular soldier is more worthy of rescue than any other. A legitimate point, he tells them, but irrelevant as far as theyre concerned.
After several missteps and a potential mutiny, the squad stumbles across the mysterious Private Ryan. But theres an unforeseen twist: Ryan, too, is a man of duty, and he refuses to leave his post. So Millers men stay to help him defend a French bridge against the Germans, and another bloody battle ensues.
Damon isnt given much to do he has one excellent scene with Hanks, and thats about it but the other soldiers keep the story moving. Theyre a colorful (and expendable) bunch, all right like the Bible-thumping sharpshooter (Barry Pepper) who prays to the Lord before taking aim. But the camera dwells most on Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), a wimpy, bookish translator who was added to the squad solely for his linguistic skills and has never been in combat. He serves much the same role as Noah Wyles character did during the first season of ER: Everything is new to him and therefore traumatic. When the battle comes, Upham is paralyzed with fear, and you just want to slap him.
But you also wonder how youd react in that situation: Would I freeze up, too, or would I be one of those heroes who takes a bullet for another man? Unless weve been there ourselves, we shouldnt be judgmental.
With Spielbergs graphic rendition, youll feel as if you have been there. Some are calling Saving Private Ryan the best war movie ever made. Perhaps it is. But its still a war movie; its not an important film in the same sense that Schindlers List was (the latter should be required viewing for every person on the planet).
In the end, Spielbergs message is that war is horrifying yet sometimes necessary. And that may be true. But I still prefer the message gleaned from Peter Weirs 1981 masterpiece Gallipoli: War is stupid.
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