More than any of his other films, and that includes “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” won’t leave you alone. To see it is to need to talk about it, to wrestle both with the formidable impact of its unprecedented strengths and the surprising resilience of its niggling weaknesses. A powerful and impressive milestone in the realistic depiction of combat, “Saving Private Ryan” is as much an experience we live through as a film we watch on screen.
No one needs to be told about Spielberg’s ability as a popular culture taste-maker: Seven of Hollywood’s 20 top-grossing films bear his mark as either director, producer or executive producer. But because his skills as a filmmaker are so great, because he can and often does get away with working at a fraction of his capabilities, “Saving Private Ryan” is a startling reminder of exactly how spectacular a director Spielberg can be when he allows himself to be challenged by a subject (in this case World War II) that pushes against his limits.
The son of a combat veteran, Spielberg says the first movies he made as a child dealt with that war, and many critics feel that the 40 minutes showing 1941 Shanghai under Japanese attack that open “Empire of the Sun” rank among the best footage he’s ever shot. Spielberg is most effective when he doesn’t flinch, when his respect for the material compels him to be as honest as he can, and that is largely the case here.
It’s not that “Private Ryan’s” story (written by Robert Rodat) of an eight-man squad detailed to find and rescue a soldier in just-invaded Normandy doesn’t provide opportunities for conventional movie heroism. It does, and Tom Hanks as laconic squad leader Capt. John Miller gives an indelible performance as an elevated everyman, our ideal vision of how we all hope we’d act under the duress of combat.
But Capt. Miller is not a casually heroic John Wayne knockoff. He’s despairing about his role in leading men to slaughter, troubled at the person the war has turned him into, and the periodic trembling of one of his hands reveals he’s dangerously close to coming apart.
In this determination not to trivialize the nature of war and what it does to people, “Private Ryan” is often a darker and more pessimistic look at combat and reality than we are used to from either Hollywood or Spielberg. This is a war where American soldiers mock virtue and shoot surrendering Germans, where decent and altruistic actions tend to be fatal, where death is random, stupid and redeems hardly anything at all. Even the usually vivid American flag is, in Janusz Kaminski’s remarkable cinematography, bleached out and desaturated.
More than in its attitudes, more even than in its surprising focus on the nature of cowardice, “Saving Private Ryan” reveals its determination to be accurate in the way it presents combat action. Using a trio of superlative operators (Mitch Dubin, Chris Haarhoff, Seamus Corcoran) and relying on the newsreel look of hand-held cameras, “Private Ryan” gets as close to the unimaginable horror and chaos of battle as fiction film ever has, closer in fact than some audience members may want to experience.
After a brief prelude depicting an old veteran, we’re not sure exactly who, returning with his family to the American cemetery at Normandy, we flash immediately back to that beach and a shot of Capt. Miller in his landing craft on D-day, June 6, 1944. During the next 20 or so minutes, we are shown the invasion of France with a violence and an intensity that is almost beyond describing.
The slaughter starts immediately and does not let up. Men are enveloped in flames, ripped to shreds by bullets, dead as soon as they set foot on the beach or, in an agonizing mixture of horror and beauty, dying in slow-motion as they are dragged underwater. One man’s leg is blown off, another loses an arm and tries awkwardly to pick it up with the other, a third lies in agony as his intestines graphically spill on the ground. Panic, pitiless fear and bloody pandemonium are everywhere; we see the raw terror on everyone’s face, and for once we know exactly why it’s there.
A great deal has been made about the violence level in “Saving Private Ryan,” and though it is horrific, it’s a world apart from the pandering, anything-for-a-rush blood sports that characterize business-as-usual Hollywood. There’s no attempt to make the violence fun and games, and special pleading is completely absent. Instead, the visual tone is the dispassionate, pitiless one of an all-seeing but uninvolved deity, inviting us to look on this awful destruction and despair.
One of the last shots of the battle focuses on the name “Ryan” stenciled on the backpack of a corpse. A scene in a military office back home produces the information that in fact three of four Ryan brothers have died in action within days of one another. When Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) finds out, he focuses on the survivor, Pvt. James Ryan, on the ground somewhere in Normandy. “We are going to send someone to find him,” the general says. “And we are going to get him the hell out of there.”
That someone turns out to be Capt. Miller, none too happy at being assigned to what he considers “a public relations gambit” as potentially difficult and pointless as finding “a needle in a stack of needles.” What is the sense, both he and his men wonder as they head out, in risking all their lives to save just one? “Ryan better be worth it,” the captain says. “He better go home and cure some disease or invent a new, longer-lasting lightbulb.”
As the squad warily picks its way through the combat zone, we get to know the men we’ve only caught a glimpse of during the invasion, starting with Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), the captain’s unflappable right hand, and the newly added Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davis), a timid, bookish translator who’s never seen action.
The rest of the guys, besides the compassionate medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), are all privates. The biggest talker is Reiben (Edward Burns), who has “Brooklyn, N.Y.” written on his jacket, though Caparzo (Vin Diesel) and his mouth are not far behind. Mellish (Adam Goldberg) is angrily aware of what the Nazis are doing to the Jews, and Jackson (Barry Pepper) is a religious Southern sharpshooter who prays “God grant me strength” before taking aim and firing.
Working with casting director Denise Chamian, Spielberg has adroitly cast these roles, mixing actors known mostly to followers of independent film with camouflaged veterans like Sizemore (who does the best, most controlled work of his career), Dennis Farina and Ted Danson (who appear briefly as officers).
But even as we’re admiring these performances, we can’t help but be aware that this kind of multiethnic squad is one of the most venerable conventions of war movies, can’t help noticing that, for instance, sharpshooter Jackson could have stepped right out of “Sergeant York,” the 1941 film about World War I starring Gary Cooper.
What nags at you about “Saving Private Ryan” is the way Rodat’s script, though solid and well-structured, has not broken through convention, has not elevated itself to a higher level (or even reached the best of the old level) the way the mind-bending scenes of combat have.
As the squad moves through crises toward the elusive Pvt. Ryan, what impacts us most are invariably scenes of action: sometimes fire fights, sometimes unexpected deaths, but never the dialogue the men trade. Just as the soldiers speculate that Capt. Miller has been artfully reassembled from old body parts, so “Private Ryan’s” script has been put together from familiar and shopworn material.
Because the script is only workmanlike, it highlights the hitch in Spielberg’s otherwise problem-free direction, which is a tendency to be too insistent at obviously sentimental moments. The enabler here is five-time Oscar-winning composer John Williams, who has been on almost all of the director’s films but whose bombastic work is more and more a stranger to subtlety.
Pvt. Ryan (handsome, open-faced Matt Damon) is inevitably located, but finding him occurs simultaneously with a brutal, cataclysmic final shootout in a ruined French village constructed with uncanny, hypnotic verisimilitude by production designer Tom Sanders that is as unforgettable as the invasion. (Given that Spielberg preferred, whenever possible, not to storyboard his action ahead of time, the key player in making this and all of “Private Ryan’s” action sequences so compelling is wizardly veteran editor Michael Kahn.)
How much we begrudge “Saving Private Ryan” what flaws it has depends in part on how greedy we are for perfection. When he is on his game, as he is here, Spielberg is a master storyteller whose gift for narrative film is unsurpassed. The overdone sentiment (most noticeable in the film’s shaky framing story), the occasional over-reliance on conventional elements, are simply part of the package, part of what he needs for security if he’s going to push mainstream filmmaking into directions it has never gone before. As far as trade-offs go, it’s a hell of a deal.
* MPAA rating: R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language. Times guidelines: The violence is raw but never exploitative.
‘Saving Private Ryan’
Tom Hanks: Capt. Miller
Tom Sizemore: Sgt. Horvath
Edward Burns: Pvt. Reiben
Barry Pepper: Pvt. Jackson
Adam Goldberg: Pvt. Mellish
Vin Diesel: Pvt. Caparzo
Giovanni Ribisi: T/4 Medic Wade
Jeremy Davies: Cpl. Upham
Matt Damon: Pvt. Ryan
Ted Danson: Capt. Hamill
DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures present an Amblin Entertainment production in association with Mutual Film Co., released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Steven Spielberg. Producers Steven Spielberg & Ian Bruce, Mark Gordon & Gary Levinson. Screenplay Robert Rodat. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Editor Michael Kahn. Costumes Joanna Johnston. Music John Williams. Production design Tom Sanders. Supervising Art director Daniel T. Dorrance. Set decorator Lisa Dean Kavanaugh. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.
OFF TO WAR: Numerous films over the years have attempted to capture the intensity, carnage, fear and unbridled heroism of war. F10