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Review: 'Saving Private Ryan' staggering, hellish, heroic

July 24, 1998
Web posted at: 8:32 p.m. EDT (2032 GMT)


From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Steven Spielberg's often staggeringly powerful World War II epic, "Saving Private Ryan," is hands-down the best film of 1998. Spielberg has clearly stated in recent interviews that he made the film as a monument to the brave men who fought and died in that terrible war (and on D-Day, in particular), but he's also done something morally heroic in the process. "Private Ryan" clearly illustrates, once and for all, that war -- the real, appalling thing, not the flag-waving glorification that you usually see at the movies -- is hell on earth.

Spielberg accomplishes these goals with a technical virtuosity that no other director, arguably in the history of the cinema, can even approach. Though he too often jumps into films that are way beneath him ("Always," "Hook," and "The Lost World," among others), or gets too poundingly sincere for the kind of choreographed glossiness that often informs his style ("The Color Purple" and "Amistad"), Spielberg is the real McCoy. He's a director whose work has grown right before our eyes from that of a precocious whiz-kid to the complex, humanistic statements of a true artist. Whether or not you always appreciate how he utilizes his skills, the man is an undeniable genius.

"Saving Private Ryan" is not a flawless movie. Robert Rodat's screenplay falters a little too often for complete comfort. War movie clichés that get dismantled in the latter part of the film still stand as nothing but clichés as you watch them in the early going. This is a forgivable sin, though, because Spielberg's camera (and a group of great performances, especially another iconic one from Tom Hanks) pulls us deep into the action and never lets go.

I found tears streaming down my face several times during the film, not only out of sadness for the characters I was watching, but also for the men who actually got torn to bits out on those beaches. That doddering old man who annoyed you yesterday by taking too much time in the checkout line at the grocery store very possibly served this country and experienced the unspeakable horrors of war firsthand. "Saving Private Ryan" drives that point home unflinchingly, and it's about time.

Brutally like the real thing

View the theatrical trailer to "Saving Private Ryan"

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My father, who died this past May, was a Korean War combat veteran. This movie gave me a greater understanding of what he must have gone through during his war, while enlightening me as to why he could seldom bring himself to talk about his experiences. If your father also served, seeing this film with him could bridge a gap between the two of you that you don't even know exists.

The defiantly brutal battle sequences that frame the story are almost too visceral to bear, but you owe it to the people who were actually there to watch as they unfold. As the film opens, Hanks (as Capt. Miller) is approaching Omaha Beach in a landing craft full of soldiers who are literally vomiting with fear and seasickness. The film doesn't make it very clear if you don't know anything about the events of June 6, 1944, but Allied bombers were supposed to have destroyed massive German fortifications that lined the cliffs above the beaches the night before the landing. Dense cloud coverage caused the planes to miss almost all of their designated targets, so the next morning thousands of soldiers were hitting the shores of France and running face-first into what amounted to an open-air slaughterhouse.

In the movie, as in the invasion, machine gun and mortar fire is so intense, chunks of human flesh and blood go flying when the landing crafts' doors open. Spielberg studied legendary director John Ford's documentary account of the actual event, and he brilliantly duplicates that footage's hand-held, washed-out look. You feel as if you're watching the real thing, even when Spielberg reverts to Hanks' character's point of view.

The sound mix (which is spectacular throughout the film) slows down to a dull roar as Hanks and several of his comrades climb over the sides of the craft and sink into the ocean. You can see bullets whizzing past the panicked soldiers as they struggle underwater to remove the binding equipment that's pulling them down. Some of the shots hit their marks and clouds of red mist float up from the now-lifeless bodies.

Obscene carnage

This opening sequence, which lasts 25 minutes, is one of the most devastating things ever committed to film. The carnage is so obscene it almost becomes hallucinatory. A stunned soldier calmly reaches down and picks up his severed arm, then wanders along the beach in shock. At one point (though it's hardly the focus of the shot) Hanks is pulling a wounded man towards what little cover there is, when he suddenly realizes that he's dragging only half a body. Another soldier screams in pain as he lies on the sand, calling for his mother while literally grasping his intestines in his own hands. Yes, it's hellish, and, yes, it's supremely disturbing. It also really happened, to real people, not illusory figures like John Wayne or Errol Flynn.


After making it across the beach (and after we watch a surprisingly heavy-handed scene concerning General George Marshall back in the States), Hanks is given a unique mission. Three Iowa brothers have been killed in combat - we see one of them lying in the bloody surf at Omaha - and now Hanks must take a group of men into the French countryside to try to retrieve the family's last remaining son, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon.) The moral dilemma of the movie, outside of the numbing brutality of war itself, is the skewed reasoning behind sending eight men through highly dangerous territory in order to rescue a single soldier.

The covering-all-the-bases content of the squad that Hanks assembles is where a lot of the weaker elements in the film can be found. We get a Brooklyn loud-mouth (Edward Burns), a sensitive medic (Giovanni Ribisi), a timid language specialist (Jeremy Davies), a sarcastic complainer (Adam Goldberg), the tough Sarge (Tom Sizemore), a southern-fried sharpshooter (Barry Pepper), and an Italian-American goon (Vin Diesel.)

All of the actors do admirable work (especially Ribisi, who's the key element of a gruesome, truly heartbreaking scene) but this grab-bag sampling of The Great Melting Pot is a staple of the kind of war movie that Spielberg is supposed to be deconstructing. I'm absolutely certain that the director's aware of this; I just think it takes too long before those stereotypes start getting shattered. When that moment comes, during another lengthy (and just as harrowing) battle scene at the end of the film, it's fairly astonishing stuff. I think the movie would have been better served, though, if the characters had been a little less on-the-nose in the early going.

Seminal performance from Hanks

And then there's Tom Hanks. It's become rather old-hat by now to say that Hanks is this generation's Jimmy Stewart, but Spielberg understands the guy-next-door persona that's central to Hanks' popularity, and twists it inside-out several times during the film. You can feel Capt. Miller fighting to maintain his humanity while often giving in to his blinding fear and anger. Sometimes he makes the wrong decision, but then you have to deal with the question of exactly what the "right" decision is when you're in the middle of a situation in which concepts like right and wrong don't apply.

Hanks is constantly described by critics as being an "everyman" performer. In this film he's truly standing in for every man, exploring the often dark heart that beats in all of us. This performance proves yet again that he's one hell of an actor, the kind we should cherish.

Spielberg himself has said that "Saving Private Ryan" shouldn't be viewed by children under the age of 14. I would say, though, that older teen-agers should absolutely be taken to see it. In this purposefully shallow, MTV-driven society that we've created, Memorial Day speeches just don't cut it anymore. If people have to see to understand, then let them see it. It would be infinitely better for their souls than the almost jubilant violence in something like "Lethal Weapon 4." Rated R. 165 minutes.

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