Saving Private Ryan

on July 24, 1998 by Wade Major
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   When is an anti-war film not an anti-war film? When it's Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."
   Boasting some of the grittiest, most harrowing close-range combat scenes ever filmed, there is no questioning the skill and maturity with which Spielberg has mounted his eagerly-awaited World War II drama--precisely the kind of Oscar-caliber execution one would expect from the director of "Schindler's List." But "Saving Private Ryan" marks an even more dramatic departure for Spielberg than "Schindler's List" or even "Amistad," a departure that ultimately catches the director in a moral quandry from which he makes a most inelegant, even troubling, exit.
   The film's central story is both familiar and simple: After surviving the horrors of the Omaha Beach landing during the D-Day Invasion, a stoic Army captain (Tom Hanks) and his remaining squad of grunts (Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi and Jeremy Davies) are given charge of a special mission to find a lost paratrooper (Matt Damon in the title role) whose three brothers were all killed in recent war actions. Once found, assuming he is still alive, he is to be safely returned to his grieving mother.
   Aside from the film's stunning technical credits and polished execution, there is little to distinguish the non-combat scenes from the countless other "military unit on a mission" films that once littered the nation's movie screens in the 1940s and 1950s, the same films on which most contemporary Vietnam tales have also been modeled. Soldiers quibble and complain, share war stories, reminisce about home and occasionally bond with one another, only to have their camaraderie rudely interrupted at each turn by yet another close-range engagement with the enemy.
   What ultimately sets "Saving Private Ryan" apart from its golden age lineage, however, is its unflinchingly brutal depiction of the horrors of war as seen from a foot soldier's perspective. The opening Omaha Beach sequence is heartbreakingingly graphic, an emotional gauntlet for which it is almost impossible to prepare, pre-release hype notwithstanding. Subsequent battles are no less intense, almost to the point of finally being too numbing to be effective.
   But effective the film is, communicating the gruesome nature of combat as few anti-war films ever have. It is important to note, however, that it has not been in their portrayal of war that great anti-war films have historically made their point, but rather their cynical and largely pessimistic view of human nature, a view that is immediately at odds with the child-like optimism that has long been Spielberg's thematic hallmark. And it is here that "Saving Private Ryan" runs afoul of itself.
   If there is any consolation to be found in the film's missteps, it is that Spielberg's sensibilities are almost nowhere to be found until the conclusion.
   Had Robert Rodat's fact-based script climaxed with even a fraction of its overall "gung ho"-ism, in fact, it might have managed to make the unambiguous point for which the filmmakers were clearly striving. What is presented instead is a surprisingly conventional war film conclusion that actually appears to justify the preceding carnage as an act of honor, courage and justice. Particularly troubling are two brief moments whose sole function in the film seems to be the evocation of cheers from the audience.
   Though it is unlikely that either Spielberg or Rodat would have consciously meant to imply that the barbarism of war as depicted in "Saving Private Ryan" is either noble or heroic, that is, indeed, the message that viewers discerning enough to see past the technical mastery will take home with them, a message which is further re-enforced in the film's rather silly and unnecessary present-day frame story.
   Given the proclivities of the average moviegoer, however, odds are that most will fail to consider such matters, instead appreciating the film almost exclusively on the basis of its formidable technical merits and universally fine cast.    Starring Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies and Matt Damon. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Robert Rodat. Produced by Steven Spielberg & Ian Bryce and Mark Gordon & Gary Levinsohn. A Dreamworks release. Drama. Rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language. Running time: 169 min.
Tags: Starring Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Robert Rodat. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn, Dreamworks, Drama
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