The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: July 23 - 30, 1998

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The horror and the glory

Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan goes to Hell and back

by Peter Keough

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, Directed by Stephen Spielberg. Written by Robert Rodat. With Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, and Dennis Farina. A DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures release.

Private Ryan Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), commanding a unit of Army Rangers storming Omaha Beach on D-Day, drags a fallen lieutenant to safety. A shell bursts nearby; Miller ducks and moves on. Glancing down at the wounded man, he perceives that from the waist down the lieutenant has vanished. Meanwhile, in the background, a soldier appears bewildered, apparently looking for something. He finds it -- his severed arm -- and wanders off.

These are images from the first half hour of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, and they are the most harrowing and oddly exhilarating re-creations of modern warfare ever to be seen in a film made for entertainment. (Many have speculated that without Spielberg's clout, this film would have been rated NC-17. Similarly suspect is the PG-13 rating for the Spielberg-produced and eerily parallel Small Soldiers.) The entertainment factor alone should raise doubts: where is the "decency" -- the term used by Spielberg when he described his goal in making the movie -- in selling tickets to the spectacle of such brutality, misery, and death? Although I left the film disturbed, stimulated, and queasy from its sheer visceral impact, I was more distraught by its failure -- and its success -- at putting the horror into a moral context.

True, the tragic and horrific have been the mainstay of popular entertainment since Greek drama, with its ritual catharsis of pity and fear. But who's going to want to watch? Snuff-film fans aside, and those who see in such Peckinpah-inspired dances of death a perverse sublimity, this film doesn't offer the escapist distance of, say, The Lost World.

What it does offer is the sentimentality of Amistad and, to a lesser degree, Schindler's List. Opening the film is a framing device reminiscent of Schindler. A sun-scorched Old Glory (British and Canadian viewers may be miffed at Spielberg's total disregard of their role in the European invasion) lifts to reveal an old man tottering through the rows of white crosses at the present-day Normandy beachhead memorial. The monuments fade to the black crosses of steel obstructions on Omaha Beach and the seasick faces of troops in landing craft cutting through the surf. The flashback proves phony, not just because this character, it turns out, was never there, but because it entombs the trauma to come in retrospective glory and mawkishness.

That's momentarily forgotten in the hellfire that follows, as the ramp of the landing-craft flies open and troops are butchered in a merciless hail of bullets. Shot via handheld camera to imitate actual combat footage (blood at times splatters the lens, as well as everything else), this sequence creates a feeling of helplessness and claustrophobic carnage. Nothing the soldiers do to escape or fight back is of any avail -- in fact, their efforts backfire with diabolical irony, the kind of cruel poetic injustices that mark the lumbering D-Day epic The Longest Day (1961), and more cynically that underrated paean to World War II disillusionment, The Victors (1963). As an enraged medic notes when his lifesaving handiwork goes to naught because of a whimsically accurate bullet, these guys can't catch a single break.

Such studiously rendered atrocities draw on a deep source of nightmare, the universal horror of the frailty of the flesh and the need to transcend it. They are reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, with the difference being that the grotesque mutilations of Hell's various circles reflect divine logic and justice, whereas these abominations are merely what happens when a human body encounters bullets, high explosives, and fire. The consequences are inevitable and meaningless. Or are they? The invaders regroup and, with sheer guts, intelligence, and Yankee ingenuity, breach the defenses. You can choose between enthusiasm and ambivalence as Nazi soldiers crammed into a trench are mowed down in a turkey shoot, or as a soldier shouts out "Don't shoot them, let them burn" when defenders leap out of a gun emplacement like living fireworks displays. In the end, Miller's outfit accomplish their mission, and of course their sacrifice leads to the downfall of the Third Reich.

But that's not enough for Spielberg or, presumably, the audience. As in Schindler's List, the problem remains -- after so much death, what is the value of a single human life? A contrived opportunity arises for the resolution of this question. Three of four brothers have died in action within days of one another. The fourth, paratrooper Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), is unaccounted for behind enemy lines in Normandy. (A similar, true episode, in which five brothers went down on the same ship, was dramatized in 1944 in The Sullivans.) A general is informed, whereupon he proposes a rescue mission to retrieve the surviving brother and send him back home. This general squelches the reasonable objections of his staff (what chance do they have of finding him? why bereave more mothers?) by reading a letter from Abraham Lincoln to a mother whose sons all died in battle. That's illogical enough, never mind the likelihood that in this crucial phase of D-Day these people would have more important matters to attend to. Stranger still, no mention is made of the military value of such a mission -- propaganda and public relations.

Instead, what's offered is a variation on Apocalypse Now: a search not for the heart of darkness but for the heart of decency. Enlisted are Captain Miller and seven of his best men. Here Ryan draws from the melting-pot squad conventions that go back to classic World War II movies from Guadalcanal Diary to The Big Red One: each member is a representative ethnic or regional stereotype backed by a trademark gimmick. Private Reiben (Edward Burns, copping the same attitude as in The Brothers McMullen but backed up with a Browning automatic rifle) takes personal umbrage at the way this theoretical Ryan has endangered the lives of his flesh-and-blood buddies. Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) shows a nauseated remorse over killing but relishes flaunting his Jewishness in front of German POWs. Private Jackson (Barry Pepper) is a good old boy with a fundamentalist streak and a dead eye with a shooting iron -- in a gratuitous bit of Godfather-style parallel editing, his murmuring of prayers while lining up a target is intercut with a padre reading the last rites to a dying dogface.

More substantive is Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore, the William Bendix of the '90s, if not the Victor McLaglen), whose nurturing NCO takes from the traditions of John Ford's cavalry movies and every other war movie ever made. He's dedicated to Captain Miller, whom Hanks plays as the beleaguered Good Shepherd squad leader hallowed in films such as The Story of G.I. Joe and The Sands of Iwo Jima. Located somewhere between Forrest Gump and Hanks's Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, Miller is made to seem complex and vulnerable through a twitching hand, and enigmatic because he has kept his past and identity a secret from his men.

Hanks's touching, melancholy performance aside (his bloodstained face does justice to what he witnesses at Omaha Beach), his "secret" proves a red herring. More beguiling and mysterious is Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies, delivering the film's most nuanced and troubling performance), a techie recruited to replace the unit's slain translator. Puny, bookish, and totally green, he brings the intellectual and moral point of view of a Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead. Although in the background, his character is the only one who really changes, and, to Spielberg's credit, not altogether "decently."

Like the motley crew in Lewis Milestone's A Walk in the Sun (1945), Miller's squad roam through the chaos of no man's land, bumping into anecdotes ranging from the poignant and heartstopping to the predictable and pat. "We are crossing over into the surreal," observes the often wry and thoughtful Miller, but it's unclear whether he's referring to the Catch-22 turn their mission eventually takes or to the unexpected appearance of Ted Danson as a combat officer.

A fellow critic referred to this part of the movie as the best Combat episode ever made, and that's a compliment. The usual clichés abound, but they're skewed provocatively. The last-stand battle is ushered in with the Jurassic Park entrance of Nazi armor and unfolds with the otherworldly nihilism of Kubrick's Full Medal Jacket. The cavalry comes at a timely moment, but not in time, and the begrudged release of a prisoner about to be executed results in an ongoing morality play that is one of the bravest parts of the film.

If only it weren't for that cipher Private Ryan -- his attempted rescue is overshadowed by an earlier case of mistaken identity that rings far truer -- and the hollow sentiment of the flag-waving framing device. Spielberg might better recall other words of Abraham Lincoln, his acknowledgment of gratitude and impotence in the Gettysburg Address. Nonetheless, what can be saved from Private Ryan is the recognition that some pain and heroism is beyond imagination and the consolation of meaning.

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