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A Killer of a Tale

The first half-hour of Steven Spielberg's magnificent and terrifying war epic Saving Private Ryan unfolds at bloody Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and is likely the most graphic re-creation of men in battle ever committed to film. Petrified GIs huddling in the wave-bashed landing craft vomit into their helmets. Before the first wave can wade three feet toward shore, scores of them are torn to pieces by German machine guns firing from the concrete pillboxes above. Amid shattering noise and raw chaos, a soldier wandering in shock reaches down to retrieve his severed arm. Another lies on the sand, grotesquely eviscerated. The gunfire and smoke and blood (which sometimes spatters onto the lenses of Janusz Kaminski's jittery, hand-held cameras) get so overwhelming that you feel like looking away from the screen.

Even as you marvel at the power of the images (Spielberg has even thought to litter the beach with dead fish as well as dead men), you want the hellish slaughter to end. This is not The Longest Day, with its sweeping overhead views of the Normandy invasion. This is not invincible John Wayne surrounding the enemy. It isn't Francis Ford Coppola imagining Southeast Asia as a drugged fever dream or Sam Peckinpah seducing the audience with a stylized ballet of movie violence. This seems to be war itself--nightmarish, brutal, constantly surprising in the variety of its horror. This great sequence doesn't thrill; it humbles.

In view of such an all-out, emotionally exhausting beginning, you half expect Ryan's remaining two hours to be anti-climactic. But Spielberg isn't about to let us or himself off that easily. The former boy wonder, who once entertained us with sharks, cuddly extraterrestrials and dinosaurs, turned a major corner when he confronted the Holocaust in Schindler's List, another one by addressing the sin of slavery in Amistad. Now there's no turning back: A Spielberg war movie must attempt to be the most disturbing war movie of all time.

Does Spielberg succeed? World War II veterans may be the best judges of that. But one measure of the film's brilliance is this: Working with a terrific cast headed by his longtime friend Tom Hanks and a deft, nuanced screenplay by Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home), Hollywood's master of narrative becomes the first filmmaker to fuse a wary, post-Vietnam sensibility with an appreciation of the courage and heroism thrust upon soldiers in battle. The tired old argument--is it a war movie or an anti-war movie?--that has attended every decent combat picture from Patton to Das Boot once again proves irrelevant. As George Patton and the Carthaginians knew, honor and ignominy co-exist on the killing ground, drenched in extremes of emotion. The sight of American soldiers shooting a pair of surrendering Germans is not something we would have seen in a Hollywood movie prior to Vietnam. That it happens in Saving Private Ryan in no way diminishes the moral force Spielberg brings to his moviemaking, to his vision of ordinary men under extraordinary pressures.

The germ of the story, which has an almost biblical purity, is the mission assigned to a single rifle squad shortly after D-Day. These eight men are to track down a paratrooper whose three brothers have all just been killed in battle so the War Department can send him home safe. The search for Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), late of rural Iowa, also gives the film a chance to spread its wings. What is the nature of duty? Does sacrifice have limits? How does patriotism square with survival instinct? Do dog-tired soldiers, given a choice, attack a machine-gun nest beneath a German radar tower, or do they stay out of harm's way for an afternoon?

There are no easy answers. The squad led here by enigmatic Captain Miller (Hanks) is as multi-ethnic and melting-pot rich as those found in the morale-boosting war movies of the 1940s: It's got the prayerful sharpshooter from backwoods Appalachia (Barry Pepper), the obligatory wiseguy from Brooklyn (Edward Burns), another tough sergeant (Ted Sizemore), a homesick teenager, an Italian, a Jew, even a tenderfoot who can quote Ralph Waldo Emerson. But in this vision of World War II--the Good War--there is sometimes as much dissension in the ranks as you'll find in Born on the Fourth of July. Even the captain has doubts about risking his men to rescue one man: "Ryan better be worth it," he muses. "He better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting lightbulb."

Private Ryan, it turns out, is no one special. Captain Miller and his men slog through the rain, fight skirmishes and risk mutiny to find him, and when they do, he's just like them--another decent, weary GI dreaming of "that big boat home" but bound by love and duty to his comrades. Salted with vintage battlefield humor, some odd twists of fate and the occasional song of lost love courtesy of Edith Piaf, Saving Private Ryan moves inexorably toward a kind of epiphany--a showdown with German tanks and infantry at a crucial bridge in a ruined French town that illuminates the devotion of men at war not to some national ideal or great cause but to the voice inside themselves that commands them to do right.

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