Saving Private Ryan
Here’s a not very original thought: War is about the ways in which you die. You can die getting a hole blown in your head at point-blank range as you step off a landing craft. You can die by tripping in the surf and being carried under water by the weight of your pack. You can die when your ammunition runs out and a stronger man beats you in hand-to-hand combat. You can die by being burned alive inside your tank when someone throws a molotov cocktail that hits the right spot.
War is about all of those and a lot more. War is about dying inside when you’ve lost your children, or when you’ve been a coward in battle. And all of them are a part of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ which is about the carnage of war. You probably know that in theme and plot the movie is very simple and straightforward. On D-Day the American General Staff learns that a Mrs. Ryan in Iowa, who’s a four-star mother for those of you who remember that you were given a little banner to hang in the window with a blue star embroidered in it for every son or daughter who was in the armed forces, Mrs. Ryan is about to be told that three of her sons are now killed in action, and General George Marshall orders that the fourth son, a paratrooper dropped behind the German lines in Normandy, be found and sent home before he too is killed.
And the film is the story of the little squad that’s sent to find him. They’re led by a high-school English teacher, now a captain, named John Miller, who’s played by Tom Hanks as a man who bears the burden of knowing the implications of what he does while he does it. Miller has fought his way through North Africa and Italy and now here he is in Normandy. At one point he says to his sergeant, "Do you know how many men have died under my command? Ninety three." He doesn’t have to say any more.
His little group is down to eight men, each of them with slowly fading hopes of getting out alive, each of them with parents, a wife, or children, and the hope of a life after war, and now each of them ordered to risk their own lives to save somebody else’s.
The film is built in three parts: It starts with the landing of the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day, showing us the carnage that those who were there say is exactly what it looked like. Men -- dozens of men, hundreds of men, thousands of men -- killed in their tracks by the German beach defense. The footage of this battle is so graphic that I imagine it will become the defining view of any mass assault.
The second part is the search for Private Ryan, moving up to and through the battle lines, which are still fluid enough that neither the Allies nor the Germans can claim to control it. There are surprises on all sides, along with the slow attrition of the group. And the third part begins when, almost by accident, the squad comes across Ryan himself.
There is also a prelude and a coda to this film, that a number of other critics have found redundant or even offensively sentimental. They’re perhaps a kind of Spielberg trademark if you remember the coda to ‘Schindler’s List,’ in which he gave us the chance to weep with the survivors of the holocaust. I believe they’re essential, because they lead us to a survivor, fifty years later, at the American army cemetery in Normandy, and that moment alone will tear your heart out.
As a film, there are breathtaking elements. The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, who also shot ‘Schindler’s List,’ is so amazingly skillful and realistic that you believe yourself to be in the middle of the firefights. It is a re-created documentary that makes you see war and its battles as you never have before. And the film editing is a whole course in the genius of how to assemble a movie out of ten thousand shots and give it rhythm and power.
Tom Hanks and the rest of the cast are fine, but here I’m reluctant to drop my critical defenses. The script, by Robert Rodat, is thin; it’s too thin to sustain any real characterization; and Spielberg tends to let his action run roughshod over the dialogue anyway. Where Brian DePalma in ‘Casualties of War’ and Oliver Stone in ‘Platoon’ found a way to let us inside their soldiers, Spielberg keeps us apart from them, and the film loses some power that it might have had. But all in all, a remarkable achievement.