Steven Spielberg's World War II combat film Saving Private Ryan opens with what may be the most harrowing 25 minutes in the history of cinema. After a brief prologue set in a French cemetery that commemorates those who lost their lives during Operation Overlord--the Allied invasion of continental Europe on the beaches of Normandy--we're hurled into the slaughterhouse known as Omaha Beach. Few things went according to plan on D-Day, but what transpired on Omaha Beach was a horror show. Over 2,000 GIs were ground into meat by a German fusillade of artillery and mortar shells, machine-gun and rifle fire, hand grenades and land mines. Air and naval support having missed their marks, the dogfaces were sitting ducks. And so are we as a hailstorm of bullets and shrapnel chews up the screen. "I decided to play the role of a combat cameraman more than a director," Spielberg has told The New York Times about the movie's battle scenes; and the you-are-there results make even Robert Capa's famous D-Day photographs look like snapshots of an early-morning picnic. Utilizing the cinema's full resources of sight and sound, Spielberg has created an unprecedentedly visceral testament to the gory, gory hallelujah of modern warfare--literally visceral when one infantryman tries to shove his intestines back into his stomach. Another soldier wanders the beach in a daze, cradling his severed arm in his other arm, as if it were a newborn baby. "Bodies, heads, flesh, intestines--that's what Omaha Beach was," director Sam Fuller, who survived it and then revived it in 1980's The Big Red One, once said. But Fuller, though he understood that Omaha Beach was about guts, not glory, didn't quite have Spielberg's ability to make us smell and taste those guts. Few directors have had it, and that's why, on some crude but important level, the opening of Saving Private Ryan may be the greatest battle sequence of all time: It's at once utterly real and utterly unreal. Strangely enough, what sticks with me the most about it are the sounds--the plunk of metal hitting helmet, the pop of metal hitting uniform, the splat of metal hitting flesh. If that sounds like the end of the world to you, it was for far too many American servicemen. It was also the beginning of the end of World War II, of course, but there is no sense of triumph as the Allied troops break through the German defenses and the blood-dimmed tide is turned. At that point, with most of us in the audience suffering from cinematic shell shock, Saving Private Ryan turns into a rather conventional platoon film--conventional except for its unconventional take on war's sense of justice. Most war films, especially World War II films, work out of a moral calculus: Good guys tend to live, bad guys tend to die. Saving Private Ryan works out of a moral calculus, too. But, this time, God doesn't seem to be choosing who lives or dies. Death does. Almost before they've had a chance to check themselves for bullet holes, a squad of Army Rangers is sent on what is at best a public-relations mission, at worst a suicide mission. Counting the two who died on D-Day, an Iowa farm wife has lost three sons to the war within a single week. The only one she has left, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), is a paratrooper who dropped somewhere behind enemy lines. The mission is to find Ryan and get him the heck out of there. But the squad, which is one of those melting-pot stews beloved by war movies, has trouble working out the morality of such a venture. Why should eight men risk their lives to save one? Saving Private Ryan goes to hell and back to answer that question. It's an Odyssean journey led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), who's a lot closer to Alan Alda than to John Wayne. If you know a man by his handshake, you know Miller by his shaking hand--a psychic wound that indicates someone who's trying desperately to hold on to his wits as the world goes insane around him. Having lost 94 men under his command, Miller now protects himself by revealing as little as possible about his life back home--so little that his current squad has a $300 pool going on where he's from. But Hanks, who may be paying penance for waltzing through American history in Forrest Gump, endows Miller with the kind of quiet strength that true heroes are made of. It's a beautifully haunted performance. Miller's squad is a foxhole full of clichés--the grizzly-bear sergeant (Tom Sizemore), the cynic from Brooklyn (Edward Burns), the wisecracking Jew (Adam Goldberg), the Bible-thumping Southerner (Barry Pepper), the bookish coward (Jeremy Davies) and so forth. But Spielberg and his scriptwriter, Robert Rodat, spin this dross into gold, thanks to some superb acting, and they do it in a rather paradoxical way--by keeping some distance between us and the characters. Like Miller, we're afraid to get to know these guys lest they die on us, and yet we're moved by their mission--their real mission. For Saving Private Ryan is, at heart, a search movie, like Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Miller's battle-scarred warriors are searching, not just for Ryan, but for a reason to go on. That they find one suggests that Spielberg has come both to bury and praise the dead. World War II veterans--all of whom are now at least in their 70s--have been praised for over 50 years, but Spielberg wants to deepen that praise by showing us exactly what they went through on the battlefield. To do so, he adopts some of the techniques used in movies about the Vietnam War--the hand-held camera, the montage barrage, the blood and guts, the outrageous absurdity of it all. It was the Vietnam War that brought a daily dose of carnage into our living rooms, thereby sensitizing us to the hallucinatory brutality of war in general and the Vietnam War in particular. Of course, the Vietnam War was a so-called bad war, whereas World War II was a so-called good war--so we've been told, anyway. But Saving Private Ryan reminds us that all wars are bad wars. (If your guts are spilling out of your stomach, who cares whether you're on Omaha Beach or Hamburger Hill?) Thus does the movie expose a lie we've been telling ourselves for over 50 years--that, because World War II was a noble cause, the fighting was noble as well. On the contrary, the actual fighting was often as ignoble as any fighting since the dawn of time. What Saving Private Ryan does is put us in the middle of that fighting, so we can see for ourselves. "I didn't want to glamorize it," Spielberg says in the press material, "so I tried to be as brutally honest as possible."
I don't know how honest the movie is, but it's certainly brutal. And it closes with another harrowing sequence as Miller's squad helps Private Ryan's squad defend a bridge from what appears to be the entire German military. John Wayne would have done the old lock-and-load before mowing through those "krauts" like they were movie extras. Captain Miller just wants to go home, but the way home--as the GIs used to say--is through Berlin. As World War II slides from memory into history, Saving Private Ryan may be even more valuable to us than the history books. It doesn't tell us what the road to Berlin was, historically speaking; it tells us what it was like to be on that road, if only for the few seconds at Omaha Beach during which thousands of men met their deaths, many of them without firing a single shot.