Life and death during wartime

Spielberg perfectly--and horrifyingly--captures the humanity and horror of WWII

But Saving Private Ryan isn't a reassuring alternative; it doesn't offer up the homilies that have drenched morale-boosting WWII movies. By throwing off the impediments of a strictly patriotic agenda, Spielberg is free to function as an artist. By going back to a Good War and focusing so clearly on its carnage, he's putting forth the most obvious of positions: War is about killing people.

Yet Captain Miller's platoon is sent on a mission after Omaha Beach that leads to a deeper truth: War is about saving people. Miller is ordered by U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) to take his company behind German lines and somehow locate and bring to safety a Private Ryan (Matt Damon), who was part of a misguided 101st Airborne drop and whose three brothers have all been killed in different battle zones within days of each other. Miller risks his men's lives and his own to rescue and send home a single soldier--so that Ryan's mother in Iowa will still have a son. Miller has already lost 94 men in his command; he rationalizes their deaths by imagining the lives he will save in the long run. But the rescue of Private Ryan is a mission that bears no such scrutiny; no one in Miller's company can rationalize it, and few can abide it.

The platoon bears a superficial resemblance to the mixed-nuts brigades familiar from WWII movies. Besides the sergeant and Private Jackson, there's Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), the Jewish guy; Private Reiben (Ed Burns), the Brooklyn guy; Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), the medic guy; Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel), the tough guy who tries to rescue little French children; and Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), the bookish guy who has never fired at anybody before. (He's our stand-in, like the youth in The Red Badge of Courage.) Even Private Ryan, when he's finally located, has the corn-fed all-American look we've seen in dozens of flag-waver flicks.

But Spielberg and his screenwriter, Robert Rodat, don't go in for overtly sentimental displays. On the surface these men may seem like stereotypes, but the actors give their roles a hard-edged authenticity. (As performers, they are on their own kind of mission.) We can see that these soldiers are learning on the job how to make war. The youth and innocence they brought with them into combat have already slipped from their faces. They look prematurely old.

Tom Hanks has perhaps the most difficult role, and he brings it off with the best performance of his career. For most of the movie, Miller is a cipher to his soldiers, but his unreachableness isn't a power play--it's just his way of not feeling too close to the men who may soon drop one by one before his eyes. Yet we can see in him what his platoon can't or can only intuit. War hasn't coarsened him; it's opened him to a deeper level of anguish. Away from his men, he breaks down sobbing. At one point he says, "Every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel." Yet we realize the irony in what he is saying: Killing is what will bring him home.

Saving Private Ryan doesn't pretend, as do so many war movies, that soldiers in the frenzy of battle are fighting for the noblest of motives or that only the virtuous survive. WWII may have been fought by the Allies for impeccable reasons, but Miller and his soldiers on their mission of mercy are thinking overwhelmingly about personal survival. There's something cauterizing--and yet liberating--about this view. For the Hollywood war movie, it represents a new and more transcendently honest approach to human experience.

Yet Spielberg, disdaining the easy cliches of war movies, understands the impulse that still makes us want to make sense of the senseless. He wants to memorialize these men but in a way that doesn't turn them into plaster saints. He wants to make them powerfully, confusedly human. The soldiers who grouse and die to save Private Ryan come to realize that his rescue "is the only good thing we can take out of this shitty mess." It's a hard-won revelation designed to give meaning to a chaos they can no longer comprehend.

Ryan's survival is the measure of their sacrifice, and he must spend the rest of his life living up to what they have done. For Spielberg, the great romantic gesture in war is also the most necessary--it is the gesture toward decency. He commemorates the soldiers in that vast Normandy cemetery in the most absolute and honorable way possible.

Saving Private Ryan.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Robert Rodat. Starring Tom Hanks, Ed Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, and Matt Damon. Opens Friday.

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