If Steven Spielberg's emotional intelligence matched his visual genius, his harrowing, passionately felt and honorably flawed new film might qualify for one of the greatest American movies ever made about World War II. Saving Private Ryan begins with a 24-minute opening sequence depicting, in horrifically intimate shorthand, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. For all that it turned the tide of the war against the Germans, the D-Day operation was so bungled by Allied strategists that it transformed Omaha Beach into an abattoir strewn with men burning, drowning or bleeding to death from the onslaught of fire by dug-in German troops. Spielberg shoots the battle, which was saved by the courage of the soldiers who survived, with the savage candor of a field photographer. A hand-held camera, spattered with blood, swings wildly like some half-drunk participant in the carnage, the muted greens and grays of uniforms soaked by a driving rain. One soldier staggers to shore, cradling his severed arm as if it were a cherished newborn. Another lies prone amid scores of dead fish, feebly trying to prevent his innards from spilling out of him. Blood washes the waves as wounded men sink gracefully underwater. Gradually the camera picks out the scruffy unit with whom we will spend the rest of the movie. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), one of the few to escape injury, gazes about him, shrouded in the muffled silence of a man deafened by shock and the roar of artillery. Dragging a soldier to safety, he turns to discover that he is pulling half a man.
Pious - and doubtless jealous - Hollywood voices have cried overkill about the savagery of Saving Private Ryan's battle scenes, especially in light of the movie's relatively wimpy R rating. The hypocrisy is grimly amusing, for no one raised a peep about Jurassic Park, which was viciously exploitive of its mostly young audience. Although Spielberg has racked up his share of pointless fright nights, in Saving Private Ryan he uses screen brutality just the way it should be used - to deglamorize the undiscriminating overkill of modern combat, in which survival is governed far more by dumb luck than by derring-do, and heroism is beside the point.
Not that Spielberg can ever fully sate his bottomless hunger for heroes, though in his maturity they grow ever less mythic, ever more vulnerable and shaded. Schindler's List, which tethered the director's abiding obsession with World War II to his own voyage of Jewish self-discovery, drew its inspiration from the ambiguous bravery of a man who does the right thing for the murkiest of reasons. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg re-creates all the father-heroes he ever wanted - and resented - in the aloof, high-minded Captain Miller, played by Hanks in a canny inversion of his wide-open turn as the ingenu Forrest Gump. Yet Miller, too, is an innocent, a man of principle in a war that mows heedlessly over his scruples. Through him, Spielberg asks what it means to speak of a "good war" that killed millions and maimed their families, and what possible form of nobility could flourish under such conditions.
These are mighty questions, and for as long as Spielberg explores them through the wordless scenes of fighting, Saving Private Ryan remains awesome in its power to move the heart and mind in sync. The trouble starts when the soldiers open their mouths. One has to wonder how much the flat, expository screenplay credited to Robert Rodat, who also wrote the lovely goose movie, Fly Away Home, has been fiddled with by a director whose ear for dialogue is as tinny as his eye is sound. Rarely in Saving Private Ryan, as the soldiers move from one real or symbolic minefield to the next, swapping stories of mothers and brothers and sweethearts left behind, do they talk in anything resembling ordinary speech. "This time the mission is the man," Miller declaims as he rallies his men to go behind enemy lines and retrieve a soldier whose three brothers have perished within days of each other. It's a premise no one could fail to warm to, and that, precisely, is its tyranny. Who would harden their hearts to the attempt to restore a sole surviving son to a mother of four, especially an ample heartland mother with goodness written all over her careworn features? Yet it's precisely here that the film starts to sag under the sentimentality that's second nature to Spielberg, and decay into a stage play about decency that makes for some pretty speeches which drain the movie of its angry, ambivalent vitality.
Once the fighting stops, Saving Private Ryan scales down into a regular old combat movie of the kind made popular during World War II. That's no insult: The resilience of the genre lies in the deep emotional satisfaction it offers, stripping away the emotional and material clutter of everyday life in peacetime, simplifying and clarifying the morality of working together for a higher cause. Spielberg keeps faith with the prototype, the tight little unit whose members represent American diversity, glued together by a laconic leader who knows instinctively when to unbend just enough to raise depleted morale, and how to contain the one feckless soldier who challenges the purpose of the mission. There's honor in that, and good acting, in particular by Tom Sizemore as Miller's sergeant and protector, Barry Pepper as a prayerful crack sniper and Jeremy Davies as a nerdy outsider who's brought along for his language skills and serves as our witness to the fate of the unit. When Edward Burns, rather good as the detached, self-serving Private Reiben, asks why the lives of eight men should be risked to save just one, it's a legitimate question that falls away as the movie sinks knee-deep into the heroic individualism which defines American romantic aspiration.
"Every man I kill, the further I feel away from home," says Miller when his men champ at the bit to execute a German soldier who has killed one of them. To Spielberg's credit, he acknowledges that Miller's scruples are as garbled as his grammar, for they return later on to haunt him in ways that underscore the anachronistic fragility of his honor code. When Spielberg returns to what he does best - showing, not telling - we see the unit digging in for its last stand along with Private Ryan (Matt Damon), who has refused to leave his own detail until it completes its mission to defend a bridge. In the final battle, a wounded Miller sits weakly emptying his handgun at an approaching tank. One thinks of William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai, aghast at Alec Guinness' mad interpretation of honor, observing that the point is not to die like a gentleman, but to live like a human being. Such is Spielberg's skill that Miller's scene, at once telling and moving, needs no elaboration. Except that, as always, Spielberg can't resist completing the thought on our behalf. Like Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan ends in a burst of schmaltzy ritual. One of the survivors, now an old man, falls to his knees in a cemetery filled with white crosses, then begs his wife to tell him that he's a good man. With this hopelessly cloying coda, Spielberg, having won his battles, loses sight of the war.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.