A decade ago, who could have guessed that Steven Spielberg would become our most spectacular poet of war? Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks), his World War II epic about the invasion of Normandy and its aftermath, is a movie of staggering virtuosity and raw lyric power, a masterpiece of terror, chaos, blood, and courage. More than Coppola, Stone, or Kubrick, all of whom apotheosized the druggy morass of Vietnam, Spielberg has captured the hair-trigger instability of modern combat. He puts us directly inside the consciousness of men in battle, and he does it from the outset, using the famous attack at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, as an occasion to stage one of the most brutal and revolutionary sequences ever filmed.

As Higgins boats pull up under blue-black skies, the American soldiers stare silently, occasionally vomiting with seasick fear. The fronts of the boats drop open, and the enemy gunfire explodes with a sickeningly dense and relentless cracking, the camera trembling as if the earth itself were coming apart. Red bullet holes appear on the men’s helmets, and bodies drop like rag dolls. This may be D-Day, but it looks more like a mass suicide, and the profound shock and horror is that it doesn’t stop. For nearly half an hour, Spielberg uses his unparalleled kinetic genius to create an excruciatingly sustained cataclysm of carnage, nausea, and death. Everywhere, there are men with their limbs blown off, their insides hanging out, and the lapping tides run dark with blood, yet, like the soldiers, we seem to register each atrocity out of the corner of our eye. Working with the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg overexposes images, skips frames, and speeds up the action almost subliminally to create a heightened, leaping newsreel effect. It’s as if we were experiencing the battle as a documentary hallucination—a cinema vérité nightmare.

Spielberg is making a perceptual statement about World War II: He’s saying that it was every bit as merciless and agonizing, as “insane,” as Vietnam. Still, among the anonymous faces of the soldiers, we can’t help but cleave to a familiar one—the calm, somber visage of Tom Hanks as platoon captain Miller, who wriggles to a safe spot on the beach and lies like a trapped animal, then starts to cobble together a survival strategy. The spray of bullets is coming from a machine-gun nest positioned on high. Ultimately, one of Miller’s men leans out and kills the German soldiers who are manning the gun post. The apocalypse is over (at least, for the moment). The Americans enter hell and, through sheer will, they take that beach.

Saving Private Ryan is Spielberg’s vision of what war is—all war, even America’s fabled Good War. Yet the film is no pacifist tract. It’s a portrait of nobility and grace amid the madness of technological slaughter, and it melds these elements together with an organic intensity that Schindler’s List, for all its brilliance, didn’t. Spielberg records what the sacrifice of World War II actually entailed: ordinary men diving into an existential inferno. Captain Miller receives an assignment to locate a certain Private Ryan, the only one of four enlisted brothers who is still alive. As Miller leads his squad into the French countryside, the dread of that opening massacre haunts their every move, and, in a sense, it recurs every time the film erupts back into violence. In Saving Private Ryan, war is like a virulent organism, a hydra that lies dormant just long enough to fool you, and Spielberg is too great a filmmaker not to render the battles thrilling in their spontaneous logistical frenzy.

We get to know the soldiers slowly, eavesdropping on their wary camaraderie, so that when one takes a bullet, the platoon’s loss is ours. Among the sterling cast, Tom Sizemore as the rumpled, devoted Sergeant Horvath, Barry Pepper as the stoic marksman-sniper Private Jackson, and Giovanni Ribisi as the ghostly, haunted medic Wade all have indelible presences, and the scrawny, pale, slit-eyed Jeremy Davies, from Spanking the Monkey, has more. He shows you the creepy-crawly anguish of the cowardly Corporal Upham, who has barely fired a shot in his life and is like a stricken angel struggling to stay aloft.

Wandering through the splintered, majestically jutting stone ruins of Normandy, the men jostle and joke to keep the reality that surrounds them at bay. The infamous grunt slang for a mission gone haywire, FUBAR (“F—-ed Up Beyond All Recognition”), is really their sly acknowledgment of the derangement of combat itself, and Spielberg gradually defines the characters through their precise responses to the ambiguities of physical peril. Hanks, in a beautiful performance, plays Miller, with his compulsively trembling hand, as a born leader who uses his innate decency to mask his fear. The actor has a memorable breakdown scene in which he starts to choke with sobs. At first, it seems Miller is just letting out his sorrow, but as we look closer we see that he’s on the edge of the abyss.

The platoon finally stumbles onto Ryan (Matt Damon), who turns out to be a likably stubborn kid who refuses to leave his platoon behind. They’re set to defend a bridge in the middle of a bombed-out village, and as Miller and his men join forces with them, and the Germans roll up in their jeeps and tanks, the film becomes a true Armageddon, with Spielberg’s camera seemingly every- where at once. The epic battle that concludes Saving Private Ryan may be the greatest episode in any war film. I will never know how Spielberg brought off this sequence, with its showers of rubble, its dizzily exact choreography of anticipation and attack, detonation and movement. I do know that it contains images I will never forget: a soldier running with a lit “sticky bomb” toward one of the panzer tanks, only to have the weapon blow him to bits; Corporal Upham’s crumpling terror on a staircase; Miller’s final declaration to Ryan, a moment of tender and soul-stirring force. Saving Private Ryan says that only by confronting the pitiless horror of World War II can we truly know its heroism. For the first time, a movie has shown us both. A

Saving Private Ryan
  • Movie
  • 170 minutes